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.
EXPLAINED: What you need to know about the proposals to change Swedish migration law
- Nine unexpected things that happen when you (try to) learn Swedish
(article continues below)
See also on The Local:
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.
Country by country: Where do Sweden's immigrants come from?
- What's the difference between being a resident and a citizen in Sweden?
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.