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Language skills - the key that doesn't always fit

| Text: Björn Lindahl

Few statements enjoy such broad political agreement in the Nordic countries as this: language skills are key to both integration and working life. All five countries offer immigrants several hundreds of hours of free language courses, but they have chosen different models and put different demands on students.

Compared to other European countries the Nordic attitude to language training for immigrants is generous. Large countries like the UK and France demand certain language skills even before foreigners are allowed to settle there. For the much smaller Scandinavian languages and Finnish this is not a realistic option. In most European countries language courses are state funded, but many countries also expect immigrants themselves to pay.

Despite cross-political agreement within the Nordic region on the importance of language training for immigrants, it has proven difficult to match the big words with a functioning system. Sweden has come in for the most criticism, where Swedish for immigrants - known as Sfi - has been taught for 40 years. The Swedes are still looking for a well-functioning model. One of the biggest problems is the amount of people who leave the training early. 

"Today's Swedish training for immigrants is generally of poor quality and does not demand high enough quality results. As many as nine in ten Sfi teachers lack the right level of education for teaching Swedish as a second language," wrote the Minister for Education Jan Björklund and the then Minister for Integration Nyamko Sabuni in a 2008 newspaper article.

New reforms

The two government ministers launched several inquiries which are now starting to result in various suggestions for reform of Sfi. There has always been an inherit conflict within the politics of language. Should language training first and foremost be a tool for integration or is it more important for immigrants to find a job? There is not only disagreement between political parties, but also between institutions. 

Sweden's labour market authority has concluded the language level obtained at the end of the free language training is too low for people to establish themselves on the labour market. Yet the the National Agency for Education says the bar has been set too high for many of the students, trapping them in Swedish courses for many years without the chance of progressing. 

Some also suspect that demands for a particular level of language skills have become a handy tool for those who want to turn away certain types of labour.

"There's reason to question what lies behind the demand for 'sufficient Swedish skills' and what this term really means," said the so-called Swedish Sfi inquiry in 2003.

"Why do demands for language skills increase in times of high unemployment and decrease in times of labour shortages? Have the work responsibilities changed or has it become legitimate to use language skills to sort people? It is no doubt easier for employers to refer to lacking language skills than to say someone does not fit into the workplace."

Carrot and stick

Denmark opened up a new dimension to the language debate when it became the first of the Nordic countries to introduce a language test as a prerequisite for citizenship. The Danish demand was complemented in 2007 with a knowledge test on Danish society and culture. In 2010 the language and knowledge tests became obligatory also for those seeking residency, including in cases of family reunion.

While Denmark might have the Nordic region's strictest immigration legislation, Danish language training is generous. It lasts for three years from the date you begin your  course, and comprises some 2,000 hours.

Other countries have followed in Denmark's footsteps and linked language courses to immigration policies. Iceland now demands at least 150 hours of language training from those who want to obtain permanent residency. 

In Norway you need 300 hours Norwegian training to obtain permanent residency, out of which 50 hours are dedicated to social education. From 2012 the number of hours will be increased to 600.

In Sweden immigrant language training should as a rule be 525 hours.

Language courses only social contact 

Yet there is no obvious correlation between the number of hours of language training and the level of language skills students can reach. 

"One problem which was highlighted during our visits was that some students tended to stay on the course even though they made no progress. Some of them primarily attended Sfi in order to get their state support," says the inquiry on time-limited Sfi, published in the end of April. It suggested Sfi should be time-limited to two years.

According to Statistics Sweden one in four students said state support was the main reason for them to attend Sfi. Some 40 percent of those asked put down meeting friends and getting social contacts as the main reason for going. 

"In ethnically segregated areas the contact with the school can be particularly important, because for some people it represents the only contact they have with Swedish society," the inquiry's authors write.

The wind has changed

When Sweden's municipalities were given responsibility for the language training in 1991 the tailoring of courses to the labour market were given less priority. This resulted in a loss of knowledge of how to combine vocational training and Swedish language education. 

"Since the millennium the wind has changed and there are now more and more projects which again focus on links to the labour market," writes Farbod Rezania from the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise in a report about Swedish as a second language.

Several municipalities now offer Swedish courses for employers, truck drivers, medical personnel, engineers, carpenters and teachers. The courses are aimed at people who already have work experience and/or vocational training from their home countries. Students study Swedish with focus on the relevant professional language while they also get information about how the labour market works in Sweden for their particular occupation. When possible they'll be offered work practice as well as the chance to complement their training at a college or within the ordinary adult education system.

200 languages spoken in the Nordic region

Languages portlet

There are no proper statistics for how many languages are being spoken in the Nordic region. One estimate puts the number at approximately 200 different languages.

Sweden has received the greatest number of immigrants, and 1.5 million of the country's 9 million citizens count Swedish as their second language.

The largest immigrant languages are Arabic, Turkish and Kurdish, but Eastern-European languages like Polish are increasing rapidly, especially in Norway.

The Nordic region often appears to be a linguistically homogenous region because Swedes, Danes and Norwegians can understand each other. But take minority languages like Greenlandic and Sami into consideration, and the linguistic spread is very large.



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