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  • Writer's pictureGisi Cannizzaro

Impressive but imperfect: Sweden’s model of teaching heritage languages

August 30, 2023

Picture from Uppsala University website

Countries around the world often turn to Sweden for inspiration. It ranks highly across indexes of human development, such as democracy, education, and quality of life. In fact, Sweden just replaced Iceland for first place in the KidsRights Index Report 2023, a measure of how children’s rights are respected. This is impressive, especially knowing that that the percentage of students in Sweden who had an immigrant background has increased from 12% to 20% (from 2009 to 2018, PISA 2018).

Also when it comes to educating children in their heritage language, Sweden has long attracted the attention of scholars, policy makers, and other professionals internationally. Universities here in the Netherlands certainly look to Sweden for answers regarding how to best support multilingual students. This is because Sweden offers the strongest known legal protection of the right to study home/heritage languages. Sweden aims to provide the best possible conditions for all students to succeed at school, regardless of their background –- including the development of their individual cultural and linguistic identities.

In recent years, more than 150 languages were offered as MT subjects to multilingual students within the Swedish national school system!

When students are enrolled for the first time in Swedish compulsory school, caregivers should be asked which languages are spoken at home and if they would like to apply for heritage language lessons (in Sweden referred to as “Mother Tongue Instruction” (MTI) for their child. The number of students enrolled in MTI has risen steadily since its introduction in 1977, after the Home Language Reform. In recent years, more than 150 languages were offered as MT subjects to multilingual students within the Swedish national school system!

What can we learn from Sweden’s policy regarding heritage language education? And what is the difference between the official policy and the actual application of it? What challenges does this seemingly perfect system face?

To find out, we spoke to Dr. Anne Reath Warren, senior lecturer in education at Uppsala University in Sweden with a focus on multilingualism and newcomers' learning. She travels the country to work with mother tongue teachers, tutors, and municipalities to improve learning conditions for multilingual and newcomer students. Dr. Reath Warren also regularly gives presentations internationally, and she tweets for the Journal of Home Language Research.

How did you get involved in heritage language education?

I started out as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher – in Australia, where I’m from -- so I always had students from other countries in my class. I also studied bilingual language acquisition.

Once in Sweden, I actually started out working part-time as a Mother Tongue (MT) English teacher long before I studied it in my doctoral work. Eventually, I got a job as a full-time English teacher in a standard class.

After about a decade, I had had my own children (bilingual Swedish-English), and I had all of these questions: how can they develop good competencies in both languages? I simply became more and more curious about this whole model of MTI, and ultimately I ended up analyzing it as an academic researcher. I now provide education and information about MTI in Uppsala and around the country.

Here in the Netherlands, heritage language education is currently often run by volunteers in a non-profit format. It is usually community-based, not a form of education that is guaranteed. Are there community-based heritage language programs in Sweden?

There are some, but I do not know much about the community-based programs here. There is however a research project investigating these forms of education being undertaken now, so I look forward to learning more soon.

How is heritage language education organized in Sweden?

Heritage language education is offered through the national school system in Sweden, which is a set-up that is relatively unique. In Sweden’s national education system, heritage language education is called “Mother Tongue Instruction” or “MTI.” It is protected by law.

Speakers of languages other than Swedish are offered the opportunity to request lessons in their MT from pre-primary education to the end of secondary school. One condition is that the student uses the language on a daily basis with at least one caregiver. This is an attempt to make sure that teachers do not have complete beginners in a class where other students have developed a certain degree of communicative competence. Another condition is that there must be a teacher that is able to teach the language and enough children (five) to be enrolled.

A student who wants to study MT can select it as their second foreign language (but not their first foreign language). The most common way to schedule MTI is to tag it on to the student’s schedule as lesson time at the end of the regular school day.


All the facts: Mother Tongue Instruction (MTI) in Sweden

How multilingual is Sweden?
When were the rights of multilingual students established?
How are the rights protected by law?
Who is eligible to follow MTI?
How many students in Sweden are eligible for MTI?
How many MT teachers are there?
What is “MT study guidance”?
What is “Swedish as a Second language”?
Which are the most followed MT languages?
What is the difference between the right to study the Mother Tongue (MT) versus the right to study one of Sweden’s five official minority languages?

How did Sweden come to support heritage languages in this way?

Sweden has become an international model because policy makers have paid so much attention to research. The available research shows that supporting MT is beneficial for multilingual students. Academics -- as well as grassroots activists -- were involved with the ideological reform that took place in Sweden in the 1970s. This shift impacted education, with concrete and practical implications for schools and students.

Sweden has become an international model because policy makers have paid so much attention to research.

