Pupils praise and blame Swedish as a second language

University of Gothenburg

Pupils studying Swedish as a second language have mixed emotions about the subject. On the one hand, they find that they are labelled as immigrants even though they might be born in Sweden and use Swedish on a daily basis. On the other hand, they appreciate their lessons in Swedish as a second language.

Frida Siekkinen has studied how pupils at a secondary school find being differentiated and categorised as needing to study Swedish as a second language as a subject. During a school year, she spent time at the school and interviewed both pupils and teachers.

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Porträtt på Frida Siekkinen.

“There are no formal guidelines or criteria for determining which pupils need to study Swedish as a second language. The division of pupils into the separate Swedish subjects – Swedish and Swedish as a second language – isn’t, for example, based on any standardised language proficiency tests. Instead, it’s simply down to arbitrary allocation,” says Siekkinen.

Synonymous with “foreign background” in practice

At the school where Siekkinen conducted her study, about 20 per cent of the pupils were studying Swedish as a second language. Language proficiency was not explicitly central to allocating pupils this subject. Instead, pupils who had previously studied Swedish as a second language, had studied their native language or were considered a match for the category of “foreign background” were offered or forced to study the subject.

“In practice, Swedish as a second language and foreign background become synonymous. Swedish as a second language becomes a label for non-Swedish even though the pupil might be born in Sweden, has spoken Swedish since birth and identifies as Swedish.”

Pupils resisted

Pupils tried in different ways to resist being classified as “Swedish as a second language pupils”. This was seen in some pupils declining the offer to study Swedish as a second language because they were born in Sweden and/or Swedish is their language. Other pupils chose in certain situations not to attend the classroom where lessons in Swedish as a second language were held. Yet parallel to this, pupils appreciate Swedish as a second language as a subject.

“The pupils are aware that Swedish as a second language is a mark indicating that something is lacking. To study Swedish as a second language is to be considered an immigrant with poorer Swedish language skills and, potentially, poorer future prospects. But at the same time, there’s this ambivalence. They felt that the teaching in Swedish as a second was better, and they were aware that it could provide them with better knowledge and higher grades, which means a better future,” says Siekkinen.

Review currently under way

Several previous studies and inquiries have indicated shortcomings in how Swedish as a second language is organised in schools. Accordingly, the Swedish National Agency for Education is currently reviewing the Swedish language subjects on behalf of the government. This inquiry, which is to end in December 2021, is to have a special focus on and provide a proposal for improved regulation of which pupils are to study Swedish as a second language.

“I welcome the fact that a review is being conducted as there is reason to criticise how Swedish as a second language is organised,” says Siekkinen.

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