For members


EXPLAINED: Will a Swedish language requirement help reduce segregation?

Language tests for permanent residency permits or Swedish citizenship are a hot topic in this year's election, with five of Sweden's eight parliamentary parties in favour of introducing tests. But, do they actually aid integration?

EXPLAINED: Will a Swedish language requirement help reduce segregation?
Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Do language requirements reduce segregation?

According to Forsberg Lundell, a language researcher and professor in French at Stockholm University, it’s not that simple.

“Language requirements as part of a well-thought out language policy can have an effect in the long-term, but it’s not something which changes things from one day to the other,” she told state broadcaster SVT

There’s also limited research on the actual effects of language requirements.

One example of research which has been done, is how easy it is to access the labour market in Sweden compared to Denmark, one of the countries in Europe with the strictest language requirements.

“There, researchers have been able to see that there is no real difference despite the fact that requirements for citizenship are so different,” she said.

Learning a language does make it easier to get a job, which can, in turn, combat segregation, but a language requirement does not automatically encourage more people to learn Swedish.

“It’s not certain that people actually learn a language because of a requirement,” she said. “That’s based on the individual’s qualities, level of education and opportunities to interact and get an education.”

Can language tests actually be a barrier to integration?

Pieter Bevelander, professor of international migration and ethnic relations at Malmö University told SVT that it’s not possible to say whether there is any connection between language requirements and integration.

Instead, he said, it can be seen as another barrier for immigrants in getting Swedish citizenship.

“On the other hand, you can see that people who learn the language have better opportunities on the labour market, but it’s very individual,” he said.

Have language tests worked anywhere else?

Lundell from Stockholm University mentioned Canada as one example where language requirements have been successful. She believes that it could be to do with the fact that the country accepts more labour migrants than refugees, and that these are matched to the labour market, meaning that many are capable of completing language courses and meeting requirements.

“Then, there’s also a thought in Canada that multiculturalism is an important value, but that only works if you have a shared language,” she told SVT.

“That’s why they have invested in very clear language policy.”

Which parties are in favour of the proposal?

The Liberals, Sweden Democrats, Moderates, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats are in favour of introducing a language requirement, with the Liberals (then known as Folkpartiet), proposing the requirement two decades ago in 2002.

Back then, the Liberals were criticised for introducing the policy, which now seems to be supported by a majority in parliament.

Only the Centre Party, Left Party and Green Party are now against the measure.

Member comments

  1. I have heard multiple times from Swedes that people don’t like hearing Swedish spoken with foreign accents, especially if if it sound like a non western accent. I myself much rather enjoy speaking fluent English and passing as a cool tourist than trying to speak Swedish and be treated as a stupid immigrant/refugee although I am an engineer with sought after skills. That leaves me with zero desire to speak a language whose native speakers dislike hearing it with a foreign accent.

    On the other hand, while staying in Germany and mumbling some basic German, I was being taken much more seriously. My German colleagues just thought that, ok this guy speaks German so we continue the conversation in German. No visible judgement what so ever. Here in Sweden I just get a lot of unnecessary “vad sa du?” Followed by disgusted looks. So go figure.

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For members


What irritates Swedes the most about the Swedish language?

A new study shows that more than one in five Swedes is irritated by the pronoun "hen", and the same number can't stand it when compound words are split up. Here's a rundown of the main offenders.

What irritates Swedes the most about the Swedish language?

One in five Swedes dislike the gender-neutral pronoun hen

In the study, carried out by Novus on behalf of language magazine Språktidningen, 22 percent of Swedes said that the pronoun hen was the most irritating aspect of the Swedish language. 

The first reported use of the gender-neutral pronoun, to be used instead of han (he) or hon (she), was in the 1950s, when it was used by language professor Karl-Hampus Dahlstedt, but it didn’t appear in writing until linguist Rolf Dunås wrote a newspaper article in 1966 proposing the introduction of the new pronoun.

After that, use of the pronoun was mostly limited to those within the LGBT community until 2012, when a children’s book sparked debate and media attention thanks to the exclusive use of hen to refer to its characters.

In 2015, hen entered the Swedish dictionary, a move which made it more difficult for critics to argue that it wasn’t an established or accepted alternative to han or hon.

