“Everyone speaks English”: on the use of English in the Nordic countries

Proficiency in English is both widespread and high-level in the Nordic countries, and there are legitimate historical and socio-political reasons for this. But it should not be assumed that everyone is equally proficient, nor that the power of the English language goes unquestioned.

five young people walking together and chatting in different languages
Visitors to the Nordic countries might be given advice like, “You don’t need to speak Danish/Icelandic/Finnish/Norwegian/Swedish, because everyone speaks English”. While this might seem like a self-evident assessment, at least from an outside perspective, the reality, of course, is much more complex. Photo: Eliott Reyna, Unsplash, edited version.

It is true that many citizens of the Nordic countries speak English, but the level of proficiency and how comfortable people feel speaking the language can vary widely depending on a complex range of individual and social factors. Opportunities to learn and be exposed to English are, for example, linked to particular socio-economic and geographical situations. Why is this, and how did it happen? And an important related question is: What kinds of language-related outcomes and tensions does the use of English lead to in the Nordic Countries?

Scope of English in the Nordic countries

In the era immediately after World War II, English emerged as the most taught foreign language in the world.  Authors such as Pennycook (2017) describe how the widespread desire to learn English was accompanied by a concerted push by the British and American governments to expand the use of English at that time -- which was directly linked to economic gains in countries where English was already widely used. According to David Crystal (2003), amongst others, the contemporary spread of English happened not because there is anything particularly special about English as a language, but it was already in use as a means of lingua franca for trade, travel, political and commercial reasons. Not to mention that English, like many European languages, had a global history in many of the world’s territories because of a history of colonialism. The Nordic countries, however, have no colonial history with Great Britain. Rather, English was introduced in the Nordic countries as a concerted effort on their part to enable them to further engage in global affairs and the global market.

There are differing explanations as to the “success” or widespread proficiency in English in the Nordic countries, which are usefully summarized by Norrby (2015). One explanation is that English education starts early. In the Nordic countries, English lessons are introduced in the classroom as early as the first grade, and no later than the third grade in most cases. Another explanation is media-related: In the Nordic countries, English-language media forms such as films and television programs are almost always subtitled, not dubbed into local languages. Other explanations offered for the “success” of English include the fact that the Nordic countries have relatively small and uniform populations which makes the teaching and learning of English easier, as well as the fact that most citizens are speakers of a Germanic language as their first language, which are in the same language family as English.

The lifestyle in the Nordic countries and openness to modern life likewise contributes to the use of English in many informal and personal ways. For example, Peterson (2020) has written about the exposure to English among young people through gaming, YouTube, and social media. In fact, the exposure of younger people in the Nordic countries to English has prompted some people to question if English can still reasonably be considered a foreign language; research has also been carried out into its use in intimate spaces, such as between romantic partners (see Pietikäinen (2017) for more on this).

Attitudes toward English in the Nordic countries

While many people in the Nordic countries tend to view English as something favorable and as an asset (as shown, for example, through a survey reported in Finland in 2008 by Leppänen et al.), there are also those who hold negative views of English. It is not unusual to hear complaints about English having too powerful a role, or even fears that English will eventually lead to the dying out of the national languages of the Nordic countries. Some of the chapters in a 2012 volume by Blommaert et al. describe newspaper reports and online discussions strongly criticizing people who are viewed as favoring English over national languages, an opinion that is especially prevalent among young people. The same volume also details the exclusion experienced by particularly older citizens and those living in rural areas who have not received the same level of English language tuition and who are not exposed to English. 

There are also concerns expressed about the use of English as a language of science and in institutions of higher learning. Within the context of universities, for example, there is tension between achieving global competitiveness while at the same time ensuring that domestic languages remain viable as academic languages. It is also common to hear complaints about people from certain professions, social or age groups mixing too much English into their everyday discourse in their domestic languages. Indeed, this mixing of languages contributes to fears some people have that English will eventually take over.

Language borrowing from English

The languages of the Nordic countries have always been characterized by the movement of people and the mixing of languages. Historically, much of the overall language borrowing and change due to language contact has occurred because people move from place to place. In addition, languages like French, German and Latin have been influential in the cultural and educational domains. Today, the English language contributes the greatest number of loan words, which, like French, German and Latin, is not a commonly spoken mother tongue. Unlike these previous languages of influence, however, a large enough proportion of the overall population speak English and use it on a regular basis, to the extent that English has the potential to affect the domestic languages in a way that previous foreign languages did not. Evidence of this language contact shows up not only in domain-specific jargon, such as in science, hobbies and certain businesses, for example, but also in everyday expressions such as interjections, swear words and set expressions. In a 2014 paper, the Norwegian linguist Gisle Andersen referred to this as “pragmatic borrowing.” What this phenomenon means in practice is that even someone who does not speak Swedish (for example) would be able to recognize plenty of English words in the Swedish discourse of a Swedish person speaking to another Swedish person. These words might include borrowings such as anyway, come on, I love you, and oh hell no.

Further reading

  • Alastair Pennycook, The cultural politics of English as an international language (London: Routledge, 2017).
  • David Crystal, English as a Global Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
  • Elizabeth Peterson, Making sense of “bad English”: An introduction to language attitudes and ideologies. (London: Routledge, 2020).
  • Gisle Andersen, 'Pragmatic borrowing'. Journal of Pragmatics, 67 (2014), pp. 17–33.
  • Jan Blommaert, Sirpa Leppänen, Päivi Pahta, T. Virkkula, and Tiina Räisänen, eds, Dangerous Multilingualism: Northern Perspectives on Order, Purity and Normality (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
  • Kaisa S. Pietikäinen, English as a lingua franca in intercultural relationships : interaction, identity, and multilingual practices of ELF couples (Helsinki: University of Helsinki, 2017).
  • Norrby, Catrin, 'English in Scandinavia: Monster or mate? Sweden as a case study', in Hajek, John and Slaughter, Yvette (eds.), Challenging the Monolingual Mindset (Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 2015, pp. 17-32).
  • Sirpa Leppänen, Anne Pitkänen-Huhta, Tarja Nikula, Samu Kytölä, Törmäkangas, T. Nissinen, K., Leila Kääntä, Tiina Räisänen, Laitinen, M., Pahta, P., Heidi Koskela, Salla Lähdesmäki, Henna Jousmäki, ’National Survey on the English Language in Finland: Uses, Meanings and Attitudes’, in Paul Rayson, Sebastian Hoffman and Geoffrey Leech, Studies in Variation, Contacts and Change in English. 5. (Helsinki: VARIENG, 2011).