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Swedish is a terrible tool in a globalized world

Publicerad: 30 november 2018, 14:38

Honestys vd Walter Naeslund väljer det engelska språket för att illustrera hur svårt vi har att bryta gamla vanor, även om de påverkar oss negativt.

Stop! Why are you writing in English in a Swedish publication, Walter? Let me get back to that. But first, let me tell you a story about human nature.

Do you know why the keys on your computer keyboard are placed in that particular order? Why not alphabetically for example? The reason is that this particular order makes your writing speed as slow as possible. It's true! Not only that – this used to be an ingenious solution to a difficult problem. You see, back in the day of mechanical typewriters, there was a problem with the mechanical "arms" of the typewriter getting tangled when you wrote too quickly. Anyone born before 1980 or so is familiar with this problem. So some genius came up with the beautiful solution to place the keys in such a way that they are optimized for slowing down the writing speed. Great back then. Not so great today.

There have been attempts to remedy this problem with new keyboard layouts, the most
popular one being the one called Dvorak. It's estimated that a typist's hands travel 16 times further on a QWERTY-keyboard (the standard layout) in an average workday than on a Dvorak keyboard. That is not a marginal improvement. That's a breakthrough improvement. Still, the adoption of alternatives to QWERTY is pretty much non-existent. It appears it's hard for humans to change their habits, even if they're terrible ones.

We suffer from a similar problem with the Swedish language. In a globalized world, it's a really bad idea to use a language spoken by a tiny 10,5 million people. For perspective, that's 0,14% of the world's population. Sure, Swedes are overall excellent English-speakers (otherwise we would probably starve to death), but why do we even bother with this mini- language at all?

When we stubbornly stick to our esoteric lingual habit here, we encounter a lot of
downsides. We need to translate things into an actual language every time we want to
communicate outside our small village. We agonize over which language we should use on our websites, in our social media channels, blogs, and podcasts. We become less competitive communicators internationally because we, even though we're good at English, are not native speakers. English is also a richer language with more words, which should mean that our communicative abilities improve if we use English instead of Swedish. Looking forward, with 1,5 billion people speaking English, this language will evolve much faster than Swedish in the future too.

More than anything, I wonder what would happen to the Swedish economy if we switched languages. What would happen to our productivity? To our relations to the outside world? Not least because then all our Swedish publications, the likes of Dagens Industri and Resumé included, would be readily accessible to 1,5 billion people. How would this increased transparency into what's going on in Swedish business affect the world's willingness to invest here? Not to mention how it would affect the potential readership and thus business viability of said publications.

The downsides of keeping our beloved Swedish language are very real. The upsides, on the other hand, seem quite limited. Yes, most Swedes are better at Swedish than English. So there would be a period of decreased communicative quality. This is temporary and should just be put on the transactional costs account. Yes, Swedish is arguably a beautiful language. And of course, there is a lot of cultural and emotional value in keeping it alive. But is this really a reason that should outweigh the enormous benefits of having English as Sweden's official language? Can't we solve this by instituting a beautiful Museum of the Swedish Language on Gotland or something? Putting sentimental reasons first when choosing our most crucial business tool is not smart.

Globalization has undoubtedly come to a point now when it's time for us to make this
historic move, but just like with the QWERTY-keyboard, it seems incredibly difficult to kick a bad habit. Difficult, but not impossible. The least I can do on my end is to produce my own content in the English language. Starting with this text.

Thomas Nilsson



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