I am writing about a northern land of rivers, lakes and forests, rich in natural resources, where fewer than nine million people live at the edge of a continent of over two hundred and seventy million people who do not speak their language. The land has a proud and turbulent history, and its soldiers and adventurers once commanded half the continent. It has a beautiful capital city with a commanding view of water. Most of the people are native-born whites, but about one-tenth are northern aborigines or recent immigrants.
This could describe my province of Quebec, but I am writing about Sweden, where I worked for the last half-year. My wife and I toured Sweden long ago with a friend who introduced us to its history and politics, so when we arrived this time, the country was familiar. But modern Stockholm has a new sound: Almost everyone in Sweden speaks both Swedish and English. A recent newspaper poll found that 80% of all Swedes spoke English as a second language. In Stockholm, our experience suggests that it is closer to 100%. Teaching English starts in the third grade. Foreign-language television programs and films are subtitled, not dubbed.There are no laws regulating language in print, film or TV advertising. English billboards, ads and logos are everywhere. On a major private television channel, two of four commercials between Saturday night programs were in English and two were in Swedish. Stockholm is more bilingual to the eye, and sometimes even to the ear, than is Montreal.
Ericsson, the Swedish IT multinational, works in English. A business news magazine has written critically about "bad English" as the national business language, but that was false modesty. The English spoken by our friends, neighbours, colleagues and the clerks in Stockholm shops is grammatical, colloquial and more fluent than the English spoken by most English-speaking French-Canadians living in Montreal.
The chairman of the Swedish Language Committee (even Sweden has one) was interviewed on Radio Sweden International's English-language program. He was asked: "Do you feel that English is a threat to Swedish, and will it 'drive out' Swedish?" "No," he said. Sweden is a trading nation, and Swedes have always learned second or third languages to do business with the rest of the world. This has never threatened the position of Swedish.
Immigrants are expected to learn Swedish, and they do. Stockholm has more new plays opening, per capita, than any other European city -- so says a drama critic for the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. I attended a top-notch performance of Carmen, sung in Swedish. While the Quebec Estates-General on the French Language reported this past week that French-English bilingualism was a threat to the survival of French in Quebec, Swedes do not think that Swedish-English bilingualism is a threat to the Swedish language or culture.
In fact, Quebec and Sweden are so alike physically and geopolitically, and so different in their attitude toward English, that it leads an English-speaking Quebecer like me to analyze the split. Is French in more danger of extinction than Swedish? No. There are fewer than nine million Swedish- speakers in Sweden and Finland, while more than 120 million people speak French throughout the world. Is French more likely to be corrupted than Swedish? No. Corruption is a matter of attitude. The Swedes borrowed "IT" from English, but if Quebecers use "sand trap" while playing golf, that is corruption. Swedes play a lot of golf, but, unlike Quebec, there is no official golf vocabulary in Swedish. Does English press harder on Quebec French than it does on Swedish? Sweden is saturated by English-language TV and English-language films; while in Quebec, films must be dubbed into French for simultaneous release. English is the lingua franca of business and politics throughout Europe, and everyone in Europe who wants to be a commercial or political success learns English.
The difference between Quebec and Sweden is that Quebec's nationalists resent English and the people who speak it, while the Swedes don't. Restricting English gives nationalists the satisfaction, eloquently described by the late Camil Laurin, of putting English Quebecers on a "reducing diet" -- reducing their influence, and humbling them in the process, before, as some of them would like to do, driving them out of a French-speaking, independent Quebec.
The coexistence of Swedish and English in Sweden shows that it is unnecessary to protect a native language spoken by an educated population with strong cultural institutions -- and French Quebec is every bit as strong as Sweden in these respects. From the steets of Stockholm, it is plain to my eyes that Quebec's anti-English laws have little to do with the health and survival of the French language in Quebec.
Don Donderi is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology, McGill University.
When in Stockholm, speak English
Par Don Donderi