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ABSTRACT: This article is the result of interviews conducted in a gymnasium in Stockholm; the purpose of these interviews was to understand how immigrant youth use urban youth language as a means of creating an identity for themselves. It intends to demonstrate how the situation particular to modern Sweden—most importantly, the structure and conditions of the multiethnic suburbs that have been constructed under the
RÉSUMÉ: Cet article est le résultat de différentes interviews menées dans un collège de Stockholm afin d’analyser les mécanismes d’identification reliés à l’usage de la langue urbaine chez les jeunes issus d’un milieu immigrant. Il sera démontré de quelle manière la situation nationale, et plus précisément la structure et les conditions des banlieues multiethniques construites sous le Programme « Million » en Suède, ont affecté la vie de ces adolescents et leur usage de la langue suédoise. Bien plus qu’un dialecte d’immigrants, cette langue urbaine se révèle être un important outil de solidarité parmi les jeunes des banlieues touchées par la ségrégation et la discrimination. Ainsi, cet article ne s’attardera pas seulement aux caractéristiques de cette langue urbaine, mais démontrera également l’importance de la communauté dans le développement identitaire de la jeunesse immigrante.
Sweden has for a long time been perceived by many as a monolingual and homogeneous nation. Throughout the centuries, the Swedish language has played a major role in the unification of the country and the creation of a sense of national identity
It is then not a surprise to find questions regarding language at the centre of the problem of integration in Sweden, as in many other places of the world. Should knowledge of the national language be a criterion for citizenship? Is national identity necessarily dependent on a shared language? Is competence in the national language primarily a discriminatory requirement for citizenship, or a right that would contribute to making the life of immigrants and refugees easier? These are some of the many questions that are still debated today.
As will be demonstrated in the following pages, the attitude of the minorities towards the Swedish language is embedded in larger mechanisms of power and domination, resistance and negotiation. This essay will try to highlight how the different political and social decisions aimed at achieving integration that have been taken after the Second World War in Sweden have influenced the use of language among the multiethnic population.
I have decided to concentrate my research on children with an immigrant background, who, born in Sweden or abroad, are nonetheless the first to be affected by language policies and by the different forms of social and geographic discrimination they can encounter in school or in their residential areas. More precisely this essay will concentrate on the use of multiethnic youth language by the young people living in the multicultural suburb of Botkyrka, in an attempt to demonstrate how this particular variety of Swedish reflects the impact that the current situation of cultural integration but spatial segregation has on the teenagers of multiethnic suburbs. It will also show how this variety of Swedish symbolizes a strong bond between the youth and their community, their suburbs possibly becoming more important than nationality in the process of identification.
Though recent immigration has had unusually dramatic effects on Sweden, immigration is a phenomenon that has been observed in Sweden as far back as the twelfth-century. The arrival of the Germans during the Middle Ages, the workers from Netherlands, France, and Poland hired into Sweden for their special skills as well as the appearance of the Roma people during the sixteenth-century, the workers from Wallonia who escaped the wave of unemployment in Belgium in the seventeenth-century, the Danish, Russian, German, Jewish, and the massive Finnish immigration that followed wars and conflicts from the eighteenth to the twentieth-century, are just a few examples of the many immigrants that have entered Sweden over the years
However, the end of the Second World War represents a turning point in Swedish history, as the face of the country was about to change drastically. The years following the war saw the wind of prosperity blowing over the country, as the economy of Sweden developed and flourished. Soon, the country welcomed many specialised workers from Europe, seeking jobs in the expanding industries
By the end of the 1950s, Sweden faced a serious housing shortage. Stockholm, which was then experiencing a great industrial expansion, had no place to house the thousands of new workers and their families. In order to put an end to the shortage and to provide every resident with better housing conditions, the Swedish government launched in 1965 the so-called
As a matter of fact, some of these multicultural areas face forms not only of physical, but also of socio-economic segregation. The high concentration of immigrants in the suburbs built under the Miljonprogrammet, as well as the predominance of the grey cement buildings, has helped to give a relatively negative image of those suburbs, stigmatizing them as
Besides the physical distancing brought about by the multiethnic suburbs, other cultural factors also accentuate the clash between the newcomers and the other citizens in their host country. The higher rate of unemployment, even among highly educated immigrants, clearly shows that citizens with a foreign background often have more trouble finding work than do native Swedes, or have to work at jobs below their qualifications
Finally, as pointed out by Charlotte Haglund
More than a simple means of communication between the members of a nation, a language also embodies the literature, the common culture, the roots and the history that tie together the members of a single community. In part because of its association with religious conversion and military conquests abroad at the time of Gustav Vasa, Swedish language is still for many a source of pride and power, but most importantly, the expression of their identity.