How the reform came about: after World War II, more and more languages were being spoken in Sweden. Right after the war, most people still felt that newcomers should assimilate and prioritize learning the Swedish language and culture as soon as possible. But somewhat later, in 1950s, Sweden became known internationally as an advocate for peace and social justice. What happened was, as labor immigration increased in the 1960s, there were activists from the Finnish, Estonian, and Jewish communities who began to lobby for the right for education in their own language, which eventually led to the Home Language Reform (1977).

In 2009, there was also the Language Act passed by the Swedish Parliament. This legislation aimed to both protect the Swedish language and to protect the linguistic diversity of Sweden.

Once there was the policy, how did Sweden make it a reality?

Of course, in order to implement it, there needed to be a significant amount of infrastructure put in place to keep it organized and running. Think about it, classes in over 100 languages had to be arranged. They needed to organize educational seminars on the subject of MTI and MT study guidance. The MT subject had to be timetabled into the students’ agendas, and the funding had to be distributed appropriately.

How has the policy evolved over the years?

In 1990 there was an investigation into MTI and MT study guidance. It was critical, focussing on negative aspects. Despite criticisms of the report itself, several changes followed, including budget cuts. These changes were part of a general reform and decentralization of the Swedish school, and they had a quite a damaging effect on MTI for years to come.

Following the reforms in 1990, there was lower student enrolment in MTI, and there were less teach hours dedicated to MTI. Less effort was taken to incorporate lessons into the school day, and it was at this time that the 5-student minimum per municipality was introduced. Funds that used to be earmarked directly for MTI and MT study guidance were now reallocated to a general grant to municipalities; this means that the variation in local priorities and variation in knowledge about multilingualism now influences how much and how well everything can be implemented.

Is there any danger that the right to study the heritage language will be taken away?

In 1977, the Home Language Reform had the support of all Swedish political parties. Today, this support appears to still be mostly intact, with the Swedish Democrats being the only political party with a political platform explicitly opposing tax-funded MTI.

Just because there is a right, it is not always exercised. How many students/schools make use of the MTI offer?

About 57% of children who are eligible actually take the subject. Right there you see, indeed, that not all of the communities are engaging with it.

There are 295 municipalities in Sweden and each receives money from the state. Even though all education is funded by the state, MTI is currently administered at the local level by municipalities. There is someone, for instance a head of a school in each area, who decides how the money is going to be spent. Bigger cities are more familiar with MTI than smaller cities, but even then, you can imagine that each principal will have their own priorities, so spending priorities will be different. The national law is restricted by the local regulations.

But there is there a national syllabus for MTI?

Yes, the first syllabus for the subject of MTI appeared in the 1980 Swedish curriculum, and it was most recently revised in 2022. The syllabus focusses a lot on linguistic knowledge and on the strengthening of personal and cultural identity.

It has actually been adapted over the years to reflect Sweden’s changing demographics and the international research on bilingual education. Most recently, they downplayed factors like “culture of origin” since many of the students who follow MTI nowadays were born in Sweden and can no longer be assumed to have a particular cultural affinity with the region from which one or both of their caregivers came. Since 2011, the syllabus recognizes that individuals can identify with multiple cultures and speak multiple languages.


Swedish national Mother Tongue Syllabus

The current aims of MTI described in the syllabus are to give students the opportunity to develop their abilities to:

  1. express themselves and communicate in speech and writing in their mother tongue

  2. use their mother tongue as an instrument for their language development and learning

  3. adapt the language to different purposes, recipients and contexts

  4. identify language structures and follow language norms

  5. read and analyze literature and other texts for different purposes and

  6. reflect on traditions, cultural phenomena and social questions in areas where the MT is spoken based on comparisons with Swedish conditions

Translated by Dr. Reath Warren in her dissertation


What are the responsibilities of the MT teacher?

MT teachers are expected to be able to teach the language subject to students in Grade 1 to 12, as well as be able to provide MT study guidance to students in all other available school subjects. They are also expected to assist with contact between home and school. MT teachers often work at several different (pre)school locations.

It is absolutely possible to become a MT teacher and get qualified as it, but it is not all that common.

How do MT teachers become qualified?

At first (between 1978 and 1988), MT teacher education programs were offered at universities in Sweden’s three largest cities. These programs attempted to cover a large number of topics in a relatively shallow way within two years. It was also possible to qualify as a MT teacher through the general compulsory school teacher education programme, but very few MT teachers chose this pathway.

