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How to design language tests for citizenship—and how not to
“Perfect Swedish is overrated. But comprehensible Swedish is deeply underrated,” says Ulf Kristersson, the leader of Sweden’s centre-right Moderate party, which supports a language requirement to become a Swedish citizen. The left has come round, too: the Social Democrat-led government plans to introduce a language test. Sweden would thereby leave the small club of European countries that do not make passing such a test a condition of naturalisation.
To learn the language of the country you live in is the key to a full life there. But many experts in language policy oppose testing for citizenship—because they suspect a less compassionate motive in some who propose them. “Becoming a Danish citizen is something one has to become worthy of,” said Inger Stojberg in 2015, when she was the immigration and integration minister in Denmark’s centre-right government—implying that the unworthy had been slipping through. Her thinly camouflaged goal was not to improve immigrants’ Danish, but to naturalise fewer of them.
And so the Danish government, which already had language requirements, tightened them significantly. To prove they had reached the specified level in a recent test, applicants had to skim 16 pages of readings on the “People’s Enlightenment”, a movement originating in the 19th century to give ordinary Danes self-improving institutions such as evening classes, libraries and scouting. Applicants must answer questions like: “In principle the People’s Enlightenment is for adults, but children can take part in classes intended for families. But what are the requirements for children to take these classes?” Though not exactly Kierkegaard, the material is well above the level needed to get by.
The trend in the West is clearly towards such tests. America and Britain typically require English for citizenship—in 2019 Donald Trump proposed adding requirements for certain visas as well. But the problem seems especially acute from a small-country perspective. Many European countries are linguistic communities. Europe is a crowded continent where neighbours often distinguish themselves primarily by how they speak. Centuries of nation-building from the top down strengthened the association of one language with one people in one state, at least in the ideal case. English already threatens the role of small languages. If Denmark, say, does not require even Danish citizens to speak Danish, what is the language for?