Scandinavian languages: mutually intelligible?
By Taylor Vaughn
I had always heard people say how similar Scandinavian languages are. Perhaps Norwegian authorities think the same way, as there is no formal language requirement for Swedish nurses applying for Norwegian nurse authorization. I too thought that language would not really be an issue for Swedish nurses working in Norway. Therefore, it came as a bit of a surprise when Frida, the first Swedish nurse I interviewed back in 2017, brought up how challenging the Norwegian language had been for her in the beginning. After that first interview, I began asking the Swedish nurses I interviewed about language and found that Frida was not alone.
The devil is in the nuances
As it turns out, there are quite a few nuances to the language barrier experienced by the Swedish nurses I interviewed, as Hannah clearly outlines:
“The language barrier, it’s not the worst, but in the beginning it’s terrible, because it’s so different. All of the vocabulary when it comes to nursing, and some of the patients up there…because [I was] in northern Norway, [and] there are a lot of immigrants- from Russia, from Finland, and some from Sweden as well, which is very nice, but for me it was not good at all.” […]
“[The language barrier was] much better [once I moved cities], because after a while you get used to it, but for me, it has always been hard with Norwegian dialects. So now that I live here, I can understand it, but it took quite a while to really understand.” […]
“I mean, I still don’t speak Norwegian, but I do a mix when I speak with Norwegian people. […] Yes, and after a while, it’s easier to just change your language a little so that Norwegian people understand it.”
In this interview, Hannah pointed out multiple interesting aspects regarding language: the nursing vocabulary is different between Norway and Sweden, the Norwegian dialects can be difficult, and it’s easier to mix the languages to be better understood than switching fully to Norwegian. These aspects were echoed in the other interviews as well.
Job specific terminology
I was most surprised that the medical terminology used in Norway is not the same as in Sweden. I assumed that medical terms, medication, and medical procedure names would be standardized within Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, and Denmark), but as Frida describes, not everything is:
“[The first place I worked in Norway] was all right, but it was tough for me since I didn’t know the language and I didn’t know any of the medication names in Norwegian. Like all the substances and everything that you treat- heart disease and everything- is the same, but they have this generic name that’s different. So I just tried to learn as much as I could of the Norwegian and the generic names.”
It seems to me that this would be a recurring issue and, given the prevalence of Swedish nurses working in Norway over the last decade, something that would have been addressed either by the government or by employers. The fact that there has been no change in regulations makes me think that this particular language issue must not disturb the Swedish nurses’ work too much- at least not from the perspective of their employers. The nurses’ own experiences of this may have been overlooked.
Not too surprisingly, the Norwegian dialects also posed some challenges. All of the Swedish nurses I interviewed began working in Norway on temporary contracts with recruitment agencies. This usually means that they work shorter periods in multiple different locations and multiple different health institutions. While this style of work has its advantages, one disadvantage is the frequent change in local dialects. Nearly every city and town in Norway has its own dialect and, as an immigrant myself, I can attest to how difficult it can be to understand the various dialects. It can also be difficult for native Norwegian speakers to fully understand all of the different dialects.
As one nurse, Maria, points out, issues understanding certain Norwegian dialects can lead to misunderstandings and even awkward situations in the workplace:
“I remember it was the first time I went to Norway, […] and I don’t know where the head nurse came from in Norway…I always thought, “Ok, I’m from Stockholm, so I don’t have a problem with Norwegian.” If you come from Skåne, you’re closer to Denmark, so you don’t have problems with Danish, but they have problems with Norwegian. And I come from Stockholm, so I don’t have problems with Norwegian, I always told myself. But then I was sitting in the morning meeting and she [the head nurse] opened her mouth and she was talking about what was going to happen that day, and I was just sitting there like this [confused look with mouth open]. I couldn’t understand one word. It was a nightmare. And then she said, “Maria from [name of the recruitment agency].” That was the only thing that I understood. So I stood up and I said, “Hi everybody.” Then she stopped speaking and everybody was standing up, so I said, “Ok I’ll do so also.” It was a nightmare, really.”
