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Language Policy and Multilingual Identity in Sweden Through the Lens of Generation Y

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 85, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 205-232 | 10.1353/scd.2013.0018

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Modern societies in Europe are increasingly multicultural. Sweden today is part of a multicultural and multilingual Europe, where politics, business, education, and the private sphere confront linguistic and cultural diversity. The lives of young people are, in this regard, quite different from those of their parents. Young people travel, work, and study in other countries and move in and out of their home countries more frequently than ever before. New technology facilitates access to multimodal communication with people around the world. Swedish society itself also faces changes as almost 20 percent of its inhabitants have family or roots in other countries. This development brings with it challenges and new ways of thinking in many fields of society.

One important and interesting aspect of a multicultural society is the role of language, communication, and mutual understanding. Interest in language seems to be growing. Various debates in Swedish media focus on issues such as the role of the Swedish language as compared to that of English, the role of knowledge of the Swedish language in the context of education and the labor market, and the role of language tests for citizenship.

Sweden can be seen in a European context as having a Swedish “language model” with the right to language stipulated in a new law, the designation of five official minority languages, the Plain Language movement in public administration, and the state offering free training in Swedish as a second language as well as instruction in children’s native languages at school.

This article focuses on the voices of young people in Sweden today and portrays a number of young Swedes with multicultural backgrounds. Through their voices, I wish to explore multilingualism as a crucial and contested feature of our current world from a Swedish perspective. How can the local language practices of young adults in Sweden of today inform language policy makers and the ideologies behind a Swedish language model?

The Language Act of July 1, 2009

Sweden has, for the most part, been described as a rather monolingual and culturally homogeneous society, embracing a “majority-centred monolingualist ideology” (Wingstedt 1998, 343). At the same time, national minority groups—such as the Finns, the Romany, and the Sámi—have used their languages in Sweden for several hundred years. At the same time, a process of “Swedification” was taking place in the new areas of the country with virtually no deliberate language policy enacted by the nation-state (Teleman 2002, 27). Swedish sign language has also been used and developed over a long period of time. During the period between 1850 and 1960, however, a centralized, monolingual language ideology held the central position as a part of the modern nation-state building project. Minority languages, such as Tornedalian Finnish, were oppressed and the use of dialects actively discouraged in schools and public life. Since the Second World War, the sociolinguistic landscape of Sweden has become even more diversified in the context of globalization just as in many other European countries. One reason for this diversification is the use of English as the lingua franca in the economic community. Another is the arrival of new languages brought by the increasing number of immigrants. A third reason is the European Union and its declared policy of multilingualism. In this context of globalization and European Union membership, language and linguistic issues receive considerable attention. Furthermore, as Milani claims (2007, 23), a nation-state receiving new forms of linguistic, symbolic resources will also experience conflicting language ideologies as they seek a new form for linguistic and hence social as well as moral order. Various debates in the Swedish media focus on issues such as the role of the Swedish language as compared to that of English, the role of knowledge of the Swedish language in the context of education and the labor market, and the role of language tests for citizenship. Some important questions that follow from these concerns involve the consequences for the individual and for society, as well as whether—and if so, how—the state should intervene in addressing them.

Sweden became a member of the European Union in 1995. Following a prolonged period of preparatory work,1 the first...

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