Whether you’re planning a trip to Sweden or even getting ready to move there for a longer term stay, there’s no question that it can be a bit daunting to consider life somewhere that you don’t speak the native language.
But do Swedish people speak English – including enough that you can live in Sweden speaking English only?
Don’t worry: as you’ll see, the level of English in Scandinavia overall is remarkably high. And there’s an argument to be made that Sweden is the best of the lot.
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Do Swedish people speak English?
Swedish people speak English extremely well. In fact, Sweden consistently ranks as one of the best countries in the world for English proficiency. This is because Swedish people learn English at a very young age and use it extensively in their daily lives.
This largely reflects the fact that one major (and true!) Swedish characteristic is that they are very well aware that English is needed for the country to be a player on the international stage.
For example, from a business perspective, the Swedish economy is dwarfed by that of the EU, let alone the rest of the world. This means that speaking English is key for Swedish companies to continue to grow, as having translators on hand for, say, negotiations isn’t always ideal.
Did you know: Sweden was ranked as having the best non-native English speakers in the world in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2018 in the English Proficiency Index.
Of course, not all Swedish people speak English, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone younger than age 60 or so who doesn’t understand it. In fact, in Sweden, the English speaking percentage of the population is reported as being at 89%.
From my own experience, I’d even say that many older Swedes I’ve come across are more than comfortable speaking in English, despite the fact that they likely learned German rather than English when in school. While they may not have the slight American accent that many younger Swedes have, there is no issue at all in having a conversation with them in English.
Find out more: What Language Do Swedish People Speak? (it’s not just the obvious one!)
How do Swedish people know English?
The vast majority of Swedish people know English because it is taught in schools from a young age. In addition, English is widely used in the business world and in popular culture, so Swedes are exposed to the language on a daily basis. As a result, they develop a high level of proficiency in English.
Most Swedish people start learning English in elementary school at around 7 years old. At the same time, English-speaking music is widely popular and many TV shows and movies (including those for children) aren’t dubbed into Swedish but, instead, are broadcast in the original English version.
This means that almost every flicka and pojke (boy and girl) are consistently exposed to native English speakers through their entertainment options.
By the time they finish high school, most Swedes are completely fluent in English. In fact, it’s very common for them to have at least a bit of an American accent, due to the influence of US pop culture on their English learning.
Want an example of this? Check out this video of Sweden-native Alexander Skarsgård explaining Swedish slang (some of which are on my list of the most beautiful Swedish words, just in case you want to impress Alex next time you run into him) – in what is basically a perfect US accent.
What languages do Swedes speak?
Swedish is the official language of Sweden, as recognized by the Language Law of 2009. This law also confirmed the official status of the five national minority languages: Finnish, Meänkieli, Romani, Sámi languages and Yiddish. Speakers of these languages may thus receive services like schooling in their language.
With just over 10 million native speakers in Sweden, Swedish (“svenska” in Swedish) is a North Germanic language that evolved from Old Norse and has close similarities to Danish and Norwegian. In fact, speakers of one of these can very often hold a conversation with the others in their own language.
The officially recognized minority languages include the following:
- Finnish: While this is the national language of Finland, there are actually around 470,000 Finnish-speakers in Sweden.
- Meänkieli: Meänkieli is related to Finnish but has a number of Swedish words incorporated into it, with some even considering it a dialect of Finnish. It’s believed that up to 70,000 people consider Meänkieli as their first language.
- Sámi languages: The Sámi languages are those spoken by the Sámi people who are indigenous to Scandinavia. While not Germanic languages themselves, they have adopted various Germanic loanwords – more so than the previous two languages, which also aren’t of Germanic origin. There are around 20,000 Sámi people in Sweden, with around 9,000 speaking one of the Sámi languages.
- Romani: The approximately 9,500 Romani speakers in Sweden aren’t concentrated in one area like the other three languages mentioned above. However, due to the Swedish government considering it a language of historical importance, Romani has also been given official status.
- Yiddish: Yiddish is also considered as being a language of historical importance by the Swedish government, similar to Romani. The Jewish population in Sweden consists of around 20,000 people, of which up to 6,000 have some knowledge of Yiddish. However, it is believed that there may only be up to 1,500 native speakers, most of whom are elderly.
In terms of non-official languages, and as mentioned earlier, Swedish people speak English at a very high level. In addition, around 30% of Swedes claim some knowledge of German. This has dropped since World War II, especially after 1952 when English replaced German as a compulsory subject at school.
Many Swedes also learn a third language in school, although it’s not compulsory. For that purpose, many Swedish students choose to learn French, with 11% of Swedes having some knowledge of it, as well as there being a smaller percentage of Swedish Spanish-speakers.
You may also be interested in: Is Swedish Hard to Learn? (Hint: Less Than You Think!)
How many languages do Swedes speak?
More than 200 languages are spoken in Sweden, including regional, minority and indigenous languages, along with those of immigrants to Sweden. However, the average Swede speaks at least two languages (Swedish and English), often with some knowledge of another European language, in addition to any minority language they know.
As mentioned earlier, in Sweden, the English speaking percentage sits at around 89% of Swedes who claim they can understand English – and, at least in my experience, this is accurate (if not a bit low, to be honest!)
Many Swedes also choose to learn German, French or, to some extent, Spanish in high school, but tend not to be as fluent as in English. This makes sense when you consider that much of Swedes’ English learning experience is outside of the classroom, especially from English-speaking TV shows and movies that aren’t dubbed into Swedish.
Do Swedes speak German?
It is reported that 30% of Swedes claim some knowledge of German. In fact, Swedish is a Germanic language, so there are a number of similarities between the two. However, Swedish is closer to Danish and Norwegian, with German being closer overall to Dutch.
This means that learning German isn’t overly difficult for Swedes – at least compared to someone with a Latin language as their native tongue. At the same time, the languages aren’t quite as close as you may think, although you can see the similarities when comparing the spelling of words in each of them.
Overall, I wouldn’t expect to be able to walk up to a random Swede and have them understand me if I were to start speaking in German to them. They may get the overall gist, but you’ll have far more luck if you approach someone on the street in English rather than German.
Can I live in Sweden speaking English?
You can absolutely live in Sweden speaking English. While, of course, it’s always helpful to learn some words of the local language, Swedish people are generally so good at English that you usually won’t struggle to live in Sweden without speaking Swedish.
Even many workplaces won’t have an issue if you don’t speak Swedish. They know that this language ability is limited to Swedes and, to some extent, certain other Scandinavians. So with Sweden being quite internationally-focused, the average Swedish office worker is more than happy to switch to English for their foreign colleagues.
There are even over 40 universities in Sweden offering courses in English, so it’s even possible to study in Sweden speaking only English rather than Swedish.
As always, this won’t be true everywhere or for every job. Some service-based jobs, for example, will likely require some level of Swedish. But for your day-to-day life and for things like making friends, the Swedes are just so good at English that you almost certainly won’t struggle.