Five Reasons Why Swedes are the World’s Best Non-Native English Speakers
“Swedes are eager to reach people outside of their country, and they benefit economically and linguistically from this”
For the fourth time in the past eight years, Sweden ranks number one on the 2018 EF English Proficiency Index . The EF EPI is the largest global study of English skills based on test data from 1.3 million adults who took the EF Standard English Test in 2017.
Since EF is a Swedish company, we asked 100 of our Swedish colleagues why they think Sweden has been so successful with English language education. Here’s what they told us:
- Open Culture (33 out of 100): A third of respondents said that Swedish culture is an open culture that is interested in learning about other people and cultures. “Being international and adventurous is encouraged in the Swedish culture, and speaking English helps to achieve that,” said one respondent. Respondents mentioned that the prevalence of American media in Sweden makes it the most influential foreign culture in Sweden. Research shows that learners who are interested in other cultures and languages are more motivated to learn a foreign language.
- Small Country (50 out of 100) – “Outside of Sweden, nobody speaks Swedish,” one respondent said. With less than 10 million residents, Sweden is a small country that needs to be “outward-looking.” One respondent explained: “for a small country that wants to participate in a global economy/culture, learning a second language is something that we see as a must and very normal.” The Swedish economy is exports-oriented and increasingly tech-focused, and it has produced a few unicorns, including Skype and Spotify, as well as other well-known multi-billion-dollar companies, such as IKEA, H&M, and Volvo.
“There is an expectation in Sweden that all Swedes can communicate in English”
- Affinity for Travel (52 out of 100) – “Swedes are travellers and explorers. We are also a country where most people can afford to travel,” said one respondent. Given that English is the lingua franca, travel is a great “motivation” for learning English, said many respondents. Global travel statistics show that between 2007 and 2016, Swedes, on average, took 1.5 trips abroad per year. For perspective, Americans took, on average, 0.2 trips abroad, and only Norwegians and Finns travelled slightly more than Swedes abroad (1.7 and 2.0, respectively). It helps that Swedes have at least 41 days off, including 16 public holidays and, by law, a minimum of 25 vacation days.
- Starting from a Young Age (66 out of 100) – Many respondents mentioned that they learn English in school and consume English language media from a young age. While many countries around the world now aspire to start English language education from elementary school, few countries teach English as extensively and universally as Sweden does starting from preschool. A few respondents commented there is “as much focus on English as Swedish in school[s].”
- The Power of Media (88 out of 100) – Nearly 9 out of 10 respondents mentioned that they learned English through non-dubbed English TV shows, movies, and music. One respondent wrote that the constant exposure to English language media “provides a continuous opportunity to hear the English language.” Another respondent commented that “learning is effortless when you are being entertained.”
In summary, there is an expectation in Sweden that all Swedes can communicate in English. Swedish schools teach English seriously to all students from a young age. Outside of the classroom, Swedes are constantly exposed to English language media. Through their travels and open attitudes, Swedes are eager to reach people outside of their country, and they benefit economically and linguistically from this outreach. At the same time, Swedes’ openness and English ability put them in a good position to welcome more international students and professionals.
Figure 1: A word cloud of participants’ responses to the following prompt: “Sweden has ranked #1 more than any other countries on the EF EPI. From your perspective and experience of living and studying in Sweden, what do you think are the reasons for Sweden’s success with English language education?”
About the author: Dr. Minh Tran is the Senior Director of Research and Academic Partnerships at EF Education First, where he works with ministries of education and universities on large-scale language assessment and research projects. He was a part of a global team that launched the EF Standard English Test (EF SET), the world’s first free standardized English test. He is also the lead researcher and co-author of the EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI), the world’s largest ranking of countries by English skills.