The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Finnish was the second language of Sweden for centuries. Now Arabic is overtaking it.

Fifty thousand balloons in the yellow and blue colors of the Swedish flag are released into the air in Stockholm on June 6, 2008, as Sweden marks its national day. (AP photo/Scanpix Sweden/Maja Suslin)

Officially, Sweden doesn't keep a record of the languages its inhabitants speak. That fact was infuriating to Mikael Parkvall, a linguist at Stockholm University, so he decided to find out for himself. What is the most popular non-Swedish language in Sweden?

After poring over various statistics and studies, Parkvall came to a conclusion: Arabic was very likely to now be the second most popular language in the Scandinavian country.

Parkvall's study focused on native languages rather than second languages, which he says are a better judge of what languages are actually spoken in a country (while English is widely spoken in Sweden, relatively few are native speakers). According to Sveriges Radio, in 2012 there were 200,000 people in Sweden who spoke Finnish as their native language, while 155,000 spoke Arabic.

Parkvall told WorldViews that the influx of refugees and migrants from the Middle East has shifted the balance in favor of Arabic over the past few years. Given the lack of hard data, it's hard to say exactly when Arabic will overtake Finnish, Parkvall said, but he offered an estimate: "Sort of now."

Sweden isn't the only European country to have Arabic as a second most spoken language. Parkvall's research found it was the same in Denmark and that Arabic was the third most spoken language in France and the Netherlands.

However, this may be a historic shift for Sweden. "For as long as Sweden has existed, Finnish has been the second language," Parkvall said, adding that this dominance of the Finnish language in Sweden goes back at least 1,000 years. Now, Finnish is dwindling, with the majority of modern speakers -- Finnish immigrants who moved to Sweden in the 1960s and 70s -- dying out and their children speaking the language rarely, if at all.

The influx of migrants to Sweden over the past few years -- the country had 163,000 asylum seekers in 2015 alone -- has sped up the process by which Arabic would overtake Finnish. But Parkvall said that it was likely to have happened anyway, as people traveled to Sweden from more distant countries. "It's not a big surprise, since after all Arabic is a big language," he said, before adding a linguistic caveat: "If Arabic is one single language."

Sweden's lack of data on language may surprise many Swedes, Parkvall said. "I think that Swedes have an image of themselves as the world capital of statistics," he said. "Big brother knows everything about us." The problem is cultural sensitivity: As authorities see it, "mapping language is sort of the same thing as mapping ethnicity," according to Parkvall.

However, the lack of data may mask the reality of the nation. Under Swedish law, five official minority languages -- Finnish, Sami, Romani, Yiddish and Meankieli -- are legally protected. Parkvall said that given the criteria under which the minority languages are designated, as well as the political situation in the country, it is unlikely that Arabic would be considered.

Yet the rising impact of the Arabic language is hard to miss: Sveriges Radio, the country's publicly funded radio broadcaster, recently announced it would broadcast a talk show in Arabic. It will be hosted by a comedian from Syria who arrived in the country just last year.

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