When I started learning Swedish in 2003 I became aware of the fact that Scandinavians speak English extremely well. It was challenging to speak Swedish because swedes often switched to English to enable smoother conversations. From this point on I became interested in understanding exactly why Scandinavians speak English so well, especially because my home country, Italy, is largely monolingual. Could it be that Scandinavians are more intelligent than Italians?
Before going into this topic let’s talk a little about Scandinavia – it’s in the north of Europe and is made up of multiple countries, including Denmark, Norway and Sweden (depending on who you’re speaking to Finland and Iceland may also be included). The three countries are grouped because of their geographic location, Germanic heritage and related languages. Danish (Denmark), Swedish (Sweden) and Norwegian (Norway) share a lot in common. A speaker of one of these languages can understand a lot of the other languages without having to study.
On the subject of English: anything between 80 – 90% of Scandinavians speak English, compared to Italy’s 10-20 % (I tried to find data on this, but and I kept seeing 30%. I’m not sure how the statistics were calculated, but I can tell you from personal experience that there’s no way 30% of Italians speak English)
The biggest contributor to the success of Scandinavians in language learning is their consumption of English media. Scandinavians watch a lot of movies and TV series from America in English, whereas Italians dub almost everything from America into Italian. This is an important difference because it means that Scandinavians are not only exposed to English early on in their lives, but also regularly. The amount of exposure one has to a foreign languages usually correlates to one’s level of comprehension, ability to understand the language when spoken quickly and one’s ability to imitate sounds.
This is also my experience. When I was younger I watched TV shows and movies in French every single day after school. Despite taking ineffective language classes I made a lot of progress because I was exposed to real French on a daily basis. My peers on the other hand struggled to make any progress because their only contact with the language was in grammar books. Many students complain they’re not able to understand a foreign language when it’s spoken quickly. Of course, it takes time to get used to the speed natives utter words. The only solution is to get more exposure – and this is precisely the reason it’s a bad idea for language learning to have foreign movies and TV shows dubbed into the local language. I remember another occasion when I was at a friend’s house in Sweden and I noticed The Simpsons was on the TV in English, with Swedish subtitles. I asked why he was watching it in English, and he said all TV shows are seen in their original language. That’s when It become clear that despite having another official language, English was everywhere in Scandinavia, and this is precisely the reason Scandinavians spoke English the way they do.
The path to acquiring a foreign language to a high level always involves a lot of exposure and interaction – something Scandinavian countries have embraced, but sadly Italy hasn’t. You can’t go back in time and change the amount of exposure you had to a language when you were younger, but you can make changes today. I recommend replacing the media you consume in your native language with media of the foreign language you’re learning, one by one. If you enjoy watching the news, start watching the news in your target language. If you like watching The Simpsons, start watching The Simpsons in your target language, and so on. Massive exposure is essential for developing your language core. You also need interaction, but I’ll write more about that on another occasion. Start replacing your media with foreign language media today.
Another factor for the success of Scandinavians is the the quality of education, which is extremely high. One difference I can point out between Scandinavia and Italy based on conversations with friends is that the Scandinavian education system gives higher importance to the integration of theory and practice. The Italian system, however, focuses primarily on theory. I trained as an electrical engineer at University and despite studying the theory of how circuit boards work I’ve never actually touched or worked with a circuit board to understand how it works in practice. You’re probably wondering how this is possible, so to clarify, it’s not necessary for an engineer to work with a circuit board physically as it’s the job of a technician. However the point I want to emphasize is that Scandinavian countries give greater importance to the combination of theory and practice than Italy, and I believe this is part of their success with languages.
Another example would one time when I was using Sharedtalk.com to practice Swedish online and I noticed there were approximately 20 Swedish users on the website. I started multiple conversations and after a few introductions I discovered they were all the same age and came from the same part of Sweden. I wrote to one of them that it was strange to see so many Swedes online, and she replied that she was in an English class and the teacher had asked them all to log into the website to practice using English with natives. I’m not sure if this happens in all English classes in Scandinavia, but I can assure that Italian classes are nothing like that, and as far as I’m concerned it’s an indication of the emphasis placed on the combination of theory and practice.
Similarity of Languages
Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are all Germanic languages, which is also the case for English. Learning a language which shares aspects of your native language, or a language you know well, makes the learning process easier. I mention this not to discount the achievements of Scandinavians but to point out a factor that’s often not taken into consideration by beginner learners. Difficulty of a foreign language is relative. There are many aspects to take into account such as syntax, pronunciation and vocabulary. You might be surprised to discover that there are at least 1558 Swedish words you already know If you know English.
When choosing a foreign foreign language to learn it’s important to be aware of how distant the language is to languages you already know.
We also have to acknowledge that It’s uncommon to find someone learning Swedish, Danish or Norwegian who isn’t from Scandinavia, and that their languages are only spoken in their countries, so there’s a need to learn a foreign language if they are to interact with the rest of the world.
Italians are in the same situation as Scandinavians with regard to language. So it goes to show that this isn’t enough of a reason to learn a foreign language for everyone. The most important predictor of success in language learning is the motivation of the learner, and that can come in different forms. Namely, needs and desires.
There’s a lot to learn from the success Scandinavia has had with the English language. The most important being that the degree to which a foreign language is integrated into your life correlates with your ability to communicate in that language. The Media is a powerful tool used for communication and entertainment all over the world, so it’s extremely powerful for language learning. I use foreign media all the time to expand and maintain my knowledge and abilities. For example, I often read the German newspaper “ Der spiegel” before going to bed. This is a habit. The German language is part of my life, so improving is not something I have to make conscious effort to do anymore.
The need Scandinavians have to learn English is also something we can learn from. A strong motivation or desire to learn a language is crucial for success. A big motivator for me to constantly improve my languages is the friends I’ve made all over the world. I love sharing my life with people, and for me to do this in the way that I like, I have to reach a pretty high level of competence. The needs or desires that motivate vary from person to person.
Integrate the language you’re learning into your everyday life, create a need to use it regularly, and place high importance on the combination of theory and practice. These are the reasons why Scandinavians speak exceptional English.