Thursday, 25 September 2008

SFI and the Steve McClaren School of Languages

The other week I had this dream. Basically I’m in a large room with all my friends and family…and for some reason Mick Jagger is there too. Naturally everyone in the room is asking about life in Sweden and the topic of language comes up. Someone (I can’t remember who exactly) asks if I can speak Swedish yet. I reply by saying something like “Not really but I’m learning, and I’m slowly getting there”. Then Mick Jagger starts laughing and shouts at me “What do you mean? You hardly speak any Swedish!’ To illustrate his point he then bombards with a tirade of Swedish and I can only respond with a blank vacant stare. “See? He doesn’t understand anything,” he shouts to everyone in the room. He then proceeds to ridicule and humiliate me in front of everyone I know.

When I woke up I didn’t need to delve too deeply into psychoanalysis theories to interpret what this dream meant (except for maybe the Mick Jagger part. That confuses me; I don’t even like the Rolling Stones.) Subconsciously I feel guilty and ashamed that after 18 months I still don’t speak or understand enough Swedish to confidently say, “Yes, I speak Swedish!” or more accurately “Ja! Jag pratar Svenska!”

The common retort from native English speakers living in Sweden is to bemoan the lack of opportunity to practice. This is in fact true and the majority of Swedes will switch straight to English without blinking an eyelid if they detect just the slightest accent. It doesn’t help either that all my friends are English speakers, as are my work colleagues. And now that she’s back in Sweden A is more concerned about the possibility she might forget how to speak English than how much progress I make in learning Swedish (and I also suspect she enjoys having her own language and being able to talk without me being able to understand.) So I’m only speaking English at home too.

However while I’m in process of deflecting blame and absolving myself of any responsibility for my poor linguistic skills, I would also like to point an accusing finger at SFI.

SFI (Swedish for Immigrants) is the government-funded program designed to, as the name suggests, provide free Swedish lessons to immigrants. Two evenings a week, for close to a year now, I’ve been going to such classes. Having paid good money for a beginner’s course in Melbourne I was pretty rapt when I learnt that my visa entitled me to learn here for free. But unfortunately, like a lot of initiatives from the Swedish welfare state, the ideal doesn’t match up to the reality and SFI has a pretty poor reputation.

The most common complaint I hear is the quality of the teachers. The few people I have meet who have been happy with their SFI education are adamant that it came down to having a good teacher. But such people are in the minority. One of my work colleagues has a teacher so bad that currently the whole class are officially boycotting classes until she is replaced. According to my colleague lessons don’t get any more taxing then passing a ball around the room and saying “Hello, My name is …” in Swedish when the ball lands in your lap.

I’m pleased to say my teacher isn’t quite as apathetic but she’s no Mr Chips either. She’ll typically turn up 20-30 minutes late. Half way through our 2 hour lesson she’ll stop for a 30 minute coffee break, and it is not unusual for her to let us all go early either. And that’s when she turns up. Often she’ll let us into the computer room and let us play around with Swedish educational computer programmes. Although I don’t complain too much when this happens because I often end up learning more then I would if our teacher ran her usual lesson.

As far as I can tell there is no standardised curriculum or class plan. Teachers are given textbooks and learning aides but beyond that it seems they’re free to run the class anyway they like, hence the inconsistency in standards between classes. My teacher chooses to move through things at a comically slow pace, and through class exercises that are as helpful and stimulating as dot-to-dot puzzles are to an aspiring artist.

One of her favourite tasks involves handing out cards with pictures of various fruit and vegetables, and corresponding cards with their names in Swedish. We then take it in turns, in pairs, to match the words with the pictures. It isn’t until everyone in the class has done it 50 times over that our teacher is convinced we understand and we’re ready to move onto something else. We can spend weeks working on things that I’ve managed to pick up within the first half hour.

The last class I attended we went though adjectives. Basically an adjective can be slightly different depending on the category of word it is being applied to, and whether it is singular or plural. When we first covered this in a class last month, I had it down pat by the end of the lesson. Not because I’m a fast learner (quite the opposite when it comes to languages) but because it just isn’t that hard. A month later we’re still on adjectives, and I’m getting a good idea how Bill Murray felt in Groundhog Day.

Another problem with SFI, which I’m sure adds to teachers’ apathy, are the large class sizes and lack of resources. Due to a large influx of immigrants there is a long waiting list to enrol, and the SFI schools obviously can’t cope. At the start of every semester my class will typically have 30-40 students. After three or four weeks this will drop down to 20, but then it won’t be long before another 20 students from the waiting list are rushed in.

The running joke amongst expats is that you can pass SFI without learning a single word of Swedish. A lot of people I know say they’ve passed two levels of SFI when on every occasion they’ve had a test they’ve been convinced they had failed. Because of the high demand, it’s suspected that students are passed just to churn them out and ease the workload.

So there you are Mick, an educated cosmopolitan population combined with an under funded education program, and I’m left speaking Swedish at the level of a 2 year-old.

Maybe I should take a leaf out of the Steve McLaren School of learning languages. For those not in the know, Steve McClaren is an English football manager who recently accepted a job coaching FC Twente in Holland. Below is a video of him being interviewed by a Dutch journalist. Despite the fact she speaks excellent English, McClaren does his best to pass himself off as a native Dutchman. Obviously he can’t speak Dutch, so he does the next best thing…

…He speaks English with a Dutch accent. I like the way he needs to pause and think before he says long words or add in phrases like ‘it is like…how you say...” thus adding further to the impression that English is his second language. Swedish people often make such pauses, but it’s because they’re thinking of the Swedish word in their mind and need a moment to search through their English vocabulary to find its equivalent. Seeing as McClaren is speaking his native tongue, it makes you wonder what’s going through his mind when he stops and pauses.

To be fair I do have a friend who, when stuck for a Swedish work, will resort to using the English word but in a Swenglish accent. But he can often get away with it because Swedish people do in fact talk this way: add in an English phrase in Swenglish midsentence while talking Swedish. Although even he wouldn’t try and do it for a whole conversation!

Saturday, 6 September 2008

My Castle

My apologies for another long absence between blog entries. This time my excuse is that I’ve been moving flats. However I’m settled now and back to the blog with a load of material on the Swedish housing market.

Like a lot of things in Sweden, finding a place to rent isn’t easy. In part this is because of a shortage of housing that seems to be affecting a lot of places. But it is also compounded by the Swedish fixation on rules and regulations, and closer analysis of the situation once again reveals sticky fingerprints from the meddling hands of the Social Democrats.

In our last flat we were living on what is called a second-hand lease, aka we were renting off someone who in turn was renting off the original owners. This is quite common in Sweden. In fact getting hold of a first hand lease where you’re renting directly off the owners, is exceptionally difficult and often involves being on a waiting list for years. Second-hand leases are significantly easier to obtain, but by no means easy. Demand is so high that if you place an ad for a vacant flat you’ll get half of Gothenburg banging on your door. It is generally accepted in Sweden that if you want to find a place to live, you need contacts. Don’t bother with advertisements or agencies, just tell all your friends to tell their friends and hopefully someone will get back to you. This is basically how we found our new flat.

Because first-hand leases are so sought after when one manages to finally get one they loath to give it up even if they have no real desire to ever live there again. This is exactly the situation A and me found ourselves in with our flat. Our landlady rented it out because she no longer wanted to live there. But we did. We were quite happy there and would have been happy to continue living there. However the rules governing second leases means that after 18 months our landlady had to either move back into her flat or give up her first hand contract. Thus we were forced to leave while she’ll move into a flat she doesn’t want to live in. All this just to keep a first hand contract!
This is quite common. Anyone in Sweden can retell similar stories and just about everyone I know who rents second-hand is renting off someone who has no intention or desire to live there in the foreseeable future but refuses to give up their contract.
We’ve heard from our neighbours that our landlady was hardly ever home when she rented it, and the flat next to us is also empty. Meanwhile Gothenburg is in the midst of a housing shortage.

It’s a bizarre and crazy situation and I’ve spent the last month asking every Swede I know why this is. After all a first hand contract is basically the only way people rent property in the rest of the world and holding one is no big achievement. They’re better than second hand contracts as it gives you more long-term stability. Second-hand contract by contrast means you’ll have to move in 6-12 months. But otherwise there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly special about first hand contracts other than their rarity thus starting a vicious circle. No one wants to give them up about their hard to obtain, so they become hard to obtain because no one is willing to give theirs up. This seems to be the common explanation from expats but there has to be more to it than that.

A big feature of the Swedish housing market is the strict government control over rents instead of a free market allowing you to charge whatever you want. There are rules that dictate exactly what you can charge governed mainly by the properties size and attributes. If you’re renting second hand you cannot charge more then what you’re paying unless the flat is furnished in which case you add no more than 10%. Location isn’t a big factor so a 2 bedroom flat will cost the same regardless of its location in the city. If it’s an inner city or in an outer suburb, assuming their of similar size and standard they’ll be the same rent. For Melbournians it would be like renting a flat right by the Yarra River in Southbank for the same price as a flat in the most decrepit industrial areas of North Sunshine. Or for Sydneysiders, renting a house in Kirribilli for the same as a house in Redfern.

This ensures rents stay low and affordable, and thus landlords cannot exploit the housing shortage by charging extortionate rents such as they’re currently doing in Sydney and Melbourne. Consequently investing in property isn’t the money-spinner it is in other countries and far fewer rental properties are owned by private individuals. Furthermore there are plenty of rules that restrict what you can deal with a property once you buy it. I’m lead to believe that when you buy a flat in Sweden you’re not really buying a flat (and this is one of those situations that starts to verge into Communism) but you’re buying the right to live there indefinitely rent-free. But the flat is still owned by the co-op that own the whole building thus you’re still subject to their rules and restrictions.

Most apartment blocks are owned by government agencies or private corporations. The upside of all these rules is that rents stay relatively low. The downside is that the rental market is a lot smaller and finding a rental property becomes a lot harder. From what I gather it has become more difficult in recent years because currently many of these agencies are encouraging tenants to buy their properties outright. If you already own the first hand contract than you can buy it at a discounted rate, sometimes up to 30% cheaper. One theory I’ve heard is that people are hanging onto their leases in the hope that they’ll be offered the chance to buy it at a bargain basement price thus allowing them to immediately resell it on the free market and pocket the difference.

The idea behind equality in rents regardless of location is to prevent rich-poor divides developing in Swedish cities, as no one will be priced out of a certain area. While there is definitely still some sort of economic divide (plenty of landlords and housing agencies factor in an applicant’s income when choosing tenants) to some extent it has worked as most Swedish cities seem to lack obscenely wealthy suburbs and desperately poor ghettos. However as few people find rental properties the traditional way and instead you rely on contacts, newly arrived migrants are significantly disadvantages and this has caused large ethnic ghettos to emerge in the outer suburbs. As migrants typically don’t have a large network of contacts to rely on, they’re often forced to take the first property offered to them, which is most likely to be in the one of the less desirable locations.

For all it’s ideals and good intentions the Social Democratic housing policy for rental properties has contributed to making Sweden an exceptional racially segregated city which I can envisage as being a major social problem in the coming years. But this is a whole other topic and one for a whole new blog entry. (Possibly one I’ll have written by next week).

However looking around me in my new flat I can’t really complain too much. Right now I live in a newly renovated flat, fully furnished with all the modern conveniences such as dishwasher and central heating, in a very central location (only four tram stops to the centre of town.) Despite my struggle to find a secure or fulfilling job, I cannot complain about my living standards, which are quite possibly the highest I've had since moving out of home. If I were to move back to Melbourne today a flat of this standard and location would be right out of my price range and I cannot envisage myself living like this in Australia for at least a good number of years. But thanks to the Social Democrats even a student and a minimum wage earner can afford to live like inner city yuppies.

See…I’m not the only one who thinks there’s something stifling about this place.

Following on from my most recent blog entries I was surprised to find an article in the Guardian Weekly a couple of weeks ago essentially making a similar point about the Nordic welfare states (albeit far more articulately). You can read the article here.