GOTHENBURG, Sweden—Young Swedes’ mastery of their own language seems to be declining sharply. According to Swedish university professors, many students now find it difficult not only to express themselves coherently in writing, but even to understand written instructions.
A marked decline in language skills can be seen over such a short period as the last three semesters.
Hanna Enefalk teaches history at Uppsala University, and is one of several professors who wrote an opinion piece recently, sparking a lively debate and bringing out many similar testimonies from other teachers. A marked decline in language skills can be seen over such a short period as the last three semesters, according to Enefalk.
Problem students fall into two groups. Students in the first group primarily have problems expressing themselves in writing, but no major problems digesting the literature.
Students in the second group, however, have problems understanding the teachers during lectures, and may even misunderstand written instructions. They also have difficulties expressing themselves coherently in writing, and their spelling is poor.
“Try ‘Googling’ some misspelled versions of words,” Enefalk said. “There’s a whole misspelled universe out there.”
Most of the students in the first group can improve through self-study. Their parents are also often academics, and help them out. This group will get through university, Enefalk said.
Students in the second group, however, iare unwilling to study on their own to improve. Many of them drop out of higher education quietly, as they find that they can’t keep up. But some of them remain. They constitute a small—but rather vocal—group, since they can’t accept it when they are criticized or get poor grades.
These young adults have probably gone through secondary school hearing nothing but praise for whatever they wrote and produced, regardless of the actual quality and content of the writing, Enefalk said.
She illustrated what happens when they go from secondary school to university: “They go from hearing ‘Oh, you wrote something, great!’ to ‘You wrote something here, but the content is not good.’ This is totally new to these students. They feel offended and humiliated.”
It is important to understand that this is a structural problem, and not an individual one, Enefalk emphasized. It is not a matter of these students being spoiled, rather it’s related to cutbacks in both primary and secondary education during the past 20 years.
These young people are not unintelligent, but their weak language skills severely hamper their learning, so there is reason to worry about their future, Enefalk said.
“I worry that young Swedes will … be competing on an unqualified labor market, with low pay,” Enefalk said.
Many also worry that reading skills will deteriorate even further with the next generation if nothing is done.
Margareta Hanning, who works as a librarian in the town of Kinna in southwest Sweden said that a teacher had told her how fourth-graders used to be able to follow subtitles in foreign-language films shown in class, but not anymore.
As a librarian, Hanning works to stimulate reading in children, but she said that much is up to the school, and to the individual teachers—even the teachers themselves read less. According to a January report in Swedish teacher publication Lararnas Tidning, one in eight teachers in Sweden reads less than a novel a year.
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