On SFI

As I’m coming towards the end of my first four weeks at SFI (Swedish For Immigrants), it seems like a good time to reflect on the course so far.

I last wrote about SFI in the wake of my first day, which was a bit of an induction by fire.

As I had hoped, most of my distress was due to the shock to my system, and over the course of the next week or so I settled in and found the moments of “I have no idea what the teacher just said” fewer and farther between – although the (many, many) times when I reached for a word in Swedish and found that I didn’t know it were still incredibly frustrating.

After about two weeks I had the opportunity to talk to my teacher one-on-one about my progress – but after a few false starts trying and failing to find the words I needed, my frustration spilled over and I got upset. We ended up mostly speaking in English during that session for the sake of my emotional stability.

We discussed the possibility of moving me into a slightly lower level class, but I was hesitant – I was getting on well with my classmates and my teacher, and overall I thought it would be better for me to feel challenged than to sail through in an easier class. We decided I would stay but the invitation was left open for me to switch if I wanted to at any point.

A couple of weeks on, I’m glad I decided to stick it out. The steep learning curve has evened out now and I feel more or less caught up with the rest of the class. I’ve even found myself in a position to help explain some of the stickier points of Swedish grammar to a fellow classmate.

I’ve been told that SFI is frequently criticised in the Swedish media.

I’m not surprised. It is an initiative which exists to help immigrants, and anti-immigrant feelings run just as high in Sweden as in most other Western European countries these days. Imagine a similar programme in the UK (or the US for that matter), offering daily, free English language classes to anyone who comes over and plans to stay a while. You can be sure the Daily Mail (/Fox News) would not stand for it.

The irony, of course, is that one of the reasons frequently given for hating immigrants is that they refuse to integrate and speak the language of the country they have moved to. It’s sad that so many people believe that that way of life – isolated from the wider community, excluded from participating fully in society – would be willingly chosen. The reason this ends up happening is really, I think, far simpler: it is very difficult to learn a completely new language. Sweden – almost uniquely, as far as I know – is actually doing something to address this barrier. SFI, as an institution, is something the Swedes should be proud of.

Every day I sit in class alongside 15 or so other students who try their hardest to learn. Even in the immersive environment of SFI, it can take a long time. But it makes for some amazing moments.

Most days I sit next to a young woman, about my age, from Colombia. She doesn’t speak any English so our beginner-level Swedish is our only common language. Despite that, I can tell you how she left Colombia with her young son, leaving behind his good-for-nothing father; how she used to be a nail technician, but doesn’t have a chance of a job in any nail salon without fluent Swedish; how she met her partner and made a new family for herself and her son.

Today a Ugandan classmate told me in Swedish how, when he was younger and living with his grandmother, he got a cat. His grandmother hated it and told him to get rid of it so he left it in a bag at the supermarket – but two days later, the cat had found its way home to them. The grandmother let him keep it.

None of us are fluent. Most of us are struggling. But we are all trying. I can’t help thinking that if the Swedes who grumble about SFI could come and see how my classmates – many of whom have left their whole lives behind in the hope of something better in Sweden – are trying and learning every day, they’d come away with a new understanding of what it means to be an immigrant, and maybe a new appreciation of what SFI means for us.

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