Page last updated at 09:24 GMT, Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Mamma Mia - should Swedes speak English?

To some, to find a scantily clad Swede behind the door you have knocked on may be the thing of dreams - it was, for Eorpa reporter, Iain MacInnes, certainly quite a surprise.

He has been to Sweden to investigate the debate over the increasing use of English over Swedish in the country.

Samson chooses, like Abba before him, to sing in English

For once Eòrpa had arrived early - this time on musician Samson for President's doorstep, clearly somewhat to his shock, to talk about his usage of the Swedish and English languages.

Like many successful Swedish artists before him, he has chosen to sing in English, over his native tongue.

It worked for ABBA, then why not for the soulful Samson?

Samson, now fully clothed, began by introducing his music - a mix of different influences, much like himself.

Born to a Swedish father, a Columbian mother - Samson is like the average Swede - multi-cultural and multi-lingual.

He said: "It was a very deliberate decision. We had two languages at home; my mother spoke Spanish with everyone and my father spoke Swedish with everyone.

"When we discussed something important or argued they spoke in English."

But his decision to choose English over Swedish is part of a wider debate on the prevalence of English in Swedish society.

I do not have an emotional connection to Swedish and I would have no problem speaking English, French, American or whatever. It is more like a tool to me
Maria Althoff

So much so that at the beginning of July, a law passed through the Swedish Parliament aimed at protecting languages, especially Swedish, which was officially recognised in law for the first time.

Finnish, all Sami dialects, Torne Valley Finnish, Romani, and Yiddish were also given status as national minority languages.

But Samson denied that the protection of the language is vital in keeping Swedish cultural traditions.

He added: "I do not believe in some sort of fascist regime where you protect the Swedish and exclude international cultures, I do not think that you are supposed to only be allowed to sing in Swedish about Karl-Åke that dances on some bridge somewhere in the archipelago.

"The free flow of languages is very important and it is so easy to see how much we gained by that in Sweden. We gained very much by taking other cultures to our heart instead of trying to shut them out.'

The law aimed at protecting Swedish was tested only weeks after its implementation, when agencies were reported to the ombudsman, in charge of its implementation, for their use of English in their marketing.

Hillo Nordstrum
Hillo Nordstrum believes the English language takeover must be stopped

This included the use of "Stockholm - the capital of Scandinavia" which, as well as irritating Sweden's Nordic neighbours, also enraged language activists.

Hillo Norstrum of Nätverket Språkförsvaret - the Language Defence Network - is aware of the changing status attached to both languages.

She said: "Today Sweden is on its way to replace Swedish with English. We have the situation where we replace fully functional Swedish words and expressions with their English equivalent and that is totally wrong."

There have also been concerns raised that the Ombudsman actually have very little power to impose sanctions but only to warn those breaking the law.

On the outskirts of Stockholm, we met the Althoff family, to see if the changes being seen in the city of increased English usage were being reflected within families.

'Emotional connection'

Thomas told us: "I see no problem with enriching Swedish by putting new words in it but destroying the language by using it in a wrong way, that is a problem."

His wife Maria disputed the claims by many that language and culture are inextricably linked.

"I do not have an emotional connection to Swedish," she said, "and I would have no problem speaking English, French, American or whatever. It is more like a tool to me."

Sitting with Thomas and Maria and their young children, the discussion turned to the children's future and how much of a part the Swedish language would have to play in their lives.

She added: "As long they are in a Swedish context I think that they'll use Swedish but perhaps they'll enrich their language with English.

"I think it will make it easier when they travel abroad, to cross the language barrier because they will speak English, French or Spanish depending on the situation."

There is no doubt that for some in Sweden, definite choices are being made to communicate in English, but the motives behind these decisions this vary hugely - from business reasons to personal reasons.

One thing is certainly clear - the Swedes value their language, but they also place an equally high value on the merits of bilingualism.

For more on this story, watch Eòrpa on BBC Alba on Wednesday 4 November at 2030 GMT and on BBC Two Scotland on Thursday 5 November at 1930 GMT.

The programme will also be available on BBC iPlayer.

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2020 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific