English in the Nordic Region – Why are they so good?

One of the striking traits of the majority of Danes in Copenhagen is the confidence they show in using spoken English. In 2006, there was a proposal by the Radical Liberal Party to make English the second official language in Denmark. In spite of support from the major business organizations that already use English as their company language, the proposal remained just that because of the costs involved and because there was not a large enough English speaking minority population in the country, among other factors (see Klingsey 2006). In the same year, results from a Special Eurobarometer report also reflected the prevalence and importance of the English language to the Danish population. In a survey of 1031 Danes, 94% considered English the most important language to know apart from Danish; 94% believed that English is the most important foreign language for their children to learn, and 86% spoke English well enough to have a conversation (SEB 2006, p. 13 & Annex).

In 2014, the Danes ranked number one in the world for adult proficiency in English. They dropped to third place in 2015, when Sweden took the top spot followed by the Netherlands. (Norway came in fourth and Finland fifth. See the Education First English Proficiency Index for the full list.) Some researchers argue that the Nordic countries are developing from ‘English as a Foreign Language’ countries to ‘English as a Second Language’ countries; in the former there is no local model of English and in the latter English is used within the speaker’s community, i.e. their family, workplace or even country (Taavaitsainen & Pahta 2003, p. 4).

Globalisation and the rapid developments in ITC have only served to promote the use of English as the international language, yet several factors have been recognised as contributing to the language being grasped so strongly by Nordic citizens. Possibly the most influential is the exposure to English through different forms of media entertainment. Along with the dominance of English language computer and video games that chiefly impact younger generations, all television programs and films are shown in their original language in the Nordic countries. Hence, even people who have had little exposure to English through school and/or work will be exposed to the language simply by watching television, or going to the cinema to see English language films.

More than a decade ago, Irma Taavaitsainen and Päivi Pahta (2003) outlined the state of the use of English in Finland, and verified the extraordinary prevalence of English in Finnish society. They drew attention to the realm of education where primary and secondary level education in English had become possible in an increasing number of schools and there is a related increasing tendency for children to learn English through immersion in kindergarten. Furthermore, during their compulsory school education, all pupils study at least two languages other than their mother tongue, and in many schools it is possible to study up to four, with English being by far the most popular first foreign language. In scientific research, they state that Finland along with many other countries is experiencing a ‘domain loss’, with English becoming the dominant language particularly in Medicine and the Arts, including areas of national research. The same can be said for academia in Denmark where ‘internationalisation’ is in full force.

English usage also has a high symbolic value. In much of Northern Europe, one can overhear people having conversations in their native language slipping in an English catchphrase or two every now and then – this among youths and adults of different ages. Taavaitsainen and Pahta (2003, p. 7) noted that English names are not only being adopted by Finnish multinationals, but they can also been seen in companies that do not operate in the international market. In these instances, they suggest that English is used to ‘conjure up an image of something young, trendy and fashionable’. This tendency is visible in many countries worldwide.

It seems the adoption of English as the international language is really taking hold globally both for practical reasons and as a trend. However, consideration should also be given to the amount that we lose as a result of this universal stronghold. A recent article in Research Information discusses the challenges of communicating valuable research carried out in South Asia in smaller languages such as Mongolian. Among other things the article highlights that talented researchers who are producing useful actionable research suffer because ‘… good ideas are not impressed on funders because of poor [English language] expression.’ Consideration should also be given to just how much expression we lose when languages that are richer linguistically are translated to English. Take a look here at a wonderful list of 10 untranslatable words (with great illustrations) from Ella Frances Sanders’ book Lost in Translation.

In the entire Nordic region (which includes the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland, Åland, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden, and spans a total area of 3,429,000 sq. km – more than half of the total surface area of Europe) there are only six different official languages: Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Icelandic and Faroese. Finland is the only country to have two national languages, Finnish (spoken by 93% of the population) and Swedish (the mother tongue of approximately 6% of the population), while Lappish and Romany are classified as minority languages and there is a large immigrant group of Russian speakers; Norwegian, Swedish and Danish all derive from Old Norse and are mutually intelligible, particularly in their written form, to the extent that they are often referred to collectively as Scandinavian (Vikør 2000). Finnish differs substantially from the other Indo-European languages of the region in that it is Finno-Urgic, a language group represented by only three languages in the world: Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian.

What is your mother tongue and how do you feel about having to communicate in English?



Klingsey (2006), ‘’No’ til forslag om engelsk som andet sprog’ [‘No’ to English as a second language], Information, 18 August 2006. Access online here.

SEB (2006), Europeans and their Languages, Special Eurobarometer 243 / Wave 64.3 – TNS Opinion and Social. Access online here.

Taavitsainen, I & Pahta, P (2003), ‘English in Finland: globalisation, language awareness and questions of identity’, English Today, 76, Vol. 19, No. 4, p. 3-15

Vikør, L (1993), The Nordic languages: their status and interrelations, Oslo: Novus, cited in Thøgersen 2010

Thøgersen, J (2010), ‘Coming to terms with English in Denmark: discursive constructions of a language contact situation’, International Journal of Applied Linguistics Vol. 20, No. 3, p. 291-326

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