In the 70s, measures were taken by the government to adjust to Sweden’s changing demography. In contrast to the assimilationist ideology of the earlier twentieth century, which required some minorities like the Saami people and people from the Tornedal valley to speak their own language in school in order to protect national unity and security, the integration policy of the 70s proposed a more flexible and liberal approach, an integration policy inspired by three principles:
One of the most debated measures adopted to facilitate the integration of immigrants consists in
The municipality of Botkyrka is one of Sweden’s most international areas. Located between Stockholm and Södertälje, it covers an area of 197 square kilometers, and is divided into seven districts, located in both rural and urban areas. As in many other multiethnic suburbs, the majority (65%) of the dwellings are apartments, a lot of them constructed under the Miljonprogrammet (Botkyrka official website). Botkyrka has a population of 76,500 inhabitants, half of whom have a foreign background. Together, the residents of the municipality of Botkyrka are estimated to come from 100 different countries and to speak 74 languages (Botkyrka official website). It is because of this exceptional variety of cultures, languages and backgrounds that I have chosen this area for my investigation.
The following discussion is the result of interviews conducted in November 2005 in a
Most of the students who participated in the interview came from Alby, Fittja, Hallunda and Norsborg, districts that constitute Norra Botkyrka and where most of the immigrant population lives. Only one of them, Besart, came from central Stockholm.
To preserve the anonymity of the participants, their names or any personal details that may disclose their identity have been changed, but the language used by the students has not been modified.
The integration and language measures adopted by the government play an important role in the relation those teenagers have with Swedish society, influencing their choices of expression. As pointed out by Pavlenko and Blackledge:
in multilingual settings, language choice and attitudes are inseparable from political arrangements, relations of power, language ideologies, and interlocutors’ views of their own and other’s identities. Ongoing social, economic, and political changes affect these constellations, modifying identity options offered to individuals at a given moment in history and ideologies that legitimize and value particular identities more than others.
In order to replicate the ethnic situation in Botkyrka, I specifically chose students whose backgrounds differed (Africa, the Middle East, Southern Europe). While all of them were being educated at school in Swedish, almost all of them used one or many other languages in their daily activities and at home. Turkish, Arabic, Greek, Finnish and English were some of the main languages spoken in the private sphere. Although a third of the students interviewed were born in Sweden and had lived there all their lives, none of them identified themselves simply as a Swede. When asked about their nationality, they all gave me the same answer:
I live in Sweden, but my roots are elsewhere.
If they do not feel completely at home in Sweden, some of them point out that they are also perceived as strangers in their homeland. As explained by Besart:
If I go to Kosovo, I’m too Swedish. If I’m in Sweden I’m too immigrant, so I’m in-between.
Too different to be Swedes, yet not different enough to be true foreigners, the multiethnic youth of Botkyrka find comfort within the diversity encountered in school and in their area. A few students spontaneously expressed their appreciation for their school and its international atmosphere. Although most of the teenagers interviewed explained that they had chosen their school for its proximity to their homes, those who previously had been given the opportunity to attend a school with a higher proportion of native Swedes were happy to be back in a mixed environment.
Chinenye: I don’t feel that I don’t like [Swedes], I like them, but I prefer to be with people from other countries. Yeah, because we understand each other better and we speak in a special way so… I just feel like, more at home. Johan: We are not mixed with the Swedish here, Swedes. Segregation, you know? There is a lot of segregation here in Botkyrka.
Omar: It’s not many Swedish people who live in Fittja or Norsborg … They are afraid you know, ’cause they think we are bad people. They see us, like, different from others.
Surrounded by multiplicity, and stigmatized by the bad reputation of the multiethnic suburbs, the adolescents I interviewed did not feel that they totally belonged to Swedish society, nor did they feel that they had the same opportunities as other young adults. The gap that separates their suburbs from the rest of the country pushes them to develop an identity that is rather local than national. One of the expressions of such identity is their particular use of language, which often manifests a cultural resistance towards the system of the majority, but also a strong sense of belonging to their community.
Opinions differ as to what the variety of language spoken by the multiethnic youth should be called. Names such as
In these areas of Stockholm, inhabited by immigrants from around the world, where children of immigrants and native Swedes live together, the trained ear could probably distinguish dozens of different languages. In school, younger children and teenagers are therefore not only in contact with a standard form of Swedish, but also with dozens of different languages.
As a form of slang, the multiethnic youth language has some features in common with other kinds of youth language spoken in the suburbs of Stockholm, for example the use of contractions in spoken language, reducing for example
But multiethnic youth language also has characteristics of its own, distinguishing it from the other varieties of slang used in Stockholm. Regarding pronunciation, some speakers of the multiethnic youth language can be recognised by their realisation of the
When it comes to grammar, since Swedish is rarely the dominant language spoken at home for those teenagers with an immigrant background, one is not surprised to see some recurring irregularities in multiethnic youth language. Speakers of the urban youth language, but also many young Swedes, may for example switch common prepositions such as
The vocabulary used in multiethnic youth language is also particular, as it mixes loanwords from different languages, old and modern Swedish slang words, as well as words from the standard language to which the speakers have given a different meaning. Languages which have influenced the vocabulary of the multiethnic youth language are, for example, Turkish, Arabic, Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, Kurdish, Spanish, Greek, and Romany. Some of the most frequently used words include:
Finally, a few short stories and novels have also been published, where multiethnic youth language is used in various ways. These include
When asked about the function of multiethnic youth language in their lives, most of the students interviewed described it as a way of speaking and relaxing among friends, as something to have in common with them. Some of them reported inventing words that were only going to be used by their close circle of friends. Emphasis was put on the playful function of the language, usually used for joking and simply
As a matter of fact, the multiethnic youth language is not used for interactions with young people from other parts of Stockholm, nor with authority figures like parents or teachers; with such speakers it is usual to switch to a more standard form of Swedish. Furthermore, teenagers with an immigrant background who do not live in multiethnic suburbs do not seem to feel the need to use the multiethnic youth language. At least one of the teenagers interviewed, Besart, who grew up in a more homogeneous part of Stockholm, did not use this variety of language. The influence of the suburb is once again a key in understanding the emergence and role of multiethnic youth language.