There are currently very few programs for MT teachers that will give them a qualification that is equal to, for instance, that of a French language teacher. There are teacher education programs for MT teachers of Finnish (Stockholm University); Turkish, Albanian, Finnish, Polish, and Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian (Uppsala University); Arabic (Dalarna University); and Arabic (Malmö University). There are also a number of individual subjects and shorter courses aimed specifically at MT teachers, for example at Malmö, Uppsala, and Dalarna universities, the University of Gothenburg, and through the national centre for Swedish as a Second Language.

The fact remains, however, that only a small number of mother tongue teachers have received education specifically for their subject since 1988, and MT teachers are exempt from the teaching licence requirements that all other teachers in the Swedish school are required to hold. It is absolutely possible to become a MT teacher and get qualified as it, but it is not all that common.

What training do you provide to MT teachers via Uppsala University?

Our department offers a course that I teach every semester called “MT as a school subject” and it is 7.5 university credits. MT teachers can take that as well as some other courses in bilingual acquisition in order to put together a pot of points. The courses are offered in the Swedish language.

I am also responsible for a smaller course that is part of a MT education program run by the Department of Modern Languages for MT teachers of Polish, Finnish, Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian, and Albanian. Those teachers are able to earn 15 points in their own language and literature and our department offers them one course in classroom didactics and one on the Swedish school system. These cover topics such as teaching methodologies in the MT classroom, Swedish school regulations, the history of MT education.

We do small surveys to ask MT teachers which topics they would be interested in. We select the things that they talk about all the time, like teaching groups of children that have different ages and different levels.

We also make sure to cover ideological issues as well. No one knows who they are, these MT teachers, and they have to go into school after hours. They face encounter negative attitudes.

I also carry out country-wide training at the Professional Development Center for Language Teachers and Internationalization. The department that I work for has received a national mandate to provide this training. So, it has been fun to travel within Sweden, working with my colleagues Simeon Oxley and Marita Gareis, to build up a model: the Uppsala model for MTI.

What is the Uppsala model for MTI?

We have, from quite early on, had an ecological view of the practice as well, which means we take into many factors that go into language education. There are all types of factors that impact on language development. Our university wants to talk to the whole municipality to give them knowledge about all forms of education. We don’t want to just talk to MT teachers. We want to of course want to talk to them and give them practical and methodologic tips – but, we also want to speak with other teachers. We want to promote collaboration between the MT teachers with the teachers of other subjects as well – and for MT study guidance, this collaboration is actually crucial. Principals also need to know about MTI and MT study guidance! Schools are actually most interested in hearing my talk about MT study guidance.

Dr. Anne Reath Warren giving a workshop in Varberg, Sweden, in August 2023. She spoke to MT teachers from three different municipalities about Study Guidance in the Mother Tongue.

Why are schools so interested in knowing more about MT study guidance?

Because of how the world has been, with global events causing so many significant waves of immigration, the proportion of newcomers in the population is growing in Sweden. Every time that there is a new wave, schools are like, “What do we do?” They bring in tutors who work with newly arrived students using their MT.

I can give an example. If a Kurdish family moves to Stockholm, they would have been educated in Turkey in Turkish, right? They come to Sweden and they don’t know Swedish, but of course they have to go to school. Which language do you use during study guidance? In some cases, it would make sense to use Turkish, but in some cases you would need Kurdish even. The majority of the tutors who give MT study guidance end up using Swedish and sometimes English as well, not only the MT (which is why I chose to refer to this as “multilingual study guidance” in my dissertation instead of MT study guidance).

I am really inspired by the work of Ophelia Garcia. She wrote a book called in 2009 called Bilingual Education in the 21st Century. She describes a form of dynamic, multilingual education where all languages are used, a very much freer form of education than what is traditional. Perhaps it is too idealistic -- I don’t know how that form of education could work in the world that we live in today, where schools are so monolingual, at best bilingual. But you see this freedom a bit in action during the study guidance of multilingual students, when the student’s entire linguistic repertoire is being drawn on to access the course content.

Schools are interested in hearing about MT study guidance, but are they also interested in hearing about MTI?

They are very interested in the short term, the idea that “This MT study guidance will help the students learn Swedish and helps them meet the knowledge goals.” Any interest in MTI instruction that they show is more a token. Subject teachers will say, “Oh yes, it is important. I tell the students is that I recommend MTI, but the students are not interested . . . “

When I talk to schools about MT study guidance, I always try to emphasize the importance of MTI as well. I explain that there are additive and subtractive models of bilingual development. A kid who speaks one language at home and receives education in another language will initially start adding the language of schooling. But if there is no support for the MT, it disappears! That is the subtractive model.

Then you have the additive approach. Learn and develop languages simultaneously. Think about it: Swedish kids add on English to Swedish, but of course they keep learning Swedish.

