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

Washington Post: 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.


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