As Språktidningen’s editor-in-chief Anders Svensson points out in this article, the pronoun hen has had an ideological and political dimension since debate took off in 2012, and this is still clearly visible today.

Although 22 percent of the survey’s respondents listed hen as the most irritating aspect of the Swedish language, this number rose to a whopping 50 percent amongst respondents who identified with the Sweden Democrats.

On the other side of the political spectrum, those sympathising with the Left Party, the Greens, the Liberals or the Centre Party were least likely to find hen irritating, with a mere 5 to 7 percent of these groups putting it in first place.

Torbjörn Sjöström, CEO of polling company Novus, told Språktidningen that these results didn’t surprise him.

“The fact that hen is irritating for Sweden Democrat sympathisers more than others is not surprising. People join that party because they want things to be like they were in the past. A new word which is gender-neutral symbolises a lot of the developments these people are against,” he explained.

One in five against särskrivning

The same amount, 22 percent, stated that särskrivningar – writing compound words incorrectly as two separate words – annoyed them the most.

This may sound like a minor error, but särskrivningar (literally: “separate writing”) can lead to major misunderstandings. Just look at these amusing examples of särskrivning gone wrong:

En rödhårig kvinna: “a red-haired woman”

En röd hårig kvinna: a red, hairy woman

Kassapersonalen: “checkout workers”

Kassa personalen: “useless employees”

Barnunderkläder: “children’s underwear”

Barn under kläder: “child under clothes”

In contrast to debates over the use of the word hen, debates over särskrivning have raged since the 1800s, where they were often considered to be major mistakes if featured in a text. One reason for this, Svensson notes, is that order in itself was seen as beautiful at this time.

Maria Bylin, language advisor at the Swedish Language Council (Språkrådet), told Språktidningen that she recognises this argument in modern debate on särskrivningar.

“You associate developments in the language with the country and with society,” she explained. “So whatever changes you can see in the language, you think it will happen in society, too.”

One popular scapegoat for this increase in särskrivning is the influence of English on the Swedish language. In English, we have fewer compound words than in Swedish, although they do still exist: a few examples are postbox, doorknob and blackberry. It is, however, harder to form compounds than in Swedish.

To return to the examples above, it would look strange to write “redhairedgirl”, “checkoutworker” or “childrensunderwear” as compounds in English.

So, is the rise of English to blame for mistakes in Swedish? Not according to linguist Katharina Hallencreutz, who noted when studying high school students’ English essays that they had no issues writing English compound loan words such as makeup or popcorn. 

This also wouldn’t explain the large amount of särskrivningar seen in historical texts in Sweden: they feature heavily in laws dating back to the 1200s, as well as Gustav Vasa’s Swedish bible translation, which was published in 1541.

One surprising result of the survey was the fact that young people were more likely than older people to find särskrivningar irritating:

“That surprised me a bit,” Svensson told public broadcaster SVT. “Often you hear the argument that older people think young people write carelessly and särskriver too much.”

Svensson wasn’t sure why this was, but did have a theory: “I suppose those who have recently finished school – most of them have learnt when words should be written as one word, and when they should be separate,” he told SVT.

English loanwords

The influence of English on the Swedish language was a major bugbear for a number of respondents, though. As many as 15 percent of those in Novus’ survey answered that “unnecessary English loanwords” were the most irritating thing about modern Swedish.

English loanwords were most irritating amongst Swedes over 65, where 29 percent stated they were the number one source of irritation, a number which was much lower in other age groups.

Lena Lind Palicki, a Swedish lecturer at Stockholm University, said that this could be to do with comprehensibility. She noted that irritation over English loanwords was especially high amongst older respondents who had left school at 16.

“We can assume that these people have a lower level of English, and then it’s a democratic problem, if English loanwords are used which can be difficult for many people to understand,” she told Språktidningen.

Palicki can’t imagine that English will remain as large a source of annoyance in the future as it is now, though.

“The irritation over English loanwords may have gone out of date in twenty years. Today’s youth will not start to be irritated by the same things as today’s elderly, but they’ll probably start making a symbolic issue of things they struggle with in school today,” she told the magazine.