Why Are Scandinavians so Damn Good at Speaking English?

by Benny Lewis Oct 19, 2015

In 2014, the Danish were named as the best speakers of English as a second language in the world. Sweden took the crown for two years in a row before that.

In fact, nearly anyone you meet from any Scandinavian country will have a near, if not perfect grasp of the English language, as well as being fluent in their own native tongue.

How can this be? Are Scandinavians some sort of super-human language geniuses? Does the mix of cold temperatures and lack of natural light have some sort of positive effect on the brain, that makes one more susceptible to speaking in multiple tongues?

Nope! All Scandinavians I’ve met on my travels are just like you and me. What I suspect is at play is language similarity, a cultural interest in English speaking media and an education system that makes a success out of learning a second language while at school.

Let’s examine why it is that Scandinavians have an aptitude for learning English. Plus, how you can can apply these hacks in your own quests to achieve fluency in a new language.

The Hidden Root Language that Ties English With Scandinavia

English and the Scandinavian languages are all considered Germanic languages. The Germanic languages can be subdivided into three — North, West and East Germanic.

English — along with Dutch, German, Yiddish and other languages — is considered part of the West Germanic branch of languages. The Scandinavian languages (Danish, Swedish and Norwegian), as well as Icelandic and Faroese, are North Germanic. All East Germanic languages (Gothic, Burgundian and Vandalic) are now extinct.

However, it’s not that clear cut. In 2012, Jan Terje Faarlund, professor of linguistics at the University of Oslo claimed that English is in fact a North Germanic language and therefore Scandinavian. Professor Faarland notes that many Norwegian words closely resemble English — as does the structure of the language. However, until solid evidence is laid out on the table, we’ll assume that English belongs to the West Germanic family and the Scandinavian languages to the North.

The main point here is that English and the Scandinavian languages come from the same core language family. As such, English share several similarities with Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish. Let’s take a look at these in a little more depth.

How English is Like Swedish

1. Swedish and English share 1,558 words. Examples include accent, digital, and salt. However, Swedish people learning English must beware of “false friends”. These are Swedish words spelt the same as English words, but with different meanings. Examples include the Swedish word “bra”, which means “good”, and “glass”, which means “ice cream”. Don’t get too confused if a Swede asks you if you would like to eat some glass. They’re not out to get you — quite the opposite in fact!

2. Like English, Swedish uses the Latin alphabet, with the addition of three vowels with diacritics (a sign, such as an accent or cedilla, written above or below a letter to mark a difference in pronunciation). These are å, ä, and ö.

3. Swedish sentence structure, like English, tends to be subject-verb-object based. That means when a Swedish person speaks “bad” English, you can get the gist of what they’re saying, despite mistakes in word order.

How English is Like Norwegian

1. Ownership is the same, at least when it comes to grammar! To make the possessive in Norwegian, an ‘s’ is added to the end of the word, as is done in English. A man’s bike (mann sykkel) would become manns sykkel.

2. You’ll find several words in the English language of Norwegian origin, such as fjord, ski, and beserk.

3. Norwegian sentence structure is also subject-verb-object based. Even longer sentences bear a structural similarity to their English counterparts.

How English is Like Danish

1. There are many phonetic similarities between English and Danish. Øje is eye with the ‘j’ in Danish being pronounced the same as ‘y’ in English. Kold is cold and snegl is snail, with similar pronunciation.

2. The Danish alphabet is identical to Norwegian, as a 29-letter variant of the Latin alphabet. Diacritics consist of æ, ø, and å.

From these similarities, you can see that Scandinavians have a bit of a head start where speaking English as a second language is concerned. Yet it is one thing to recognise that your native language bears many similarities to English, another to have the ability to speak it fluently.

Scandinavian Education: Language Learning is a Priority at School

Sweden, Norway and Denmark are all famous for their excellent publicly funded schools, with small class sizes that encourage all children to learn.

These schools start teaching students English during their primary years. The Danish tend to start learning English as a foreign language when they are around Grade three. Norwegians begin their English studies around Grades 2-7. In Sweden, English is considered a core subject, along with Swedish and Mathematics.

However, studying a language at school doesn’t necessarily guarantee fluency. I get hundreds of emails from language learners, telling me how their academic education failed them. I studied the native language of my own country for eleven years at school, along with five years of German. I absolutely could not claim to be an expert in either subject when I finished my education. In fact, I couldn’t speak either even basically.

So, what is it that sets Scandinavians apart from anyone else wishing to achieve fluency in a foreign language?

