In more than 200 universities outside Sweden, students learn Swedish. Last week I met some of them in Shanghai and Beijing who chose Swedish as their major. They were rather tired of always being asked: ”Why, of all languages, did you choose Swedish?”
Still, I had to indulge myself. Their answers were varied. One simply liked Sweden. Another thought that Swedish sounded beautiful. In many cases the decision was made for them by someone else – or by chance. Most of them knew very little about Swedish and Sweden when they started their studies.
Now that they have been studying for a few years – the students in Beijing have had Swedish as a major for four years now – they are convinced of the advantages of knowing a relatively “little” language. Some aim to work at Swedish companies that have operations in China, such as Volvo and Ikea. Others want to be translators. Swedish writers sell well, and with more translations in the market they would sell even better. Some want to continue their studies in Sweden. One of them was recently accepted at Stockholm School of Economics. Another wondered which Swedish university was best for courses in Cinema Studies.
On previous visits at other foreign universities, I have heard similar stories. Students see the obvious benefits to learning Swedish, but it doesn’t stop there. Sweden as a country also benefits.
At the Swedish Embassy in Beijing, I meet Ambassador Anna Lindstedt. Together with the embassy’s Cultural Counselor, Mathias Lafolie, she invited a group of translators and students for breakfast. While we ate Swedish fil and cereal, we talked about everything from the ambiguous Chinese word for stone, to what the plural of the word Taliban is in Swedish. But the important thing was that which never needed to be said. Language is more than just a tool for communication – it is a part of our culture.
That an ambassador understands the importance of language may not seem strange – but that’s not always the case. Knowledge about Swedish language education abroad is generally low and, unfortunately, campaigns and marketing are often prioritized in favor of those that have more long-term impact.
Focusing on teachers abroad can result in their students becoming ambassadors, who are in turn almost as effective as Zlatan and Ikea. Students don’t have a romanticized bullerby image of Sweden, nor do they have a Trump-distorted, negatively exaggerated view. Swedish language students simply know rather well what the strengths and weaknesses of Sweden are. And that’s the best image of Sweden we could wish for.