The Scandinavians are good at English – very, very good. This has almost become a cliche, but it is also very true. As a native English speaker, I often find them more fluent and articulate in English than I am. Why is this the case though? Why are Scandinavians so good at English compared to other countries?
There are several factors which combine to make Scandinavians very fluent in English from a very early age.
Here’s an overall brief summary of the main reasons:
- The English and Nordic languages are broadly similar.
- English is rigorously taught in schools from age 7/8.
- There is lots of English on TV/films there.
- The mindset is open and tolerant to other cultures
These factors all combine to ensure Scandinavians are almost always fluent in English from their mid teens onwards.
The Scandinavian countries consistently rank in the top 5 countries in the world for English proficiency. They sometimes trade places at the top of the rankings but fluency is high in all the countries. Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland have English proficiency rates in the 85-90% range. Finland is a little behind at around 70% proficiency, but this is still higher than most other countries in the world where English is not the first language.
What are the reasons for this? Why do Scandinavian countries stand out so much as having so many people who can read, write and speak good English by the time they leave school? Other countries in Asia and Latin America really struggle with this for example, having proficiency rates typically between 5-15%.
Let’s look at some educational and cultural factors which make the Scandinavians world leaders in English fluency.
1. Similarities Between the English and Scandinavian Languages
There are some tangential similarities between English and some of the Nordic languages, especially in select words and some pronunciation. With the exception of Finnish, they are all Germanic languages and so share some common traits. Some Swedish words are pretty similar to English ones for sure, with the two languages sharing around 1500 words.
If an English speaker watches the original “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” movies for example, you will recognize what some of the words are even without looking at the subtitles because they are close enough to English.
However, this overall connection is not massively close. Once you start getting into Danish, Norwegian and especially Finnish, the differences between them and English start to get much bigger. There are far less shared words and pronunciation and grammar start to diverge quite a bit. Icelandic stands largely on it’s own as a language that has remained largely unchanged since the 9th century, and along with Finnish is considered one of the hardest languages in the world to learn.
Notwithstanding the odd similarity in Swedish especially, the pronunciation of the Nordic languages is very very different from English – just take a look at the basic phrases sections of each of our articles on Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway for examples of this.
Letters are often dropped or have umlauts (the double dot) and other accents, which means that many words are pronounced nothing like what a native English speaker would expect to pronounce them as. Despite Scandinavians being very fluent in English, it is generally quite for hard for the reverse to happen and for an English speaker to get really fluent and competent in the Scandinavian languages.
So the similarity argument maybe doesn’t hold so true as for the reasons why Scandinavians are so good at English. Perhaps for Swedish to some extent, but many of the similarities are tangential at best and spoken pronunciation is often very different.
Rather, it is the rigorous and prolonged teaching of English in schools, as well as the constant exposure to the language through cultural influences, that seems to be a better explanation for why the Scandinavians are so good at English.
2. Rigorous Teaching of English in Scandinavia
Another factor in English fluency in Scandinavia is the very thorough and rigorous teaching that children receive at school. In most Scandinavian countries, youngsters start learning English from the age of 7 or 8, and carry on right through until leaving age, providing nearly a decade of solid learning.
Moreover, English is often treated as a core subject, with lessons several times a week, perhaps daily in some cases. This is especially true in Sweden, but in all the Nordic countries to some level. English is taken very seriously at school, being treated as a main topic like Math or Science would be.
This means that even as youngsters reach adolescence, and certainly by the time they go to university, they are usually very fluent in English. Most higher level textbooks from university level onwards are usually in English, and some lessons are even taught in English. It is the de facto language of choice in some areas of higher level education.
This is contrast to some other countries, which may only teach English for a few hours a week, with the teachers themselves sometimes not always fluent enough to get pronunciation totally correct. There is definitely a skills gap in English tuition in parts of Asia and Latin America, and this along with the lower frequency of teaching and other influences leads to lower levels of fluency in the general population.
It is however true that just teaching English, even very regularly as a core subject, does not guarantee that someone will truly be fluent in it. Plenty of youngsters in other parts of the world learn English at school but still aren’t very good speaking it. Academic learning can be dry and not focused on verbal competency.
Classroom teaching can lay a good foundation in terms of vocabulary and written competency when done properly, but ideally needs to be supplemented with constant practice speaking and understanding the English language in verbal form. Scandinavian culture is well suited to this; let’s look at why in more detail.
3. Strong Influences of English Language Culture in Scandinavia
This seems to be a crucial factor in why the younger generation especially learns English better in some countries than others. Having regular exposure to not just lessons but English language culture allows youngsters to pick up the language much better and increases their ability to speak and understand English as well as reading it.
The Scandinavian countries tend to receive a lot of films and TV shows undubbed in the original English language versions, with Swedish, Danish etc. subtitles. They are not so often dubbed into the native language.
They also read a lot of English language books, especially in higher level education, since translating many books for the usually small number of native speakers in each country is not always economical. Many Scandinavians also choose to read English language novels of their own accord.