Who ever says, “I really regret learning that language”? You don’t.

The message I try to push home to them is to get newcomers to keep that language alive, learn to read and to write in that language. Who ever says, “I really regret learning that language”? You don’t. It is difficult to persuade busy students. MTI is offered through the education system, but it is tagged on at the start or end of the day. If they have to travel to another school and it is after school or before school, it can be hard to persuade them. Of course, the children should not be forced.

Kids just want to do what other kids do. Maybe if a child’s best friend is studying German as a modern foreign language during school hours, they just want to do what their friend is doing and they are not concerned with studying their MT.

These pictures were taken at a professional development course that Dr. Reath Warren and her colleague Simeon Oxley held in Kiruna, in far north Sweden in February 2020 – right before the pandemic broke out. They had mother tongue teachers of Arabic as well as the national minority languages of Sami, Torne Valley Finnish and Finnish there. They also had the opportunity to speak to the educational directors in that municipality. (Visits to schools were not possible at that time, so they had pictures from the city hall instead.) Dr. Reath Warren and her colleagues hope is that if the directors understand why MT instruction and Study Guidance in the MT is important, that this will translate into better implementation in the district.

Is it part of your task to promote MTI in Sweden?

We had planned on doing some public engagement events, for instance, discussion panels with well-known Swedes that have another language in their baggage. We certainly could do things like that. But we are so busy. We need to clone ourselves! I together with a few others have been overwhelmed with work for MT teachers.

To give you an example, we put out an inauspicious FB message announcing professional development training options for MT teachers and – it must have been the timing – we received 100 responses from people all over the country. We have to stay active all the time to meet the demand.

What did you find when you compared how heritage language education is organized in Sweden with how it is organized in Australia? (We are also very impressed by the set-up in Australia! See SICLE and CLA interviews.)

Indeed, for my PhD, I compared Sweden and Australia’s approach to MT education. I looked at “MTI and and MT study guidance” in Sweden and compared it with “Community Language Schools” in Australia. There is not a lot of research in Sweden on this topic, so people were very interested right from the start.It was published in 2017.

In the comparison, I treat Sweden as the superior system, but the system in Australia is not all bad either! There are some great models in Australia. The example I looked at in Australia was a classic Vietnamese school on a Saturday morning. A school like this does receive some funding from the government. But of course there were conditions that had to be met, and the department of education of the local Autralian state had to be involved in certain things. The woman in charge of the Vietnamese school pointed out some problems: that they are operating in borrowed premises, that they have a low status, and that they are run by volunteers. Those teachers worked really hard and they got nothing more than petrol money.

Also in Australia, even under the best of circumstances, mother language instruction is not baked into the regular school timetable for the kids. It is still something you have to do after hours, just like in Sweden in most cases.

I would not call it a gold standard. It does have its problems.

The burning question: is Sweden really the gold standard for heritage language education?

No . . . even though the MT subject is available, it is marginalized. People complain a lot about the quality of MTI. Under the current conditions, adequately training MT teachers is problematic. And even though the MT teachers are employed and they get paid and get pension, they have quite tough working conditions.

One of the things that bothers me as well, that I would love to see changed, is the number of hours of week of instruction. Right now it is only about one hour a week and that is not enough.

Even if there is a lot of interest in the topic of helping multilingual children, Swedish schools simply still do not know enough about it. You have to remember, the people who gave me the job as MT English teacher for Kindergarteners all those years ago – they told me nothing about it. “It’s just this kid and he speaks English at home, and he gets extra English.” Of course, now I know that there’s way more to it than that!

So, I would not call Sweden the gold standard. Some would say that is misleading. It does have its problems. I definitely believe that having the MT subject offered within the framework of mainstream education is a huge plus. So my belief is that we need to work on developing the model we have -- which maybe it represents a bronze or silver standard at the most -- so it can become the gold standard!

The following publications were referenced in this article

Emilsson Peskova, R., Lindholm, A., Ahlholm, M., Vold, E. T., Gunnþórsdóttir, H., Slotte, A. & Busch, S. E. (2023). Second language and mother tongue education for immigrant children in Nordic educational policies: Search for a common Nordic dimension. Nordic Studies in Education, 43(2), 128–144.

Reath, Anne. (2013). Mother Tongue Tuition in Sweden - Curriculum Analysis and Classroom Experience. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education. 6. 95-116.

Reath Warren, A. (2017). Developing multilingual literacies in Sweden and Australia : Opportunities and challenges in mother tongue instruction and multilingual study guidance in Sweden and community language education in Australia (PhD dissertation, Department of Language Education, Stockholm University). Retrieved from


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