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Sweden - Speaking the Language

The official language of Sweden is Swedish, which is a North Germanic language. Swedish was only given official status as the language of Sweden in 2009 although 90% of the population speak the language as their mother tongue. Swedish Sign Language is also listed as a language spoken in the country. There are several other dialects spoken which are located for the most part in specific regions of the country. Gotland dialects are found on the island of Gotland, and Finland Swedish dialects are found in south western Sweden. Norrland dialects are spoken along the north east coast of the country. Svealand dialects can be found along the eastern coast in the centre and the Götaland dialects and south Swedish dialects are found in the southern region.

There are five official minority languages as declared by the Minority Language Committee of Sweden. Sámi is a dialect spoken in the northern and central parts of the country, Finnish is spoken largely in the south and part of the north, with Yiddish spoken in pockets throughout the country, mostly by older generations. Meänkieli is a language spoken in the northernmost part of the country. Another minority language is Romani. The most common immigrant languages are Spanish, Somali, Polish, Persian, Kurdish, Serbian and Arabic amongst others. The second languages most spoken by the local population are English, German, Norwegian, Danish and French.

With nearly 90% of the population speaking English to varying degrees in Sweden it is easy to assume that English would be an acceptable sole language of communication for expats. Whilst it is possible to remain in Sweden without learning the language, relying on locals to switch to English to appease you isn’t a sustainable approach. As expected, in the more densely populated southern areas and within larger cities, English will be spoken by most people. A large number will be fluent. The frequency and levels understandably become lower in rural areas and in the north where the use of the language lessens. The older generation may speak a small amount of English but many speak none, having grown up in a time where English was not taught at school.

You will find that those who use English in their jobs and those of university age and below will speak English well with a high level of fluency in late teens and young adults. Those above that age, working a local job and never speaking English in their day to day life, understandably may be unable to communicate in English or hesitant to try.

Signs and menus, office paperwork and generally any admin documents will be in Swedish so understanding the language is somewhat vital to undertaking everyday life. Whilst speaking English may allow you to get to know people on a surface level during fikas at work or drinking in a local bar, only by knowing the language will an expat truly understand the nuances of Swedish and the ways of the locals. Non natives will find that learning Swedish will be the first step in feeling truly integrated in the culture.

When it comes to television at home, Swedes show American and British TV shows and films with subtitles, broadcast in the original language. Swedish made TV series, films and the news are in Swedish. Only children’s programmes are dubbed. Expats often watch Swedish TV programmes such as the news to help with their language development.

In multinational corporations, English may be spoken as much as Swedish in the workplace. International businesses will speak English as a bridging language and colleagues may speak English more widely to help expats integrate. The business language will change between the two depending on the context, content and clients. Sometimes other languages are spoken in the workplace such as Finnish or even French. Don’t assume because natives speak excellent English that this will be the only language used. Foreigners on a short work placement won’t be expected to learn or communicate in the local language but expats who are relocating permanently will, however much English is spoken out of politeness by colleagues. Some say that ‘all Swedes speak English until you want a job, then no one does’ which is a somewhat blunt but nonetheless true summary of expectations in the workplace.

Expats typically attend intensive courses in language schools to learn Swedish. Some take online courses before they go or get online private tutoring whilst there. A lot of the time expats make native friends who are more than happy to sit down and help them learn the language each week in a language exchange which benefits both parties.

Study in Sweden
Offers summer courses and courses all over Sweden from beginners to advanced following the CEFR framework. Groups and individual learning available.
Tel: +45 08-789 42 00 (Stockholm)

Hestia sweden
Group and individual Skype lessons to suit beginners to advanced levels. Summer courses and business communication courses available.
Tel: +46 (0)8 660 36 78

Skype lessons with a tutor suited to your needs. Lessons are for beginners to advanced level and last 55 minutes with a monthly charge. Learners can book lessons and times that suit them.

SFI Swedish for Immigrants programme.
Free courses for Stockholm dwelling immigrants which offer 6-20 hours of Swedish lessons a week with professional specialisms for occupations such as retail workers or child care workers.
Tel: +46 8 508 35 450

Swedish made easy
Online Swedish teachers offer lessons via Skype. You choose a tutor and learn at your own pace and level. Lessons are 50 minutes.

The Swedish Teacher (Private tutoring)
Site with a selection of native Swedish tutors. Tutors can teach all levels as well as offering lessons on written Swedish, Swedish at work and Swedish conversation.

Due to the fact that a high percentage of Swedes have exceptional English speaking skills, translating and interpreting jobs are usually done by locals. It is possible, however, for native English speakers to get such roles if they are fluent in Swedish, but they are against stiff local competition. Some expats do teach English in Sweden, but short term employment, low pay and sometimes high living costs can make this a complicated affair. A TEFL/TESOL/CELTA qualification is desired and ideally the individual should have a Bachelor's degree in Education or a PGCE.

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