Head of Department Letter December 2023
My partner works at a large international company in Lund. Recently, she got tired of speaking English with a colleague, who is originally from Great Britain, but who, according to her, speaks better Swedish than she speaks English. So she said to him: “You may do as you wish. You are welcome to continue speaking English. But I will speak Swedish with you from now on.” His answer was that he thinks that it is extremely strange that people in Sweden do not make sure that non-Swedish speakers learn Swedish. "If you Swedes continue like this, the Swedish language will not exist anymore in thirty years."
It cannot have escaped many of you that I, as the head of our department, have insisted many times that Swedish is our first language, that we must take care of our language and that we should use it in our communication, at our meetings and in our correspondence , especially when we communicate within the university and within the country - despite the fact that there are many colleagues at our department who do not speak Swedish, despite the fact that people in Sweden are good at English, and despite the fact that our obvious international research language is English. So why have I insisted?
There are a number of different answers to this question. In my eyes, the most important reason is that it is important to protect linguistic diversity. Mainly not for the linguistic diversity's own sake (although linguistic diversity is both extremely fun and important), but because language is intimately connected with how we think. Language has a deeply cognitive dimension and, conversely, our cognitive ability has a deeply linguistic dimension; when you think in different languages, you simply think a little differently. It is not as if there is a better or worse language for thinking and discussing, for example, physics and science, but nevertheless a diversity of languages also brings about a diversity in our ways of thinking. Just as important as protecting biological diversity and the biological gene pool it is to protect linguistic diversity and our linguistic gene pool. Linguistic diversity contributes to that we think in more varied ways, which is an extremely good breeding ground for, among other things, good science. And of course it also applies to the many other issues that we discuss at our workplace.
Another answer is that we are a Swedish university, and as such we also have a special responsibility for the Swedish language. This can be understood, among other things, from the Swedish Language Act from 2009. But if we do not use Swedish in our professional everyday life, at our meetings and meetings and in our discussions, how can we live up to such a responsibility?
The third answer is that we are doing our non-Swedish-speaking colleagues a disservice if we do not offer them a Swedish-speaking environment. Yes, quite a few colleagues are here for only one, two, three or four years and learning Swedish may not feel particularly worthwhile to them. But actually, I know quite a few who came to Sweden with the intention of staying for a year, and then suddenly it has become a whole life. That's how it has been for me as well. Such things are difficult to predict, but something that is not difficult to predict today, at least not if you follow Swedish politics closely, is that in the fairly near future a Swedish language text probably will become mandatory if you wish to become a Swedish citizen or even just to obtain permanent residence status.
Then, as a Swede with a foreign origin and background, I can also say to our colleagues who do not speak Swedish that there are good reasons to learn Swedish. Life in Sweden becomes significantly more interesting and you enter society in a completely different way when you learn Swedish. And, yes, my clear opinion is that it is also polite to the society that welcomes us that we learn the language of the society. No one is asking us to be perfect in the new language, there is nothing wrong with a foreign accent, there is nothing wrong with making grammatical mistakes or occasionally missing a word. A language can only be learned by using the language. So speak Swedish even if it sometimes may feel awkward or clumsy since you’re not yet able to express yourself in the same way as in your mother tongue or in English.
If you have Swedish as your mother tongue or are good at it, find the occasions to talk Swedish to colleagues and students who are still learning the language. Don't immediately switch to English just because it's easier. Because then your colleagues don't get any training in Swedish, and as we all know, you don't get far without training. Be a little patient with those who do not speak fluent Swedish yet!
Of course, it is a challenge for many employees and students if we hold our meetings and conversations in Swedish. It certainly affects their participation. There is thus a trade-off to be made. However, the balance cannot be that we just switch to speaking English in all non-official as well as official contexts. Information that our employees and students need to be able to absorb when they come here must, of course, be available in both Swedish and English, so that everyone can take part in this information.
Finally, the obvious: of course we have to be (at least) bilingual. Yes, we must be good at English. But we are no longer bilingual when we no longer use Swedish at our meetings, in our conversations and in our documents.