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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

OPINION: Is it just me… or has English taken over Stockholm?

You can't escape the English language in the Swedish capital, says Australian podcaster Oliver Gee, who's beginning to wonder why he bothered learning Swedish at all.

OPINION: Is it just me… or has English taken over Stockholm?
Oliver Gee, left, with the CEO and co-founder of The Local, James Savage. Photo: Oliver Gee/The Earful Sweden

I lived in Stockholm from 2011 to 2015 and never really noticed the English language. Sure, there were menu translations, the occasional British pub, and an English language corner in most bookshops… 

But then I turned away for two seconds (well, five years)… came back to visit, and learned that English appears to have become the city's official language. 

That's right. English has well and truly taken over Stockholm. 

For example, I visited the hip Gast cafe in Vasastan, and was gobsmacked to see that the entire menu on the wall was in English. The sign out the front says “Welcome in for brunch…”, their social media pages are only in the same English that the baristas use… in fact the only Swedish things were the name of the cafe (which means Ghost) and the cinnamon buns. 

 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 

 
 

 
 
 

 
 

A post shared by Gast (@gastcafe)

I couldn't help but wonder how an elderly Swede might feel to have to decipher such a menu in their own capital. 

On a visit to Swedish clothes shop Cos in Östermalm, I watched a British cashier answer Swedish-speaking customers in English. And no one seemed to mind or even notice. One 60-year-old woman switched to English with the same ease I've watched Swedes assemble flat pack furniture.

If these exchanges happened in Paris (where I live), the local customers would not be impressed. 

“We're in France, we speak French,” is a phrase I've heard more than once (in French, of course).

In fact, I've been in Stockholm for a few days now, walking around in utter bamboozlement. 

My (Swedish) wife said her hairdresser only speaks English. I turned on the TV and marvelled to see Eurovision hero Loreen speaking more English than Swedish on the hit reality show Så mycket bättre. Her first words to fellow Swedish contestants were: “OK, give me the news, give me the nasty details”.

And the Swedish Queen just did a speech in English about Alzheimers on the Royal Family's Instagram page.


Swedish fiction in English at the Hedengrens book shop in Stockholm. Photo: Oliver Gee

Elsewhere, Hedengrens book shop on Birger Jarlsgatan says half their stock is in English. They even had a whole shelf with books from Swedish authors which had been translated into English. Take a second to think about that. Bookshops in foreign countries are usually like airports, with their English section (if it exists) offering just a few bestsellers and crime novels. 

Want more? Well, company voice messages often begin with “For English press 1” before the Swedish begins; I've seen up to six English shop names in a row on Drottninggatan; and don't even get me started on Swedes peppering their conversations with highly odd English phrases

So what does it all mean?

Well, I think we can take a few things away from this. Obviously, Swedes are excellent at English, but we knew that already.

It also shows, perhaps, that Stockholm realises that if it wants to play on the world stage, then it better be ready to embrace English. 

But my big takeaway has been that maybe, just maybe, you don't need to learn Swedish if you want to live in Stockholm. English is more than acceptable, seemingly everywhere.

And I can't help but feel a little bit sorry for the newcomers who choose to stick to English, and who risk missing out on the pleasures of learning such a beautiful language as Swedish.

Oliver Gee runs the brand new podcast The Earful Sweden. The latest episode features more on the English language in Stockholm with guest James Savage from The Local. You can listen to the episode below and follow The Earful Sweden on Instagram here.

Member comments

  1. Been in Sweden for 12 years now. My Swedish is slightly better than elementary. I have always been working in English and I believe I deliver a better value doing so.

    I like speaking Swedish when I can, but I don’t stress about it either.

  2. Wow, this is some pretty nationalistic bile. How the heck will the language disappear with more peopke speaking English now than 5 years ago??!! Because of a menue, when everything else is in Swedish, including Rikstad . U never think to see it as being open to tourist..considering that STHLM is not much of a world city compared Copenhagen. Even in Paris, Rome have all taken into consideration tourism with the use of English and even Chinese in some places. Forget non-europeans…not even other Europeans will come to Sweden unless it’s for studies or relationships, so any effort to have English more visible is for tourism because to live perminantly in this society, u need the language…though by Swedish standards..it will never be enough.So don’t worry, Sweden will remain lily white.

  3. In Stockholm, yes, I would agree has a bit more English being spoken as it is more cosmopolitan. But just go a little outside Stockholm…. not too far …..and the same ol’, same ol’ is very apparent

  4. I’ve been travelling to Sweden for a long time and the Swedish people (and the other Scandinavian countries, too) seem to want to speak English. It is the international language, I guess, and I understand it is taught in Swedish schools from an early age. I have always found that if you go outside of the major cities into the country, people will speak to you first in Swedish until they realise you are an English-speaker and then switch to English without hesitation or irritation. I don’t necessarily agree with Oliver’s view that Stockholm has decided that English needs to be spoke so that it can play on the world stage. I think it is much more natural than that. It’s just the way it is – and I would suggest that Copenhagen, another city I know well, is like that, too. The people of my two favourite countries have always made me feel welcome. The only downside to all this is that my Swedish is probably worse than Oliver’s – and I am a bit older and have had more time to learn the language but have been too lazy to do so.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

But the most common recurring story reflect Sweden’s longstanding guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
 
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
 
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
 
 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
 
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
 
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
 
Glad Påsk!
 
Midsommar drowning  
 
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
 
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
 
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
 
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.
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