Did you know that when it comes to what language Swedish people speak, there are actually several answers? In fact, Swedish is just one of them!
And that doesn’t include the fact that there are a number of minority languages spoken in Sweden, including Finnish, the Sámi languages, and Romani. Instead, it’s perhaps one of the few countries in the world where several non-official languages are actually more widely spoken.
For a relatively small, relatively homogenous country of around 10.5 million people, you’ll soon see that this is a nation of polyglots!
So let’s take a closer look at each of these languages and find out more about them.
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What is Sweden’s main language?
Sweden’s main language is Swedish, which is a North Germanic language. It is closely related to Norwegian and Danish, and it is also spoken in parts of Finland. As the official language of Sweden as recognized by law, Swedish has around ten million speakers.
However, the Swedish Language Law of 2009 also confirmed the official status of the five national minority languages: Finnish, Meänkieli, Romani, Sámi languages and Yiddish. Those who speak one of these languages may receive their schooling and other services in their relevant language.
Some more details on each of these are as follows:
- Finnish: Finland’s official language is Finnish, but there are actually 470,000 Finnish speakers in Sweden.
- Meänkieli: Meänkieli is a Finnish-derived language that includes many Swedish words, leading some to actually see it as a variant of Finnish. It’s estimated that up to 70,000 people speak Meänkieli as their primary language.
- Sámi languages: The Sámi people are indigenous to Scandinavia and speak what is known as the Sámi languages. Although they aren’t Germanic languages, they have taken on many Germanic terms in comparison to the previous two tongues, which aren’t of Germanic origin. There are about 20,000 Sámi individuals living in Sweden, with 9,000 of them speaking these languages.
- Romani: The Romani speakers in Sweden, which number around 9,500 individuals, aren’t concentrated in one area like the other four languages mentioned previously. However, Romani has also been given official recognition as a result of the Swedish government considering it a language of historical significance.
- Yiddish: Similar to Romani, Yiddish is recognized as a historical language by the Swedish government. The number of Jews in Sweden is approximately 20,000 people, with around 6,000 having some understanding of Yiddish. However, it is thought that there are only up to 1,500 native speakers among them, most of whom are elderly.
Find out more about: Life in Sweden: 25 Points on What It’s Actually Like (to Know Before Moving)
What language do Swedish people speak?
While the majority of Swedish people do indeed speak Swedish, which is the official language of Sweden, there is a significant minority who speak one of the five national minority languages. These include Finnish, Meänkieli, Romani, Sámi languages and Yiddish. In addition, English is very widely spoken in Sweden.
In fact, almost everyone in the country is able to speak it to some degree – and will be happy to do so with you, acting as a strong argument against the typical Swedish trait that Swedes aren’t super open, at least not at first.
This is likely due to the fact that English is taught in schools from a young age. Many TV shows and movies (including those for kids) are also shown in English with Swedish subtitles, rather than being dubbed into Swedish, so it’s not surprising that English is so widely understood, including by almost every little flicka and pojke (boy and girl) you find.
Specifically, 89% of Swedes claim that they can understand English. Due to the impact of American pop culture on their English learning, many young Swedes even acquire at least a little bit of an American accent.
German is also fairly widely spoken, although to a lesser extent than English, with it being reported that 30% of Swedes claim some knowledge of German. This is likely due to the close proximity of Germany to Sweden, as well as the fact that German is taught in some schools. In addition, Swedish is a Germanic language, so there are a number of similarities between the two.
Find out more: Do Swedish People Speak English?
Is Swedish German?
No. Swedish is its own language, and one of the North Germanic languages in Scandinavia, along with Danish and Norwegian. But there are some similarities between Swedish and German, due to their shared roots. For example, both Swedish and German have similar grammar rules.
You can also see many similarities when it comes to vocabulary (such as in this list of the most beautiful Swedish words), even if the spelling and pronunciation are different.
Until 1952, it was compulsory for Swedish students to learn German. However, this dropped out of favor after World War II, with it becoming compulsory in that year to learn English instead. This relatively early switch is likely why you will find people of all ages speaking English so well in Sweden, not just young people.
At the same time, you’re less likely to find a random Swede who can speak German, although many can read it to some extent due to the similarities to Swedish. Many do still choose to learn it in school, with a lot of Swedish students choosing to study it as an extra language. However, given it’s not compulsory and not as prevalent in pop culture as English, the level of English in Sweden is generally much higher than German.
You may also be interested in: Is Swedish Hard to Learn? (Hint: Less Than You Think!)
What are the top 3 languages spoken in Sweden?
Swedish is the primary language spoken in Sweden, with over 90% of the population using it as their first language. However, there are a number of other languages spoken throughout the country as well, with the next most common official languages being Finnish and Meänkieli.
Specifically, almost 5% of Swedes speak Finnish while just under 1% speak Meänkieli.
That said, as mentioned, there are also several non-official languages spoken widely in Sweden. Almost 90% of Swedes report that they can understand English (which definitely ranks highly on the list of reasons to move to Sweden), with 30% also claiming some knowledge of German. Even French ranks highly, given that 11% of Swedish people say that they know it.
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.
When it comes to the question of what language do Swedish people speak, the answer isn’t as straightforward as you’d first think. Sure, it’s natural to assume that the answer is Swedish, given it’s the “main and common language” of Sweden as per the relevant law.
But the variety of minority languages shouldn’t be discounted, not to mention the fact that certain foreign languages, including German and particularly English are so widespread.
German isn’t at risk of taking over from Swedish any time soon, but with most of the country essentially bilingual with English, you can probably see why certain government officials and other experts have taken steps to protect the Swedish language, including under law.