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Limited language knowledge among Swedes in Spain

21 February 2018

Many Swedish pensioners who move to Spain do not learn to speak Spanish. A new study that investigates the pensioners’ integration into Spanish society shows that social contact between Scandinavian pensioners and the local Spanish population is limited.

Many pensioners from Sweden and other Northern European countries move to Spain, either permanently or over the winters. An interesting aspect of this migration is the multilingual environments that arise in cities with many foreign pensioners. Within the scope of a large EU project, Per Gustafson, a researcher at IBF, together with his Norwegian colleague Ann Elisabeth Laksfoss Cardozo studied language use and language environments in the Spanish region of Alicante, where large groups of Swedish and Norwegian pensioners have settled. In a current article, they are examining the pensioners’ language use and how it relates to their integration or social inclusion in Spain.

Many Nordic pensioners in Spain have limited knowledge of Spanish. This is particularly true of those who have not moved out permanently, but rather live in Spain seasonally. At the same time, the areas where most settle are multilingual environments to a large degree. English is used to a large extent in local stores and other companies, partly because the Spanish coastal areas are popular tourist destinations. In many contexts, the pensioners can also use their mother tongue because many ex-patriot Swedes and other Scandinavians operate stores, consulting agencies, medical clinics and so on in the Spanish coastal areas. There is also a rich Scandinavian association life. So in daily life, one can manage pretty well without being able to speak Spanish.

In this language environment, social contact between Scandinavian pensioners and the local Spanish population is limited. Nonetheless, most pensioners perceive that they feel at home and are socially included in Spain. But this is primarily a matter of inclusion in an expatriate Swede community in Spain, not integration in the Spanish society. Spaniards, for their part, often perceive the foreign pensioners as tourists or temporary visitors rather than immigrants and new residents. This means on one hand that it becomes even harder for the pensioners who actually want to learn Spanish and have contact with Spaniards. On the other hand, a bit paradoxically, it means that most Spaniards do not perceive the foreign pensioners’ bad language skills and deficient integration into Spanish society as a major problem as long as the pensioners just respect Spanish laws and rules.

The article “Language use and social inclusion in international retirement migration” is published in the journal Social Inclusion.

Per Gustafson