The Case of Mother Tongue Instruction in Sweden: Between Policy and Practice

Authors: Didem Oral and Anna Lund


This blog piece is based on the abstract of the draft article titled “Mother tongue teaching: Between multicultural incorporation and assimilation” which in October 2021 the authors submitted to Education Science’s Special Issue of “Migrant integration in schools: policies and practices.”

Sweden has a long history of being a country that receives immigrants from many different parts of the world. Education of these migrants, especially children of school age, has been seen as an integral part of migrant integration and the challenges and opportunities they face have been the topic for different research areas. As our project, Teaching that Matters for Migrant Students: Understanding Levers of Integration in Scotland, Finland, and Sweden (TEAMS) tackles the issue of integration, it employs a multitheoretical and multimethodological approach to look at the issue from different perspectives. In this blog article, we would like to focus on the issue of mother tongue education in the Swedish context.

As nation-states grant its members many rights and privileges through citizenship status (Brubaker, 1992, Joppke, 1998, Soysal, 1994), when it comes to immigrants, different rules and regulations apply. Policies directed at certain groups can be seen as a reflection of state categorization practices (Brubaker and Kim 2011). For many students with migration backgrounds, mother tongue is not only a knowledge and school grade issue, but also a reflection of their identity which is shaped by political structures.

In order to understand the role of mother tongue in migrant integration, first we should look at the structural level in Sweden and how the mother tongue issue is approached in policy documents. For example, Skolverket[1]’s document Utbildning för nyanlända elever[2] (2016) defines newly arrived students as a heterogeneous group. The document states that “what the newly arrived students have in common is that they have broken away from the context in which they previously lived and that they usually do not have Swedish as his mother tongue”[3] (Ibid.:11). Chapter 10 Article 7 in Skollagen[4] (2010:800) states that “a student who has a guardian with a mother tongue other than Swedish shall be offered mother tongue instruction in this language if 1. the language is the student’s daily language of communication at home, and 2. the student has basic knowledge of the language.”[5] From these policy documents regarding mother tongue education, we see that it is a recognized, encouraged and supported issue.

How, then, do school professionals encourage multicultural incorporation when it comes to their views on the importance of mother tongue? Are they emphasizing the role of mother tongue in improving Swedish language, widening opportunities in the job market and getting an extra grade in the curriculum? Are there any organizational dilemmas that lead to students being less interested in studying their mother tongue? To what extent do school professionals underline the link between students feeling proud of their identity and their mother tongue being a reflection of it when expressing themselves? What do students think about the necessity and value of their mother tongue? We argue that some possible challenges might be the scheduling of mother tongue classes, finding teachers and appropriate teaching material, and migrant students’ hesitancy in the promise of multicultural incorporation.  Moreover, through working with literature, mother tongue can be connected to migrant students’ contemporary life. When a student feels a connection through recognizing similar experiences in educational material, this will help promote a sense of belonging as well.

Preliminary results from our ongoing fieldwork in two Swedish schools in the greater Stockholm area demonstrate that encouraging mother tongue education for migrant students further helps their overall education and well-being in Sweden. Migrant students are not a statistical identifier, but a very heterogeneous group carrying different experiences with them. Therefore, we strongly believe migrant students should feel that their past, their background and their identity matter, and their mother tongue is a valuable asset. There is no interchangeability for migrant students and their mother tongue, each and every one of them is unique with great potential.

[1] In English: National Agency for Education

[2] In English: Education for Newly Arrived Pupils

[3] The English translation of the quote from the original Swedish version belongs to Didem Oral.

[4] In English: Education Act

[5] The English translation of the quote from the original Swedish version belongs to Didem Oral.



Brubaker, R. (1992). Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany. Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press.

Brubaker, R., & Kim, J. (2011). Transborder Membership Politics in Germany and Korea. European Journal of Sociology, 52(1), 21:75.

Joppke, C. (1998). Challenge to Nation-State: Immigration in Western Europe and the United States. New York, Oxford University Press.

Skolverket. (2016). Utbildning för nyanlända elever. Stockholm, Skolverket.

Soysal, Y. (1994). Limits of Citizenship: Migrants and Postnational Membership in Europe. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.


Published 2 November 2021