By Nickella Jose

“Svenska eller engelska?”(Swedish or English), for some, the most assuaging and for others one of the most disquieting question one could be asked. Being able to communicate in Swedish entails  the privilege of choice, freedom, the ability to earn money, to get a formal education, to understand one’s rights and duties as a member of the Swedish society and most importantly implies the ability to communicate one’s needs and ideas.

Sweden recognises the powerful role that the Swedish language plays in successfully integrating people into the Swedish society. Thus according to the Swedish Ministry of Integration and Gender Equality, “The goal of integration policy in Sweden is equal rights, obligations and opportunities for all, regardless of ethnic or cultural background.” With this in mind, the government of Sweden has provided the opportunity for all immigrants living, working or studying in Sweden to learn Swedish through a structured manner. The courses, known as Swedish for Immigrants (SFI), take place both face-to-face and as distance-learning. Allowing individuals the opportunity to learn Swedish free of cost at institutions across Sweden in an organised manner, taking into account the educational background, experiences and goals of each individual. Statistics from the Ministry of Education highlighted the massive increase in the number of students enrolled in the Swedish for Immigrants course with a total of 221,659 students by the end of 2017. As Angela Carter, an English novelist and journalist, put it “Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.”

Due to the Swedish language playing such a vital role in the process of integration, it can also become a barrier to the process of integration in the Swedish society. To get a job or attend tertiary education, being able to adequately communicate in Swedish is a must. Due to this the Swedish language has become a powerful force in shaping the lives of everyone in the Swedish society. How quickly one can learn Swedish ultimately inform the opportunities available to some extent; excluding those who speak limited Swedish or no Swedish at all from all the opportunists afforded to those who can. Simply stop by any SFI class and it is not uncommon to meet students who were employed across all fields before being displaced or moving to Sweden .You can find teachers, lawyers, students to business owners who are not able to continue their career due to the lack of sufficient proficiency in the Swedish language being one factor in addition to others.

People often believe that being able to speak English in Sweden puts one at an advantage over those who cannot however since only 86 percent of Swedes speak English, it is still absolutely necessary to be able to communicate in Swedish. In most Swedish schools subjects are taught in Swedish, majority of the undergraduate courses are taught in Swedish, employers often require Swedish language, local television programs, the news and documents and financial transactions are all in Swedish. This makes the Swedish language an invaluable tool, which allows people to not only carry out simple day to day activities but also to express themselves, to share their culture and experiences, and to learn about the Swedish culture.Yet, it also shapes their personal and professional development which ultimately contributes to the development of the Swedish society as a whole.

Some believe that the Swedish language is also a tool which dilutes their ethnic identity since much emphasis and pressure is placed on people to learn the Swedish language, creating a looming fear that one’s native language will disappear and subsequently one’s social identity. This creates obstacles impeding the Swedish language from playing its crucial role in the process of integration. In the light of different circumstance, experiences and adapting to changes or a new culture and society one’s native language often feels like the only connection that cannot be changed or substituted. Thus, seeing the Swedish language as force which changes one’s social identity-instead of as an additional language or a tool used to improve one’s socioeconomic situation.

In a society with different challenges and opportunities the Swedish language provides a way of immersing oneself into the Swedish culture, adding one´s own experiences, exchanging new experiences, perspectives and ideas. Along with stressing the importance of learning the Swedish language, the languages people speak should also be held up to the same level of importance in the Swedish society. This allows individuals to have a sense of belonging instead of a feeling of temporary exclusion from a society until they learn the language. This is beneficial since it also allows the Swedish language to be seen as an addition to the many skills different individuals possess instead of as a substitute to one’s native language and social identity. Ultimately motivating individuals to learn and enjoy the process of learning Swedish.

However without a common language, there is a risk of society not being able to function smoothly, giving rise to a number of social problems. This includes the creation of divided communities where a lacking linguistic ability keeps people from effectively expressing concerns and needs. Hence, one may feel alienated from the rest of society, creating barriers in society. For there to be a sense of community and inclusion people must be able to communicate and understand each other. The Swedish language is a channel through which there can be a cultural exchange and a way of better understanding each other regardless of ethnicity, language spoken or cultural background. As people come from across the globe to Sweden it is crucial to make use of the vast perspectives, experiences and cultural baggage that accompanies each individual. As a result of this there can often be misunderstandings which can lead to conflicts. A common language helps to bridge this gap by allowing people to voice their discontents which can be understood by everyone, making way for negotiations and effective and meaningful discussions beneficial to all.

The Swedish language possesses the power of not only integrating citizens into its society but also the power of moulding and shaping a new wave and generation of citizens who with  different cultural backgrounds, skills, perspectives and experiences in combination with the ability to speak several languages can become an invaluable part of national and global development.

Nickella Jose is from Guyana, South America. She studies Sociology and enjoys sports, reading and photography. She is currently learning the Swedish language, so the topic she wrote about is something she felt was quite relevant to the theme of power, since it plays such a powerful role in shaping the lives of immigrants.

Photo: Jason Leung on Unsplash

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