Language focus | 11.02.2010

Why do Scandinavians speak such a high standard of English?

Scandinavians seem to speak English better than some people born in the UK, why do Danish, Norwegian and Swedish people speak many more languages than your average UK national? Here Peter Hansen, The Translation People’s Senior Production specialist and a native Dane, investigates the reasons why…

Most Scandinavian children start learning English in their third year at school, usually around the age of nine, and continue until they leave school at sixteen or seventeen. Those who go onto secondary education and perhaps higher education (university), will learn or use English well into their twenties.

The “global village” has made communication among the world’s countries more important than ever. With rising political, financial and cultural interaction it is imperative that people are able to understand each other, and English has become the language of international communication. The three Scandinavian languages are spoken by a relatively small number of people – fewer than twenty million in Denmark, Norway and Sweden combined – and learning a foreign language is therefore seen as a vital means of staying in touch with the outside world.

The practice of teaching English to children of a relatively young age could be seen as something done out of necessity as “so few speak our language, and so many do not”, but one could also take the view that it is the basis for getting to know and understand the world and its people.

Televised media in Scandinavia is usually aired in the original language in which it was produced, English language films, soap operas, dramas and documentaries proliferate Scandinavian media. It seems almost impossible to avoid English when living in Denmark, Sweden or Norway; as English is heard everywhere it reinforces those classroom lessons and helps perfect Scandinavian’s grasp of English. In contrast if you were to tune into a mainstream foreign language film in the UK, more often than not you would discover an English voiceover which further limits the UK’s access to foreign languages.

However, even though we have established that Scandinavians are highly proficient English speakers, fluency is only really ever achieved by immersing yourself in the language and living in a country where English is the predominant language. However, this is not always practical or desirable for a lot of people.

The Translation People are aware that a number of companies target their Scandinavian customers in English. From all the facts above, this seems like a sensible option, however even those people who are completely fluent in a second language can miss linguistic nuances and could even be offended if they misunderstand certain text. Here at The Translation People we would always recommend translating your written document into the language of your target option, to ensure that nothing gets lost in linguistic misunderstanding.

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