Maria was not the only nurse who mentioned that where in Sweden you come from affects how easily you understand Norwegian and, vice versa, how easily you are understood in Norway. Perhaps the dialect differences are not such an issue for nurses who live near the border and commute to Norway every day for work.
A few of the nurses I talked to had stopped working for the recruitment agencies, got full-time jobs directly with a health institution, and changed their residency to Norway. These nurses had become quite accustomed to the Norwegian language and no longer had issues understanding the local dialects. Interestingly though, they explained that instead of trying to speak Norwegian to their colleagues, they continued to speak Swedish and modified it to make themselves more understandable. As Nora explains when I asked if she spoke Swedish or Norwegian at work:
“I speak Swedish. I don’t speak Norwegian. I mean, I choose to change some words that I know are difficult for Norwegians to understand in Swedish, but otherwise I speak Swedish. Because I could never try to speak the dialect here. It would just sound so strange.”
Lilly takes a similar approach with her colleagues:
“With the personnel I used to basically speak Swedish, and when they couldn’t understand, I would just try to change it. But with my patients, I’m stricter, trying to just speak Norwegian, as well as I can, so that they understand me. But with my colleagues, it’s like, “What the hell? You understand Swedish. I’m not going to put myself through that pressure the whole day for you guys. You try to understand me.”
For these Swedish nurses, it is socially acceptable that they mix Swedish and Norwegian when communicating with their colleagues. Would it be equally as acceptable for Polish or Filipino nurses to mix Norwegian with English- a language very widely understood in Norway? Or are the expectations, both of colleagues and patients, different for Swedish nurses than they are for nurses from outside of Scandinavia?
Maria explains how misunderstandings with patients due to differences between Swedish and Norwegian are often seen as humorous rather than troublesome:
“I have had trouble with the patients also. In Norway, this [she holds up a pitcher], […] In Norwegian, it’s mugg. And in Sweden, a mugg is a mug. It’s a big cup that you put tea or coffee in. So, the patient asks me for a mugg of water and I fetched it for him. And he said, “What’s that?” And I said, “It’s a mugg.” And he said, “No, I mean a mugg.” And I said, “Yeah, this is a mugg.” And then he explained to me what it was. So, there are some words in Swedish that are not the same in Norwegian. There are a few dirty words also. They are dirty words in Norway but in Sweden they are not, so you have to watch yourself. You have to watch what you say, or you can say the wrong word. It’s quite funny.”
While this misunderstanding was minor and was laughed off by Maria and the patient, it shows that misunderstandings do occur and can be troublesome. As a Swede working in Norway, such language hiccups are expected and not viewed negatively, bringing me once again to the question: Would the reaction be just as lighthearted if a nurse from Poland, for example, did not understand the word mugg- but was able to understand once it was described?
Nurses are essential workers, as the COVID-19 pandemic has reaffirmed. Their work affects the lives and health of the population they serve and being able to communicate effectively with patients and colleagues is a critical part of their job. The Norwegian government acknowledges this, as there are strict language requirements for migrant nurses educated outside of the EU/EEA. Language assessment for nurses from within the EU/EEA is left up to the employers, many of whom also have strict language requirements for nurses coming from outside of Scandinavia.
The discussions I had with these Swedish nurses make it clear that we need to question the perceived non-issue of language between the Scandinavian countries, especially when it comes to working in a regulated, medical profession. For the nurses I talked to, language was an issue, particularly in the beginning. None of them mentioned asking or being offered any kind of help to overcome these difficulties. This could be partially due to their temporary positions – both they and their employers might not think it is worth the extra effort since the nurses will only be there for a short period. Regardless of the length of time spent in each particular institution, however, many of these nurses work in Norway over many years. It could be useful to at least provide these nurses with a list of common Norwegian medical terms and their Swedish equivalents.