A Linköping preschool greets visitors in 11 different languages.
education

Is Sweden facing a language crisis?

Sweden has an international reputation for English proficiency. According to one global study published last month, Swedes are the best at speaking English outisde the anglophone countries.

The study was by the international organization Education First, which speculated that one secret to Sweden’s success could be that Swedes start learning English as early as primary school.

But has the focus on English teaching come at the expense of learning other languages?

Camilla Bardel, a professor of modern languages at Stockholm University, think so. She has warned that Sweden could be at a political, cultural, social and economic disadvantage because of worsening knowledge of foreign languages.

“Sweden is on a negative course”, says Bardel. “We have historically had relatively good knowledge of other languages since we have always been aware that we are a small country and there are few Swedish-speakers. But today it seems that we don’t really care. We think speaking English is good enough.”

Bardel is not the only one who is concerned. The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, the Teachers’ Union and the Swedish Academy – the body that awards the Nobel Prize in Literature – have all warned about the negative consequences of scaling down language teaching.

The University of Gothenburg has recently cut out Czech, Bulgarian, Polish, Dutch and Hebrew teaching. Italian is about to be stopped too, and the future of other language courses is uncertain.

Helena Lindholm Schulz, prorector at the University of Gothenburg, says that there are several reasons behind the cuts.

“When it comes to Italian there was a very small number of students requesting courses and the decision also had to do with a quality analysis by the Humanities department”, explains Lindholm Schulz.

But the Swedish Academy was very critical of the move, saying that foreign language teaching should be a given at the country’s largest universities.

Camilla Bardel fears that Sweden could end up in a vicious circle.

“If educational institutions get rid of language courses that sends a signal that languages are not terribly important and that message reaches young people who become less inclined to take it up,” says Bardel. “That, in turn, leads to more and more language courses being slashed.”

She feels that a lack of language knowledge is a lack of cultural capital. Moreover, the consequences for Swedish enterprise could be very negative.

With the growing importance of emerging markets like China, India and Brazil foreign languages are becoming an ever stronger asset.

Camilla Bardel and her colleagues at Stockholm University want the Swedish Department of Education to come up with an action plan for encouraging language learning.

Because, she suggests, Sweden might risk denying a whole generation the chance to reap the rewards of multilingualism.

Our journalism is based on credibility and impartiality. Swedish Radio is independent and not affiliated to any political, religious, financial, public or private interests.
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