The Prevalence of English in Scandinavia – Complete Guide

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The Scandinavian countries have a reputation for having high rates of English fluency among their populations, but is this really true or just an over-exaggerated cliche? Are the Scandinavians really so good at English? Are some Nordic countries better than others? In this article we will provide a summary overview of the prevalence of English in all the Scandinavian countries – Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland.

The bottom line is that the reputation does indeed hold true – Scandinavians are very proficient and fluent in English in all the Nordic countries. There are some minor differences between the countries but the Nordic states always feature in the top five, if not the top ten, of the most fluent English speakers in the world after native English speaking countries. Shorter term visitors do not need to worry about speaking the local languages in any of the Nordic countries, such is the prevalence of English there.

Many tourists who visit Scandinavia do like to pass through each of the countries, sometimes on land or sometimes on cruises which pass through the countries. Some people move there longer term to work or study. Either way, our comprehensive guide will cover you no matter which country (or countries) you are going to be visiting in the region. Let’s look at a quick overview of where these countries stand in overall global terms for English skills.

Top Countries in English Proficiency – 2018 EF Study

  1.  Sweden
  2. Netherlands
  3. Singapore
  4. Norway
  5. Denmark
  6. South Africa
  7. Luxembourg
  8. Finland
  9. Slovenia
  10. Germany

See here for the actual study data. Iceland not included in dataset.

You can see from the latest stats that the Scandinavian countries feature very prominently at the top of the world table for English proficiency. Slightly older studies place them even higher with Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland occupying four of the top five spots for English proficiency. The overall conclusion does not change – the Scandinavians are very good at English.

Let’s look in more detail at the proficiency rates in each major Nordic country in turn, along with some possible reasons as to why they are so much better at speaking English in this part of the world than elsewhere.

English in Sweden

We start with Sweden, which is possibly the most proficient of all the Scandinavian countries in terms of English fluency. It showed up as the top country in the world in a 2018 study by Education First that ranked countries by English skills. It has a population very proficient and fluent in English, with around 86% of the population estimated to speak English, most of them very well.

Basically, anyone under the age of 60 who you stop on the street in Sweden is going to be able to speak English, and usually speak it very well. From personal experience they are often more fluent and articulate than native English speakers who are meant to be using English as a first language!

The teaching of English is so rigorous in schools from such an early age that most youngsters are fluent even by the time they reach their mid teens, and certainly adulthood. They also receive a lot of English language films and TV shows and so are also very good at understanding different accents and the more common slang and colloquial expressions that are used.

Therefore tourists will have no problem using English when visiting Sweden, whether in the larger cities like Stockholm or anywhere else. It will be very widely spoken. Longer term stayers can definitely benefit from learning some Swedish, since it allows you to assimilate into the culture better.

See our article on English in Sweden for more on this.

English in Denmark

The situation in Denmark is very much similar to Sweden, with around 86% of the population estimated to speak English, the vast majority of them very fluently as well. Denmark consistently ranks in the top four countries for English skills, mostly just behind Sweden. The everyday reality for visitors is the same as Sweden – you will be able to be understood in English pretty much everywhere in Denmark, especially with younger people.

This is good news since Denmark has seen it’s tourism industry explode in recent years, receiving record numbers of visitors in 2018, despite having only a small population of around 6 million. Almost everyone except the very oldest people can speak English, and German and Swedish are also fairly widely spoken as well to accommodate this tourist boom.

Much like Sweden, English is taught in schools from a very early age in Denmark, often from as early as age 6 onwards, and English language media is also very common in the culture there, meaning people are usually very fluent at understanding and speaking English by the time they are adults.

See our article on English in Denmark for more on the topic.

English in Norway

Norway completes the triad of the three main Nordic countries that are considered most fluent in English. It has similar rates of English proficiency to Sweden and Dernmark (85-90% of the population) and consistently ranks as the fourth best country in the world for English language skills – see here and here.

Again tourists visiting here will have no problem getting around using English; you will be understood whether you are in the capital Oslo or anywhere else in the country. As with Denmark and Sweden, youngsters are taught English from a very early age and exposed to it a lot on films and TV shows.

See our article on English in Norway for more on this.

English in Finland

Finland is the fourth of the main Scandinavian countries, and attracts around 7 million tourists a year, well over half a million of them from English speaking countries. Russians and Germans also like to visit Finland a lot, as do fellow Scandinavians from neighboring countries.

English proficiency does fall off slighty in Finland compared to their Nordic neighbors, with estimates of around 70% of the population being able to speak English. This is still a high rate in itself though, even if not quite up there with Sweden and Denmark, and fluency rates within this 70% are also very high. Any Finn who does speak English will tend to speak it very well.

In practical terms this fluency rate doesn’t make a difference to short term tourists when compared to the other Scandinavian countries – you will still be able to get by just fine speaking English in any major city like Helsinki or Espoo. The fluency rate is the lowest in Scandinavia but is still up there with other countries like Austria and Cyprus, where English speaking tourists can also get by fine.

