OPINION: Swedish language requirements must not be a hurdle for immigrants

OPINION: Swedish language requirements must not be a hurdle for immigrants
Under proposed changes to Swedish migration law, foreign residents would need to prove their Swedish skills to obtain permanent residence. Photo: Lieselotte van der Meijs
Learning a language is undeniably one of the best ways to integrate, but as Sweden's Migration Committee proposes making Swedish skills a requirement for permanent residence, Catherine Edwards argues that there's a danger to setting up hurdles for foreign residents.

Language skills requirements are one of those questions that usually start a fierce debate among our readers. A word that's often used is “respect”. Is it a sign of respect to learn Swedish? I think so. I encourage anyone moving to Sweden to make an effort with the language, both to feel like and show that you're adapting and for the personal and professional benefits it brings.

But those who struggle are rarely deliberately snubbing Sweden. It's more likely that they don't have time or opportunity, perhaps due to work commitments, limited teaching hours in their area, or struggling to come into contact with native speakers. A language requirement alone won't prevent parallel societies or help people become engaged citizens. Only inclusive policies can do that.

Paradoxically, international residents can often be the fiercest gatekeepers. It's as if we are so desperate to show that we have made the effort to fit in, that we feel the only way to cement our belonging is by finding others to exclude.

Sure, learning Swedish is important, but culture is hard to regulate. There are no precise rules on how to be Swedish. And immigrants like me, who arrive in Sweden already speaking one or more Germanic languages fluently, or who will always have right of residence here as European citizens, should be especially alert to criteria that shut out those without our privilege or accident of birth. 

All of us who come to Sweden should learn about the country and adapt, but integration is a two-way street. It should never be about setting up a series of hurdles for immigrants to clear on our own, making all the effort and proving ourselves. Any requirement must be part of a system that supports immigrants and gives them the tools to participate in society, making language-learning simple, practical and beneficial.

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Because Sweden needs foreigners. A diverse population improves society in countless ways. For one thing, Sweden relies on international workers to plug skills gaps, and make essential contributions to the economy.

A lot of these jobs, such as teachers, developers, and other roles in global companies, have English as the working language – something which companies use as a selling point to attract the workers they need. 

The high level of English proficiency among Swedes and the ease of living here without the language is a huge part of Sweden's international branding. Once here, many of our readers complain that locals will switch to English with them despite repeated requests not to. In this way Sweden is different from many of its European neighbours; foreigners moving to Italy or France, for example, are likely aware that knowing the language will be crucial.

Photo: Faramarz Gosheh/imagebank.sweden.se

You can certainly argue that this is not ideal – for one thing, it makes life without Swedish significantly easier for native speakers of English than of other languages. But it's not fair to pretend learning Swedish is optional to appeal to skilled workers and then, once they're here and settling in, shift the goalposts. 

Many of Sweden's foreign workers will not have time to study the language on top of a full-time job, especially while needing to adjust to the country in other, equally crucial ways, like meeting people outside work. Employees currently have the right to take time off work to study the free Swedish for Immigrants courses, but this is not always paid, and not every municipality offers courses outside of working hours.

Some would say that anyone planning to stay forever should be prepared to learn the language without this kind of support. But despite the name, obtaining a permanent residence permit is not actually the same as living in the country permanently. These permits can be withdrawn if you move away from the country, and do not grant you the right to vote, for example.

What permanent residence permits do is ensure a degree of stability for non-EU citizens while they are in Sweden, which currently is not guaranteed with temporary permits, particularly work permits.

For several years The Local and others have reported on the hundreds and possibly thousands of workers forced to leave the country over minor errors in their paperwork which meant their work permits could not be renewed. Some had learned the language; others had integrated in other ways, starting relationships, getting involved in volunteering or community groups, contributing to their workplaces – from tech companies to restaurants. Their experiences show how inflexible criteria cause damage to individuals and make Swedish society poorer.

Swedish employers have told us how the bureaucracy has affected them negatively; losing valuable employees, and devoting staff time and energy to the paperwork. Although there's been progress, some talented workers are still falling through the gaps. All of this needs to be carefully considered before any changes are made.

The proposals to introduce a language requirement still have a long way to go before becoming law, but if they do, they clearly need to be part of a cohesive policy. One that allows access to high-quality Swedish language education for all foreigners, and takes into account the obstacles that might stand in people's way – for example with greater possibilities for evening, weekend, or distance learning.

And one that ensures people who contribute to society in other necessary ways can stay in the country to do this, whether that's by improving the temporary permit system or introducing exemptions to the language requirement for those who already have a job or actively participate in society.

There is more than one way to contribute to a country. International residents carry out key jobs, create jobs for others, pay taxes, participate in their local communities, campaign for change, and much more.

Being able to communicate in Swedish can help with all of this, and should be encouraged and facilitated. But it must be a policy that's about inclusion, not exclusion, otherwise both Sweden and its foreign residents will lose out.

