License to Butcher

This picture expresses how the day went today.

But first, a little background music. Swedish for Immigrants is a state-run program that teaches Swedish to non-native speakers to teach them the language and help them integrate into society. Sweden takes in quite a number of people from war-torn and other oppressed areas of the planet. For example, one town near Stockholm, Södertälje, took in more Iraqi refugees after the U.S. invasion of Iraq then the entirety of the U.S. and Canada combined. I have met many people from there as well as other rough parts of southeastern Europe, such as Kosovo, Bosnia and other Balkan countries. Also, Syria, Palestine, Iran and even Somalia.

The need for such a program is therefore obvious. Sweden can’t have all these refugees gumming up the system, although a growing political party, the Sweden Democrats, is based almost exclusively on appeals to anti-immigrant attitudes. The other 95% of the population probably feels “Well, life is pretty good for us, what right to we have to deny it to others?”

One of the ways Swedes try to deal with the influx of immigrants is to teach them Swedish. With a population of only 9.5 million, there are probably 10 million speakers of Swedish in the whole world, with probably 4 million Norwegians, another few million Danes and some Finns able to understand Swedish. In other words, Swedish is not a major language by any means. Hence, SFI. By law, any immigrant is entitled to free education in the language.

I started the course last August 29 and five days a week, I spent my afternoons knocking heads with a new and generally difficult language. Of course, any 4 year old learns  languages like a dream. Kids of multi-lingual parents have no trouble at all learning two languages and differentiating between them. For them it is a no-brainer since they are at a stage where they are little sponges and soak up everything in sight (or in earshot).

Sixty years later, it is a different story, and I literally had to have the language beaten into my skull, filtering everything through a lifetime of conditioning in English. Because there were more than 25 different countries and languages represented in my classes, the entire course was taught in Swedish. With so many different languages intermingling, it could not be taught in any other way. This is verrrrry different from high school French or Spanish where the teacher can clarify things in English when the nuances of French get tricky. Not so in SFI. It is Swedish all the way from the first “Hej.” (Hi.) The teachers become very adept at communicating with their hands.

I had it easier than others because Sweden’s second language is English (Swedes take several years of English in grammar school and English TV programs and music are everywhere), so the teachers would occasionally resort to an English translation when the blank stares became overwhelming. I had classmates from Syria, Palestine, Russia, Iran, the Philippines, Nigeria and other places who also knew some English, so that became the fallback option at times.

With these obvious obstacles inside the classroom and other obstacles outside (no job, no income, can’t communicate to others, etc.) it is no wonder that the program is not a 100% success in all cases. Far from it. Only 60% of immigrants take advantage of the course and of those only half successfully complete it within four years.

Now you know the reason for the cheerful picture above. To make a short story long, I finished my final exam for the course today and passed. What a relief! Fortunately, there are no 4 year olds reading this blog to say, “What’s the big deal?” Listen, kid, it’s a big deal for me! In 60 years you are probably going to be wrestling with Cantonese.

What this signifies is that I now know enough of the Swedish language, its grammar, its syntax and verb tenses, its pronouns and adjectives, to butcher it mercilessly anywhere I go. A little Swedish is a dangerous thing, so watch out, Sweden, here I come.

The program administrators and teachers could not have been more helpful. They were always cheerful and understanding of the plight of newcomers to their happy society.

Of course it is not all smoked salmon and schnaps here. Right now there are political pressures and a creeping Americanization chipping away at the way things were even a few years ago. I don’t know enough of the inner workings of the country to know if these efforts are meant to maintain the quality of life here, which some claim are unsustainable, or if they are simply trying to undermine things to enrich the few at the expense of the many, as is happening in the U.S.

A case in point: one of the mid-level bosses here is trying to suck up to the local right wing political party honchos by “trimming the fat” here at the school. The program was relocated to different (and poorer) quarters in June and some teaching positions have been eliminated, as well as other personal such as cleaners, all of which is going to lower the quality of the program. (Keep in mind, though, that the right wing in Sweden is still miles to the left of the Obama administration. No one in Sweden is about to commit political suicide by suggesting that healthcare be privatized, for example. They may try doing it bit by bit, however: my teacher said today that she was having to clean the teachers lounge kitchen, something that a few months ago was taken care of by a posted cleaner.)

Despite that, it is amazing to me that it is established law that any immigrant is entitled to free language education. Imagine such a program existing in America. What a difference it would make. Paul Haggis could never have written “Crash.” And you would actually be able to ask a question of the help at Walmart and understand the answer. As a note, I used to marvel that the clerks in stores here in Halmstad invariably spoke better English than the clerks in stores in Mountain View, even the non-native Swedish clerks in the ice cream stands.

The course is free. The textbooks are free. They even offer an incentive to get people to complete within a year: a 12,000 kronor bonus, which amounts to about $1800. At times, it was frustrating and painful but I have learned a new language, which made today, with its warm sunny summer weather, an especially great day in an especially nice country.




10 thoughts on “License to Butcher

  1. Dan- great news. Congratulations! I did a test myself for English to be able to work in my profession, (had to pay for it though. I was so happy when it was over and done with and also proud.

    So, Craig is closer to 4 years than you are so it has to be a lot easier for him then… Right?

    Take care, I look forward to read your next posting

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