As a result, Scandinavians are exposed to an enormous amount of written and spoken English on top of the formal teaching they receive at school. They have so much more chance to practice understanding and speaking it, that over time they cannot help but learn it very well and be usually proficient from their mid teens onwards.
Their constant exposure to everyday spoken English also means they can pick up the colloquial and slang phrases used, which may be missing from the dry, academic teaching of English, which will be of a very formal type. They have a much more practical and up to date exposure to the everyday English language to complement their technical teaching in schools.
Speaking with Scandinavians, it has always amazed me personally how adept they are at understanding English and picking up different accents, which people from other countries often struggle to do.
They can understand Brits and Americans for example even with very different dialects and accents from different parts of the country, in a way that always amazes me. They almost never need to ask you to repeat anything you say, even if you talk quickly, use slang or have a strong accent.
The main reason for this is simply that they are exposed to so much spoken English in the form of films and TV shows that they get much more chance to pick up different accents and slang words and develop more confidence understanding it and not just learning vocabulary and constructing basic sentences.
By contrast, some of the countries in the far east like Japan and South Korea have relatively little exposure to English language films and TV, and so have far less opportunity to gain competence understanding and speaking it outside of a dry classroom environment. Films and TV programs in these countries are often dubbed into the native languages in these countries, and also in some European and Latin American countries as well.
There is no coincidence that English fluency in these countries is much lower than in Scandinavia. People learn a language so much better when they have chances to interact with it on a practical level every day and are not just restricted to learning for a few hours in a classroom every week.
4. Mindset of the Population
Another factor in the English fluency of Scandinavians is that they tend to have a very positive and open mindset, where they embrace the learning of English as an important thing in a global economy to improve their competitiveness and job prospects.
For better or worse, English is still the international language for business for most of the world. With the growth of China, the Mandarin language is also becoming more important, but for now English is still the number one language for business. Therefore if young people want to open up more opportunities for travel and work, having fluency in English is a crucial skill to increase human capital.
Scandinavians tend to accept this readily and are happy and willing to embrace English in their education and culture whenever they can. They see that it is ultimately beneficial to them long term and are happy to take any chance to practice it, even if it is just watching an English language film or TV show.
This contrasts to other countries, which sometimes have a cultural mindset that is resistant to learning English. The learning of English is not always encouraged so much in other countries, for a number of reasons, which include:
- Sometimes Governments simply do not emphasize the importance of English for their younger people. Historically it has not been seen as important in some Government policies, though some Latin American countries for example are starting to realize this and catch up for lost time, encouraging English teaching more in schools.
- Some cultures like France are also proud of their national languages and do not like to speak foreign languages unless asked to by tourists. A similar thing has been observed by some Germans as well, who think English has become too prevalent and want to preserve the dominance of native languages in their country.
- In some isolated cases, like Argentina, there may be be political reasons why English is resented because of past political events, and so some people are not so willing to embrace the English language with their culture. They see it as being associated with an enemy from the past.
- Sometimes the alphabets, sentence structure and pronunciation of some native languages is so different from English that it puts people off even learning. The two languages seem too far apart to try learning it. The opposite is often true for English speakers trying to learn other languages.
- English is also a difficult language to learn in it’s own right, with lots of grammar and pronunciation rules that do not follow consistent patterns and simply have to be learnt one by one. I wouldn’t blame someone for not wanting to learn it!
Lessons For Other Countries
Lots of countries like Japan are pouring public money into trying to teach youngsters English in schools, only for spoken proficiency rates to remain very low. Some South American countries have the same problem. How can governments there make better use of the money they are spending on English teaching to actually get competency rates up in the general population?
Here are some general pointers that we think other countries could take from Scandinavian countries to increase the proficiency of English among their younger populations. Their model seems to work very well in producing youngsters fluent in English:
1. Rigorous teaching of English – Teach youngsters lots of English from a young age, making it a core subject which is studied most or all days and not just for a few hours a week.
2. Make teaching focused on practical, verbal competency and not just learning dry vocabulary lists and basic written English. Also give youngsters plenty of practice understanding spoken English, with different accents and dialects, since this is the hardest thing to pick up learning any language.
3. Use cultural influences – Encourage the use of undubbed English language media like films, TV shows and sports, both in the classroom and in the wider culture. It makes the learning more fun to have some practical resources and also helps young people to get better at understanding different accents, tones, slang etc. Scandinavians are constantly exposed to spoken English from a young age and this is what makes them so good at understanding it.
4. Emphasize the importance of English – For business, travel, job prospects and so on. It is in youngster’s own interests to learn it in foreign countries, particularly less wealthy ones or more unequal ones like in Latin American which have limited opportunities for young people otherwise. It is a noticeable aspect of Scandinavians that they do not seem to resent having to learn English, but instead accept that it is necessary to better their prospects and embrace English language influences into their culture. Their mindset is very open and not so resistant, and so they are much more willing to learn English.