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The English Language in Scandinavia

A map of Scandinavia

If you've ever visited Scandinavia, it's hard not to miss the popularity of the English language. We take a look at the role of the English language in Norway and Scandinavia today.

Along with the Dutch, Scandinavians have the best non-native English skills in the world. That's according to the ninth edition of the EF English Proficiency Index. Sweden, Norway and Denmark place second, third and fourth respectively. Elsewhere in the Nordics, Finland place seventh.

Read more: How to Learn Norwegian

Of course, anyone who’s visited one of the Scandinavian nations won’t be surprised by the findings. While there are plenty of problems visiting the region – not least the epic price tags – communication isn’t usually one of them.

A happy family of languages

Norwegian, Swedish and Danish all have their roots in Old Norse and a speaker of one has a default capability to at least understand the other two languages. But the Scandinavians’ language ability doesn’t stop there. The vast majority are fluent in English too.

The Scandinavian flags

To the untrained eye, English and the Scandinavian languages may not seem to have that much in common, yet the truth is quite different. All are members of the Germanic language family, itself a branch of the Indo-European language family spoken natively by more than 500 million people.

While there are significant variations, all the languages share some important linguistic features that results in familiarity. For example, the way verbs are conjugated in English is similar to Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. Verb conjugation works very differently in the Romance languages like Italian and Spanish that have their roots in Latin.

The use of loan words

Both English and the Scandinavian languages have lent each other many words over the years. We have Old Norse and the Vikings to thank for words such as ski, skull, knife and cake. Not forgetting my personal favourite, berserk.

Read more: The Languages of Norway

The English vocabulary is one of the biggest in the world with an estimated 750,000 words. That’s orders of magnitude bigger than the Scandinavian languages.

Do you speak English?

When a Swede, Dane, or Norwegian needs to describe something that a local word won’t cover, chances are they will simply use an English word. Some idioms and phrases have even crept their way into everyday use across Scandinavia, especially in advertising. It's not uncommon to see a Scandinavian brand use an English tag line.

They start young

English is taught in Scandinavian schools from a young age. As soon as children have mastered reading and writing their native tongue, English is introduced. The age varies by country and region but generally speaking, every student will have undergone at least a year of formal English language education by the age of ten.

Cultural immersion in the English world

But by the time Scandinavian kids reach that age, most are already quite familiar with English. Young Scandis have always been exposed to a lot of international content, but now the likes of YouTube and Netflix have made English entertainment more accessible than ever before.

Multilingual Scandinavians speak English very well

Sure, there are plenty of big Norwegian YouTubers. But if you stumble upon a group of young Norwegians watching YouTube, chances are the video will be in English. English slang–including swear words–is also commonly heard.

Read more: Learn Norwegian Though a Story

Turn on a Norwegian TV channel and the chances are, you'll be hearing an English language show with Norwegian subtitles. Unlike many other countries, English shows are almost never dubbed. Whether a Scandinavian speaks English with a British or American accent has a lot to do with what kind of TV they prefer!

A region of explorers and travellers

Ever since the days of the great explorers Roald Amundsen and Thor Heyerdahl, Scandinavians have been great travellers. Today, high salaries and generous vacation allowances allow most locals to take more than one vacation every year. That's certainly the case in Norway.

Polar exploration concept to the South Pole

In addition, the growth of Norwegian Air, Ryanair and WizzAir has meant weekend breaks are more accessible and cheaper than ever before. Someone who ten years ago couldn't afford international travel can now easily spend a weekend break in London, where they'll put their English skills to the test.

A professional skill

Perhaps it’s that inner-explorer, but even after almost a decade of formal English language education, many Scandinavians take things a step further by studying abroad. Whatever subject they’re studying, it’s highly likely to involve immersion in an English language environment.

As globalization continues at pace, English is seen as a critical skill for business. The British Council reports that by 2020, two billion people will be studying the language. Entrepreneurs are encouraged to “think global first” and buoyed by the success stories of the likes of Spotify, many are doing just that.

This focus on English in business isn’t a new phenomenon. The person behind the wildly successful English language immersion company EF Education First is not British nor American, rather a Swede!

Bertil Hult began sending Swedish students to Brighton way back in 1965 and his company now works with students and adults from all across the globe who want to immerse themselves in English.

Scandinavian woman holding a speech bubble featuring the Union Flag of the UK
English is widely spoken in offices across Scandinavia

Is English a threat?

What impact has English had on Scandinavian culture as a whole? That's a politically-charged question that is often asked in Denmark, Norway and Sweden these days.

With English becoming the working language of many companies, some worry that Danish, Norwegian and Sweden are under threat. However, in a recent report, Sweden's Language Council (Språkrådet) said that the overall language system remains “highly stable.”

Olle Josephson is Professor Emeritus in Scandinavian Languages and former head of Språkrådet. In an interview with The Local, he agrees that English isn't as big a threat as some believe:

“Compared to the influence of Low German around the 14th and 15th centuries, English influence is fairly weak. That German influence really transformed the way Swedish worked. There is no threat to the Swedish language in that it could be successively consumed by English, word for word.”

Some point to immigration as a reason for the increased use of English. However, in order to gain citizenship and (in most cases) permanent residence of one of the Scandinavian countries, documented proficiency in the local language is required.

This is an updated version of an article I first published on Forbes.com.

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About the Author: David Nikel

Originally from the UK, David now lives in Trondheim and was the original founder of Life in Norway back in 2011. He now works as a professional writer on all things Scandinavia.

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