Bijvoet reports that teenagers have mixed feelings about the multiethnic youth language. This is confirmed by my interviews. While most of my informants thought that it was a form of
My parents don’t allow me to speak it … They, they say that, they feel that I’m a street child when I talk slang,
You don’t grow when you speak that language. Really bad … It stops you from growing,
As a strong indicator of identity and membership, every language functions on a system of inclusion-exclusion. Swedish multiethnic language is no exception. All the students interviewed agreed that multiethnic language was limited to youth, and that adults should not try to speak it. A few teenagers also explained that multiethnic youth language sometimes functioned as a sort of secret code, when they did not want to be understood by Swedes or the authorities.
This is good, like a code language when you go to Swedish people,
And if we mock the Swedish. We speak it just to irritate them,
Nowadays, the slang of the suburbs is being demystified through dictionaries, magazine articles, television programs, books, etc. Although they appreciate the fact that their culture is gaining in popularity among the rest of society, the teenagers I interviewed did not necessarily want people outside their suburb to speak their language, or copy their lifestyle. It is a feature that belonged to them alone, and they wanted to preserve that identity:
Johan: It’s not a good thing that people copy this language. I mean, people who haven’t grown up with it…
Omar: Just listen
Johan: And enjoy our culture. Karl: Many Swedish people are born like us you know
Tomas: With us
Karl: In Botkyrka. And they are raised up with us. And we are…
Tomas: They are melting in the group. It’s natural to talk [multiethnic youth language]
A similar phenomenon has been observed and mentioned by Ulla-Britt Kotsinas
I många fall känner de sig mera solidariska med sina kamrater i området än med ungdomar från andra mera homogent svenska områden. Det blir också naturligt för dem att närma sig invandrarungdomarnas ungdomskultur.
Ungdomskulturerna utmanar de dominerande livsmönstren. Den svarta kulturen representerar då ett alternativ eller en lockande “otherness” på t.ex estetikens, politikens och sexualitetens områden.
Once again, the desire to fit into a group, in this case the multicultural youth of Botkyrka, is shown to be an important reason for the native Swedes to change their language and habits to suit those of the community.
Youth, by the bonds they have with the school they go to as well as the neighbourhoods in which they hang out daily, can be seen as those who are the closest to the local community. As opposed to their parents or other adults, who might work and study outside the suburb, teenagers spend most of their time inside their community, and are the first to be affected by its negative reputation
Consequently, the students I interviewed also seem to have strong feelings about their community, Botkyrka, or to be more precise, Norra Botkyrka. Apart from the feeling of belonging to their community and the need to explain that the area was not as bad as its depiction by the media, these teenagers also showed a lot of pride when referring to their suburb.
I think people look up to us. We have like a very strong bond with all the people living here… And it feels safe to be here,
Another source of pride among the students I interviewed comes from The Latin Kings, a popular Swedish hiphop band from Botkyrka which has decided to rap in multiethnic youth language. As in many other multiethnic suburbs of the world, the youth of Botkyrka feel a strong connection with the hiphop music and culture that seems to represent them.
People feel a connection here, they feel like they live in the same situation
As sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and linguists have pointed out, language practices and attitudes reflect unequal power relations within a community. As soon as measures are taken to reinforce an official language, minor varieties and dialects lose their legitimacy and cannot help but constantly measure and compare themselves to the linguistic standard
In the past decades, Sweden has gone through important demographic changes that led the government to adopt new policies regarding integration and language. No matter how open those policies might sound compared to those of other European countries, we have seen that they still create an imbalance between the different institutions of the state and the members of groups with different ethnicities. Focusing on multiethnic youth language, a variety spoken by the youth in the multiethnic suburbs of Stockholm, this paper has tried to outline the role played by the current Swedish social situation in the creation and use of such language.
As has been demonstrated, multiethnic youth language is not a language adopted by immigrants for lack of
Some of the adolescents living in these segregated suburbs have difficulties in identifying themselves with the majority society, including the majority language. Instead they express a strong loyalty with their own suburb, where new cultural patterns are developing, among others new norms for linguistic behaviour.
The author would like to thank Kirsten Rutschman, Kari Fraurud and Jenny Öqvist for their help and support, and say ett “fett” tack till Jim och hans studenter i Botkyrka, without whom these interviews would not have been possible.