Scandinavians Recognise the Benefits of Speaking English Outside of Scandinavia

The main reason Scandinavians push to become fluent in foreign languages is unsurprising. Knowing the language native to your country brings many benefits, in a cultural and community sense. The Scandinavian languages have a rich history and the fact that they have not fallen to extinction as the East Germanic languages have done is to be commended.

Yet realistically speaking, what good is Swedish outside of Sweden?

Scandinavians recognise that there is a need to learn foreign languages, particularly if they wish to maintain relevancy on the global stage. As English is considered the main international language, there is a particular emphasis put on learning this language, above all others.

Scandinavians Love to Travel

In a recent poll, all three Scandinavian countries made the top five in terms of nationalities who love to travel.

Why do these three small countries make such a point of travel?

Consider this. Americans are notorious for being under-travelled, with only 38% of the population holding a passport in 2015. Although this is a number that is on the rise, do take into account the diversity of the landscape within the United States. From beachside holidays, hiking in the mountains, camping out in the desert, even chilling for the weekend in any number of the country’s unique cities… whatever your wish, you can guarantee that you’ll find your dream destination somewhere within the 50 states.

Scandinavians don’t have the same option. The Nordic countries make for visually stunning getaways, with unique cultural experiences such as the midnight sun and northern lights. Yet if you’re on the search for some surf, sand, and sun, you’re probably going to have to look elsewhere.

I believe there are many advantages to travelling without using English.

However, it is the third most common native language in the world. For people who love to travel, there is no argument against English being a smart choice for a second language.

Scandinavians are Business Savvy

Another reason for Scandinavians to learn English is to help them make better business deals and to stimulate economic growth. The Scandinavian countries have an abundance of natural resources, notably oil. The top importer of this resource worldwide until recently was the U.S.

Norway’s economic growth has been fuelled by its abundance of natural resources, from petroleum to fish. It remains one of the top exporters of oil in the world. Denmark ranks number 32 among net exporters of crude oil. Sweden’s not so much about the oil — though I’m sure you’ll have at least one piece of IKEA furniture lying around your house!

A small country’s economy relies heavily on exports. So it makes sense to put an emphasis on learning the language spoken by those regions most likely to import your goods.

Scandinavians Immerse Themselves in English

We’ve established motive. But who, when asked, doesn’t want to speak another language?

How is it exactly that Scandinavians exhibit such a high level of success in learning English as a foreign language?

The answer is exposure. In Scandinavia, English is everywhere!

The Scandinavian countries are mass consumers of English media. They tend to watch British and American TV and movies with subtitles, as opposed to dubbed versions. The BBC, Britain’s public broadcaster, even has a Nordic channel, which broadcasts to these three countries.

A look at the current Top 40 songs chart in Denmark shows a tendency to favour the music of English-speaking artists.

Thanks to the advent of the Internet, English media is now readily accessible for anyone wishing to engage in it. There are countless resources available online, complimented by a steady output of media from the biggest players the English speaking field — from the U.S. and Britain to Australia. Did you know you can improve your language skills from watching the likes of Neighbours and Home and Away?!

In fact, Scandinavians are so good at English, that there is a growing concern that the country’s first languages will become irrelevant. That however, is a story for another blog post!

How Scandinavia Unlocked Language Learning: Immersion is Key!

You don’t have to leave your home country to learn a foreign tongue, as the Scandinavians have proved. In fact, I’d strongly advise against it! I’ve found it more beneficial to learn the language before going to the country, as your time in that country is better spent that way, such as when I learned how to speak Egyptian Arabic during the three months I spent living in Brazil and then could use all my time in Egypt to simply explore the culture, landscape, and history of that country.

There are many hacks you can use to learn a foreign language within the confines of your own country:

1. Make your computer multilingual.

2. Watch foreign language movies – just be sure that you’re viewing them the right way.

3. Don’t feel despondent if you’re lacking motivation. There are ways to keep on track.

4. Hone your listening skills – from music, to radio and podcasts, there is a staggering amount of resources for any language available online.

5. Don’t overwhelm yourself with big goals. Focus on making language learning a daily habit, and over time you’ll make progress.

Remember: Nothing is Impossible

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a magical time machine to send you back to your days as a child to learn another language.

You just need a bit of determination, a good plan and a clear focus. A few initial weeks of frustration can lead to a lifetime of rewards.

This article originally appeared on Fluent in 3 Months and is republished here with permission.

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