I am in the technical field, which many seem to think is the more open when it comes to language - and in a way, it might be. However, if you read the job ads, even though these are sometimes written in English, they mostly want applicants to be able to communicate fluently in both English and Swedish.
I have lived in Sweden for eight years and I can speak Swedish to the point that I can communicate without a problem in everyday situations. I can also read and write well enough to be able to correspond but not fluent enough to express complex technical ideas.
I always opt for writing my applications and establishing my communication in Swedish with potential employers unless asked otherwise since I don’t want to be ruled out because of the language.
It usually goes well until the interview gets technical and I need to explain things which I do not know all the vocabulary for. Then there is that awkward moment when I know they were not that impressed or did not understand my answer. I believe this has made me not get the job in two occasions.
I knew I could have given a much better answer if I had spoken in English but I still didn’t want to ask them whether it was ok to reply in English out of fear of admitting that I did not feel fully comfortable speaking in Swedish.
What is your advice in this case? Is it better to ask them to let me reply in English to certain questions? Should I practice more and keep trying to do it all in Swedish? Or is it better to drop it and apply in English and hope they will consider me?
Thanks for trusting me to answer your question. I have met many people in situations similar to yours, and I know it is not easy. Of course we do not know exactly what went wrong at those two interviews, but based on what you write, my advice would be YES, do take parts of your next interview in English.
If I were in your shoes, I would even be honest and tell them that talking about technical skills in an interview situation makes you nervous, and that you prefer to do this part in English. You can also suggest that the other person continues to speak Swedish, and when you change topics and you feel comfortable again speaking Swedish, you just switch back without making a big thing out of it. The reasons for this advice are:
- Most Swedish companies ask for fluent Swedish skills not because they expect their new colleague to perform perfectly. To be frank, and to generalise, they do it because of pure laziness. It is a huge project for management and staff to change the corporate language to English. If they employ only people who are familiar with Swedish, they do not need to make such a big effort. They do not mind if you are not completely fluent, or if you speak English to them once in a while. If you understand them and can make yourself understood, that is more than enough. On top of that, technical terminology is an increasingly English-based glossary (a domain-loss for the Swedish language), and your potential employer will definitely understand what you are talking about.
- You might feel less confident by knowing that your Swedish is not just good enough for this question, and because of that, you might focus much more on speaking correctly than what you are actually saying. With that, what you are saying might not match your actual competence. If your Swedish otherwise is good, the recruiter might actually believe you are struggling not because of language skills but that you do not know your subject!
- In general, not feeling confident is not good for an interview. If speaking English for parts of it, you will give a much better overall impression.
- Also remember that most Swedes value humility. We consider it a huge asset to be able to speak openly about your weaknesses. I do not know if you are familiar with Gert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, but one thing he deals with is Uncertainty avoidance, where Sweden scores low. This means that it is completely acceptable to say you do not know everything, even if you are in a management position. I do not know your culture of origin, but I would recommend you to us comparative diagrams on http://geert-hofstede.com/sweden.html to see whether the differences are big between Sweden and your country. If they are, it could be wise to go against your instinct.
One thing I would like to add, if you allow me to generalise. Communication is not just about speaking the same language, but also about how we use the language. For example, many speakers of latin languages tend to speak for a little ‘too long’ (from a Nordic point of view) when asked about something they know. I have no idea whether this applies to you personally, but if you recognise this, perhaps it could be worth trying to make sure the other person is with you. Make sure the conversation is a real dialogue, and break it up by asking questions such as ‘Are you following?, Would you like me to go into more detail?, Wre you familiar with … ?’. This gives the other person the opportunity to take a more active part in the conversation, which is often appreciated by Swedes who otherwise might just sit and wonder at what moment you will stop talking.
You should definitely continue to send applications written in Swedish, and start the interviews in Swedish. There are many, many people out there who do not speak ant Swedish at all, so do not give the impression that you are one of them, when you do speak the language!
I hope this helps, and I wish you good luck with your next interview – in Swedish and English!