A voice for newcomers in Sweden

‘Who gains from immigrants being unable to speak Swedish?’

Published: 31.Jul.2012 11:16 hrs

A report suggesting a two-year limit to the Swedish for immigrants language programme, (SFI), has got journalist Kajsa Ekis Ekman pondering the potential consequences of this move and just who benefits from new arrivals to Sweden not learning the language.

How much Swedish does the working class need to be able to speak? Enough to manage a menial job, it would seem. Anything above this – to write, to understand the news, or to be active in clubs and associations, are unnecessary luxuries that they should do if they find the time.

These opinions are not those of a prejudiced 19th century English lord but are voiced in the government’s recent investigation into SFI, Svenska för invandrare, or Swedish for Immigrants.

If you think I am exaggerating – go ahead and read it yourself.

The report is called ”Tid för snabb och flexibel inlärning” or ”Time for fast and flexible learning” and its purpose is to limit Swedish courses for immigrants.


According to the report, it simply “takes too long” for many to learn Swedish and this is both costly and inefficient. Hence a tightening of the rules is forthcoming.


The aim of the investigation was never to find out if, but how, the SFI-course could be shortened. And after the initial clichés about integration and computers, the main issue is finally brought up: “How much Swedish does one need to know to be ready for the labour market?”

Two years, is what they have come up with. Two years of Swedish language classes will suffice. For everyone. All those that arrive in Sweden will from now on be expected to start learning the language during their first year and will only have two years to achieve proficiency.

This goes for love-refugee academics as well as for war-weary illiterates with several children.

Of course the government knows that not everyone can learn Swedish in two years. The report comes to the conclusion that this is, in fact, fairly impossible.


Out of those with the worst prerequisites only 8 percent manage to complete the course in 2 years. But what the report says is that this does not matter.

Because those who can't read or write “should be able to gain employment within a sector where only limited knowledge of Swedish is required”. In other words: to do the dishes you don’t need to be able to spell democracy.

The report dismisses the argument that those who are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome might need a little longer to complete the course, saying that taking this into consideration would be to risk “cementing too low an ambition level”.

Regarding women with new-born babies who haven’t the time to start their Swedish education in the first year in the country and therefore fall outside of the system, the report concludes that “the starting point should be to assume that both parents should share the parental leave”.

Reading this, one is dumbfounded. While Swedish fathers don’t have to stay home for more than two months, new arrivals should then be required to split parental leave from their very first moments in Sweden?

While the Swedish media has remained silent, the whole SFI-world is in uproar since the report was published last year. Twelve principals and professors write that the report’s proposals “can’t be characterized as reasoned suggestions based on research and experience,” and that there is no research to support the suggestion that a two year limit would benefit anyone.

SFI teachers I speak to are worried - will their students be thrown off the course?


Will they be referred to adult education classes where the teachers have neither the competency nor the resources to cater for their needs, or the unemployment agency, where they will be taught to seek employment next to unemployed Swedish economists?

What this will mean is that the majority of those who come to Sweden in the future will not learn to speak Swedish properly.

Ponder for a moment what consequences this will have on society.


A large group of people will not have reached the language level necessary to read a contract, or to understand information regarding union rights, new laws or what is written in Swedish newspapers.

What will happen to them? Some will be unemployed. Some will be taken advantage of cash-in-hand jobs, tricked by compatriots who have started recruitment agencies and say that thirty kronor an hour ($4.4) is a normal wage, and that if they complain they can leave. Some will manage to get ahead anyway, despite a steep uphill struggle.

I keep thinking: who on earth would want people who come here not to learn Swedish?

Of course not those that have just arrived, and not those who already live here either, for what kind of society do we get if people can hardly speak to each other? I can’t even imagine that racists like this, seeing as they are always complaining that immigrants don’t learn enough Swedish.

However, for those who wish to have an easily manipulated lower class, the proposal is worth its weight in gold.

Kajsa Ekis Ekman

This article was originally published in Swedish in the Dagens Nyheter daily. English translation by The Local.

More Stories

Ratiba says living in Sweden will "give a new meaning" to her life.

Alienation in Sweden feels better: I find myself a stranger among scores of aliens

Ratiba Hanoush, 28, left Syria for Turkey in 2012 before arriving in Sweden last year. She admits that she still feels like an outsider, but explains why she is happier here than at home. READ
The social media giant had censored a video explaining how women should check for suspicious lumps in their breasts. READ
The spectacular drone footage captures both Sweden's south and the opposite extreme, thousands of kilometres north. READ
Sweden could be allowed to keep ID controls on its border with Denmark beyond the current end date of November, following discussions among EU leaders in Brussels last night. READ
A new study into the gender pay gap suggests Sweden still has some work to do. READ
Justus and Emma

A layover at Qatar airport brought this Swedish-Kenyan couple together - now they're heading for marriage

Closeness, selflessness, and pleasure; falling in love is a strange but wonderful human experience. READ
There's something fishy about the human jawbone – it has its origins in the placodermi, a jowly species of fish that lived 400 million years ago, Swedish and Chinese researchers say. READ
An arson attack in Malmö that caused only minor damage and was barely reported in the media has been claimed by terror group Isis. READ
This tasty cake is an autumn staple in Swedish cafés. Why not make it yourself! READ
The social media giant removed a breast cancer awareness video because it deemed the images "offensive," according to the Swedish Cancer Society. READ

'Swedish startups should embrace newcomers' talents - there's nothing to fear'

Syrian programmer Samer Malatialy got an IT job after just over a year in Sweden. His new homeland has all the ingredients to be a global startub hub, he believes, but it needs to embrace more foreign talent and fix a couple of serious bottlenecks. READ