More Scandinavians will likely speak Chinese in the future. Sweden recently decided to radically upgrade the status of Chinese as a foreign language in schools, putting it on par with French, German, and Spanish. Norway and Denmark also offer Chinese in some schools, but have yet to take this bold step.
The reason for Sweden’s decision, according to the Swedish Minister for Education, Jan Björklund, is China’s growing importance in the world economy. Björklund, speaking at a press conference on Dec. 3, argued that teaching the next generation of Swedes Mandarin Chinese will make Sweden more internationally competitive.
Since there is no national curriculum for Chinese in Sweden yet, the decision will not enter into force until 2014/2015, but in reality, Björklund believes it will take much longer for Chinese to reach the status of French, German, and Spanish. Sweden has very few competent teachers of Chinese today.
“My estimate is that it will take 10–15 years for Chinese to become broadly available in [Swedish] Schools,” Björklund said.
A major player in Swedish higher education in Chinese is the controversial Confucius Institute, which is funded by the communist regime in China and has been criticized for doing its bidding.
When asked if the Confucius Institute might play a role in training Swedish teachers, Björklund said, “We don’t object to outside sponsorship in education, but this [particular initiative] will be a part of the Swedish government’s teacher training.”
Sweden traditionally had French and German as the main foreign languages in schools, but English won prominence in the post-war era and today is mandatory, while French, German, and Spanish can be chosen as a second language during the latter part of primary education, from age 12 or 13. Schools are required to offer two of these three languages and to this exclusive group, Chinese is now added.
This is a very rare step in Swedish education; the last language to be upgraded like this was Spanish during the ’70s and ’80s.
Chinese is already offered in secondary education in Sweden and also at some primary schools. However, the number of schools offering it is still very small. In 2010/2011, only 62 primary school students and 900 secondary school students had Chinese in their final grades.
In Denmark and Norway, some secondary schools also offer Chinese, but it is still up to the individual school. None of the other two Scandinavian countries have yet gone as far as Sweden.
Gerard Doetjes, linguist and senior adviser at the Norwegian Centre for Foreign Languages in Education, said that Norway usually keeps an eye on Sweden, as a kind of reference for its policies in this area. Today, major cities like Bergen and Oslo offer Chinese in secondary school.
Doetjes said that trade with China is one of the reasons, but not the only one, for offering Chinese. Certain schools and students also get interested in Chinese from a genuine linguistic perspective. He said Norway would like to see greater diversity and offer languages like Portuguese, Arabic, and Polish, which are also relevant to Norway’s international business interests.
“Chinese is an important second language, but Russian, for instance, is not less important. We should provide a balanced variety of languages,” Doetjes said.
Denmark implemented a reform in 2005 in which secondary school students can choose non-European languages like Chinese, Arabic, Turkish, and Japanese on the same terms as German, Spanish, and French in some schools, according to René Bühlmann, adviser to the Danish Ministry of Education.
Introducing Chinese in primary school was previously discussed at a governmental level in Denmark, but no practical steps were taken, according to Bühlmann.
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