Swedish and other languages in Sweden

Pratar du svenska? This is a brief overview of Swedish and other languages spoken in Sweden.

Swedish is spoken by about 10 million people. It’s a language with many dialects, so it can sound quite different in different parts of the country. Based on the total number of speakers, the Swedish language is in the top 100 of the world’s around 6,500 languages.

And more people want to learn Swedish. Every year, thousands of students choose to study the language at universities around the world. Swedish is taught at around 200 higher education institutions outside the Nordic countries.

Learning Swedish

The Swedish Institute website has a list of universities around the world that offer Swedish studies.

The language law that made Swedish official

In Sweden, Swedish was long taken for granted as the language to use in government and most of the educational system. But the language didn’t actually have any official status in law – until 2009. Then, a new language law established Swedish as the official main language of Sweden.
Among other things, the law says that safety instructions and product information must be available in Swedish. And the language used in schools should normally be Swedish.

The Swedish sign language is also included in the language law. Government agencies have a responsibility to protect and promote the Swedish sign language.

The right to national minority languages

In 2000, five minority languages gained official status in Sweden: Finnish, Meänkieli, Romani Chib, Sami and Yiddish, which the language law promotes and protects. Children whose parents belong to a national minority are entitled to learn and use that language.

Special conditions apply to Finnish, Meänkieli and Sami, because there are certain areas of Sweden where these languages have historical roots and are still widely used. People have the right to use these languages to deal with administrative authorities in those areas. Finnish, Meänkieli and Sami may also be used in written contacts with certain national government agencies.

The five official national minority languages have a long history in Sweden, which is one of the criteria to achieve this status. The language must have been spoken without interruption for at least three successive generations or 100 years.

A man writing on a whiteboard.

Shh! 'Viska' means whisper in Swedish. Photo: Evelina Ytterbom/imagebank.sweden.se

A woman uses sign language.

The Swedish sign language is promoted and protected by the Swedish language law. Photo: Scandinav/imagebank.sweden.se

A Sami flag, red, green, yellow and blue with lines and a circle.

As the Sami are one of Sweden's five official national minorities, their language has extra protection in the law. Photo: Mikael Svensson/Scandinav/imagebank.sweden.se

Education

In Swedish, the verb doesn't change in the present tense. We say: 'I am, you am, she/he/it am'... Photo: Emelie Asplund/imagebank.sweden.se

Hiking

Left or right for rubbish? Photo: Carl-Johan Utsi/imagebank.sweden.se

A man writing on a whiteboard.

Shh! 'Viska' means whisper in Swedish. Photo: Evelina Ytterbom/imagebank.sweden.se

A woman uses sign language.

The Swedish sign language is promoted and protected by the Swedish language law. Photo: Scandinav/imagebank.sweden.se

A Sami flag, red, green, yellow and blue with lines and a circle.

As the Sami are one of Sweden's five official national minorities, their language has extra protection in the law. Photo: Mikael Svensson/Scandinav/imagebank.sweden.se

Education

In Swedish, the verb doesn't change in the present tense. We say: 'I am, you am, she/he/it am'... Photo: Emelie Asplund/imagebank.sweden.se

Hiking

Left or right for rubbish? Photo: Carl-Johan Utsi/imagebank.sweden.se

A man writing on a whiteboard.

Shh! 'Viska' means whisper in Swedish. Photo: Evelina Ytterbom/imagebank.sweden.se

A woman uses sign language.

The Swedish sign language is promoted and protected by the Swedish language law. Photo: Scandinav/imagebank.sweden.se

A Sami flag, red, green, yellow and blue with lines and a circle.

As the Sami are one of Sweden's five official national minorities, their language has extra protection in the law. Photo: Mikael Svensson/Scandinav/imagebank.sweden.se

Education

In Swedish, the verb doesn't change in the present tense. We say: 'I am, you am, she/he/it am'... Photo: Emelie Asplund/imagebank.sweden.se

Hiking

Left or right for rubbish? Photo: Carl-Johan Utsi/imagebank.sweden.se

Learning your mother tongue

The Swedish language law also covers all other mother tongues spoken in Sweden, about 150 different ones. It states that everyone is entitled to use their mother tongue. The Education Act determines that schoolchildren have the right to mother tongue studies if:

  • one or both parents or legal guardians speak another language than Swedish
  • the language is the main language spoken in the home
  • the student has basic knowledge of the language.

Also, the obligation to arrange mother tongue studies only applies if there are at least five students in the area who are entitled to mother tongue studies and interested in learning the language. And there must be a teacher deemed suitable by the headteacher.

Å, Ä, Ö


The Swedish language has three extra letters apart from the 26 in the basic Latin alphabet: å, ä and ö. The letter ‘å’ sounds like the ‘o’ in ‘for’, ‘ä’ like ‘fair’ and ‘ö’ like ‘fur’.

Do you speak Nordic?

Swedish is a North Germanic language and originally comes from Old Norse, the common language in Scandinavia during the Viking Era. Norwegians, Danes, Swedes and to some extent Icelanders often understand each other.

To further blur the boundaries, Swedish is one of two official languages in the fifth Nordic nation, Finland. Almost 300,000 people in Finland have Swedish as their first language. The Finns’ other official language, Finnish – spoken by some 200,000 to 250,000 in Sweden – is on the other hand a completely different language, with roots in the so-called Uralic languages.

When you read Swedish, you might recognise some words, because many words have German, French and English origin. Swedes often transcribe them to the Swedish spelling system, though.

Oh, and did you know that ‘Sweden’ is Sverige in Swedish?