Member comments

  1. I sympathize with your thought, Catherine. Unfortunately, I fear the worst. Sweden is obviously going conservative and backward. This language requirement, if passed, will be a betrayal of a Swedish image of cosmopolitanism, openness, and tolerance. This also betrays the ideals that found the Social Democrat and the Left. Yet, so what? The whole world is now going with the Right… I’ve been looking at Germany, where German is spoken by more than 80 million people (noting that German people don’t speak English as fluently as Swedish people), but the requirement for language is only a B1 level for a German citizenship, whereas in Sweden, according to this current proposal, one must reach a C level in order just to get a permanent residence. As a permanent resident myself, I’m now seriously considering moving out of this Swedish “paradise.”

  2. Integrating into society should be a two ways thing. I’m an Arabic Speaker but i use English to communicate with my Swedish Friends and Colleagues. Learning Swedish is arguably going to ease my life a bit, make people a bit more open. but i would argue why should it be me who should learn the local language to understand the culture (which let’s face it it’s not as easy), why the other part should not make an effort to understand my culture by learning my language. This whole learn the language to integrate better doesn’t make sense because i speak a foreign language to both of and Swedish people, i think about it as a common ground, neutral space for communication. This goes without saying that rules like this try to fit everyone into the same cone regardless of theire lifestyle, immigrants who are not-social, not outgoing, introverts don’t really need to learn Swedish if they don’t want to integrate at all

  3. Abdel, you’ve got the point when questioning “why should it be me who should learn the local language to understand the culture …, why the other part should not make an effort to understand my culture by learning my language.” Abdel, this is European. And you know, a European with its history of colonialism and racism, which has never been passed into the past. Europe demands the other like you to learn its language in order to “integrate” (what a vague word “integration”!) but it will never make an effort to learn your Arabic language and of course, you have no right to demand it because the game is on the hand of the stronger.

  4. excuse me? I don’t think this is about colonialism and nothing about racism. I agree that language test for permanent residence is a bit odd as they don’t even have weekend class or distance learning for those who works full-time everyday (which is what most skilled workers do). If they want to make it mandatory then they need to give the option to learn on weekends or online. But if we’re talking about citizenship it’s different. It doesn’t matter whatever language you speak, if you came to Sweden and want to take it as an identity then you really need to make the effort for it by at least learn the language. I’m from a non-EU country and I never question if they will learn my culture or my language. Even in my country which used to be colonized we have it mandatory for people who wants to become a citizen to learn our language. I understand the consequences of moving to another country. If I move to middle east then I’ll learn Arabic.

  5. “why should it be me who should learn the local language to understand the culture …, why the other part should not make an effort to understand my culture by learning my language.”

    – This is exactly why people have an issue with Immigration. You move to another country you should abide by their rules and standards. Why should others change their lifestyle to suit yours if you don’t want to change yours to suit theirs? So I ask a question back why should I learn your culture if you have an issue with learning mine?

  6. Very well written article, the new language requirement barrier being proposed clearly differentiates between EU and non-EU migrants.

  7. Well thought out and very well written. You’ve said exactly what I’ve had in mind. They shouldn’t be imposing such a requirement until they’ve sort out a good system to support it. Weekend classes and distance learning would be a great start. I live in one city and work in another. There is no way in hell I’ve ever been able to make it back to my kommun for SFI after work on a weekday. And I can’t be taking one in the city I work because then I’d end up reaching home near midnight and I have young kids at home. I’m still learning on my own, very slowly and struggling of course after 5 years here. And private lessons are hell expensive and of course only available on weekdays.

  8. Great article Catherine! Nuanced, well written and on the money. As a father of two trying to establish myself here, I haven’t had the luxury of full time language courses since I’ve had to earn a living but also realize the importance of mastery as I struggled in “underemployment” due to my imperfect, albeit improving, Swedish language skills. One thing I’m finding useful that I’d add to the discussion is the resource of Folkhögskolar. I’m currently in a part-time distance course to improve my written Swedish and find it very accommodating.

  9. Great article. Obviously a very complex topic, and the main concern should be the one size fits all discussions. Being a non-eu citizen myself, I don’t see they permanent residency and even the citizenship as Swedish. For me, they are stable pass to the EU world. Many skilled workers like me are brought to Sweden by multinational companies with the promise of an open door to Europe. English is the primary language for those companies, and yes sure, I agree that learning Swedish would definitely improve my integration, but even without it, life is pretty good, it is not that difficult to change jobs even if you don’t speak the language, the official government communication most often has different language options and if they don’t, google translate is not that hard to use, and so far I can count on one hand the amount of swedes I met that could communicate well in English. It’s a long comment, but my point is, if are able to support yourself, pay taxes and create value for the society, why should it matter what language do you speak?

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