Swedish – A New Requirement for Citizenship

Map of Sweden. Photo: Radio Sweden

Swedish – A New Requirement for Citizenship

By Johanna Hemberg, FORES (which includes the 2030-secretariat) is a Swedish think tank devoted to questions related to climate and environment, migration and integration, entrepreneurship and economic reforms, as well as the digital society.


In the government agreement between the Social Democrats, the Greens, the Liberals and the Centre Party a number of integration policies were presented that will be introduced during the mandate period, including a so-called language requirement for citizenship. According to the policy proposal, an approved examination in Swedish and basic social studies must be completed in order to obtain Swedish citizenship. This article summarizes the Swedish debate on the proposed requirements for citizenship, describes the research on requirements for citizenship or residence permit, and ends with a European comparison.


The language requirement – a controversial proposal

The so-called language requirement has been debated since the proposal was presented. Advocates argue that a language requirement would increase the incentives to learn the Swedish language and will lead to an improved integration of immigrants. This argument proposes that language is a key part of a successful integration and that greater incentives are necessary. Another prominent argument is that a language requirement for citizenship will increase the status of Swedish citizenship.

Critics doubt that a language requirement would increase the incentives to learn Swedish. Motivation to learn Swedish is only a small part of language training. These critics, including researchers, point out that language learning depends on study and school background. In addition, mental stress can adversely affect language learning, which means that a language requirement can be rather counterproductive. Another common critique is that the language requirement is a type of symbolic policy that lacks support in research - meaning that it does not affect neither language learning nor integration.


What does the research say?

Language requirements to obtain citizenship is part of a larger policy trend in Europe called "civic integration", which has been characterized by an ambition to strengthen and defend national identity. It is based on a changed view on integration, that it should be promoted through demands rather than rights. Rights, such as citizenships or residence permits, are no longer seen as means of integration, but as the final goal of integration. Such policy measures are all characteristic of this trend, since individuals’ access to certain rights are conditioned upon them.

The few studies done on the effect of civic integration policies do not show any clear integration improvements. However, studies show that tougher integration requirements have led to fewer people being able to obtain citizenship, residence permits or the possibility of family reunification.


European outlook: three examples

The Netherlands, Germany and Denmark have introduced requirements for new arrivals in order to have access to various types of rights: residence permit, citizenship and family reunification. However, the requirements differ between the countries when it comes to what is being tested, level of required knowledge and which rights that are conditional.

The Netherlands applies language requirements at every stage of the integration process. An approved test in language and social studies (‘civic integration diploma’) is a requirement for being able to obtain a permanent residence permit and citizenship. The possibility of family reunification is also associated with language requirements: in order to be admitted to The Netherlands, family members must do a language test at an embassy abroad. Similar rules can be found in Germany, where a newly arrived person is required to have a basic knowledge of German in order to obtain a permanent residence permit, obtain citizenship or be reunited with his family. Denmark is an example of a country where the demands for language and knowledge are high in order to obtain citizenship. The Danish citizenship test requires both language skills and knowledge of Danish culture, history and society.