Just like the other Nordic countries, English is taught in schools, so most people except the oldest generations are able to speak it to some level, many of them very fluently. The Finnish language is a little further away from English than the other languages, belonging more to the Uralic family of languages that includes Hungarian and Estonian, rather than the Germanic languages of Sweden, Denmark and Norway. This may make learning English a little harder for Finns than for other Scandinavians, but the overall fluency rates are still high.

Longer term visitors can choose to learn Finnish if they want, but should be aware that it is a very difficult language to learn, consistently ranked as one of the hardest in the world to master, with lots of complex verb and grammar rules. Tourists need not go into this depth, but longer term migrants have their work cut out for them to really get proficient in Finnish.

See our article on English in Finland for more on this, including a deeper look into the interesting culture and mindset of the Finns plus some basic Finnish phrases to get you get by in this unique country. They are a very introverted but straightforward people and it is best to be aware of this before you go there to avoid any surprises.

English in Iceland

Iceland is often forgotten about when speaking of the Scandinavian nations, though is still technically a Nordic country, just somewhat isolated in the North Atlantic and quite a way from the other main cluster of Scandinavian countries. It is worth including here, since it has similarities with the other Nordic countries and also attracts a decent amount of tourists for the great scenery and outdoor warm baths and hot springs.

Iceland also has excellent rates of English proficiency, possibly even higher than Sweden, though exact statistics are hard to find since it does not tend to be included in studies, since it has such a small population. Children are taught from the age of 7 or 8 onwards and like the other countries we mentioned receive a lot of English language TV to further develop their competency.

However, anecdotally, visitors there report that English fluency is near universal across the whole population, with almost every person you stop on the street being able to converse in English, and do so very fluently.

There is no need to learn the Icelandic language at all, which is just as well because like Finnish it is a fiendishly difficult language to master, one of the hardest in the world and unique in that it has remained largely unchanged since the 9th and 10th centuries.

Iceland is a very tourist friendly country overall though, with not just English but also other languages like Danish, German, French and Spanish being spoken by quite a lot of the population. It really is a place that most Europeans can move around quite easily without having to know the Icelandic language.

See our article on the prevalence of English in Iceland for more on this.

Why Are The Scandinavians So Good At English?

You can see from our article that pretty much anywhere you go in Scandinavia, you can count on English being widely spoken. But just why are the Scandinavians so good at English? Why do they have competency and fluency rates which are so much higher than other countries around the world, which often put huge amounts of money into teaching English in schools, yet still have very low rates of English proficiency among their populations?

We have covered many of the reasons in passing when dealing with each country, and also dedicated an entire article to examining why Scandinavians tend to be so good at English, having higher proficiency rates than almost every other country where English is not the primary language.

This is an important issue, since many other countries in Asia especially (see our article on Japan) pour huge amounts of money into teaching English to their youngsters and yet still have very low proficiency rates in spoken English among the general population, often stuck at around 5-15%. Scandinavia also emphasizes the teaching of English, but has very high English fluency rates up in the 80-90% range.

We found several major reasons that seem to allow the Nordic countries to stand out in the world in terms of English proficiency rates. See our full article for more on this, but here are the main reasons in brief:

  1. There are tangiential similarities between English and some of the Nordic languages, especially Swedish, which shares around 1500 words in common with English. The other Nordic languages are less similar; this is more of a minor factor but may make learning English a little easier.
  2. Rigorous teaching of English in schools – it is often taught from the age of 7 or 8 onwards across all of Scandinavia, being treated as a core subject like maths as well and therefore being taught several days a week at least and not just for a few hours here and there. Learning English is taken seriously in Scandinavia.
  3. Strong English language cultural influences – Sweden, Denmark and Norway especially tend to receive a lot of English language films and TV shows, which are undubbed and shown in the original language with subtitles. Thus the Scandinavians tend to get a lot of exposure to spoken English and get much better at understanding and speaking it than other countries which do not receive so much English language media.
  4. Mindset of the population – Scandinavians tend to happily embrace learning and using English in daily life, seeing it as necessary for improving prospects and opportunities for work and travel. There is not the same resistance to learning English that there can be in some other countries.

As an additional point, skilled and fluent English teachers are hard to find in Asian and Latin American countries; there tends to be a chronic shortage. Scandinavian countries by contrast have plenty of fluent English speakers who can teach it. Several decades of really emphasizing English teaching in schools has paid dividends in that there is no shortage of skilled English speakers to teach the newer generations coming through.

There anyone visiting any of the Scandinavian countries has nothing to worry about in terms of being understood when speaking English. For tourists who want to learn a few phrases, see each of our articles on Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland for videos and tables of basic phrases you might want to use.

Longer term visitors who are going for work or study can also find links to introductory courses on each of the Scandinavian languages in each article. Whilst they speak very good English, it tends to be quite difficult to learn their languages; nevertheless doing so can open up more work and social opportunities for people staying there longer term.

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