The Vikings were world travelers a thousand years ago and discovered the Americas long before Columbus. They made tours to Constantinople — you can even see runes as a form of early graffiti in the Hagia Sofia — and followed Russian rivers all the way to the Caspian sea. They eventually brought home influences from other cultures, and the region is made up of the people who live there and the influences it gets from the outside world. Maybe the Vikings can’t take credit for what the Nordic region is today with its high educational level, language diversity, influential brands and exporting industry, but they already made clear that we must embrace other cultures and languages to develop our own.
Much has changed, but much has stayed the same in the last thousand years. As you drive your Volvo home, sit on an IKEA couch to listen to music from Spotify on your Bang & Olufsen stereo, or play Angry Birds while your kids assemble Lego blocks drinking orange juice from a Tetrapak carton, you may not realize how many Scandinavian products you are consuming. With a population of only 26 million, Scandinavia has the highest number of top brands per capita in the world. But wait a second — are you consuming Scandinavian products? Or are they Nordic products? Is there a difference between Scandinavia and the Nordic countries?
Yes, there is. To be able to shed some light over this entrepreneurial region in northern Europe we will start by sorting out definitions. The Nordics consist of five countries: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, as well as their autonomous regions (the Åland Islands, the Faroe Islands and Greenland). Scandinavia, on the other hand, more properly refers only to the three monarchies of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Scandinavians share a North Germanic heritage and their languages are related.
Despite their small size in terms of population, the Nordics is a language-intense region with 13 official languages and many large immigration languages to be added to the list. The official languages adhere to different language branches, of which the Germanic languages have the largest number of speakers. The Germanic languages include Swedish (the official language in Sweden and Finland), Danish (Denmark, Germany, Greenland, Faroe Islands), Norwegian (Norway – with two main variants, bokmål and nynorsk), Icelandic (Iceland), Faroese (Faroe Islands) and the minority languages Yiddish (Sweden) and German (Denmark).
There are also Finno-Ugric languages in the Nordic region, and Finnish has by far the largest number of speakers. Both Finnish and Sami are recognized in the three Nordic countries of Finland, Sweden and Norway (in Norway, Finnish is also known as Kven), whereas Meänkieli has minority language status only in Sweden. Greenlandic, within the Greenlandic language family, is an official language in Greenland. The Indo-Iranian language Romani is recognized as a minority language in three countries, namely Norway, Sweden and Finland.
So what is this language diversity based on? It is generally based on a language’s long-standing history within each country. But keep in mind that the status and classification of languages vary quite a bit from one country to the other. In Finland, both Finnish and Swedish are official languages, while in Sweden, Swedish is the official language but Finnish is counted only as one of five minority languages and does not have the status of being an official language. Likewise, in the Faroe Islands, both Faroese and Danish are official languages, while in Greenland, only Greenlandic is an official language and Danish is an “administrative” language.
They all speak English anyway
Everyone in the Nordics speaks English, right? Well, yes and no. It’s known that English proficiency as a second language is very high in this region. In fact, four out of the five Nordic countries compete only with the Netherlands to occupy the top five positions in the EF English proficiency index, which ranks 63 countries by how well they speak English.
The tradition to learn English early on is long and essential for communication across borders for such small countries. Another thing affecting good English skills in the region is that all foreign movies and TV shows are subtitled rather than dubbed, with the exception of media aimed for small children.
Even given all this, however, don’t count on English to be sufficient for a successful product launch in the Nordics. When mentioning the 13 official languages in the region we haven’t even touched on the complexity of the many large immigration languages widely spoken throughout the countries. English might be the second language for most of the population born in the region, but for a large number of immigrants, English is probably the third or even fourth language. Arabic is the third most commonly spoken language in Sweden after Swedish and Finnish, which many people are not aware of, even in Sweden.
There are seven translation companies headquartered in the Nordics in Common Sense Advisory’s latest top 50 list of the largest language service providers (LSPs) in the world. Some of them act as any other international LSP or multi-language vendor serving corporate clients locally and internationally. But two of these solely rely on in-country government demand for translation and interpretation as their main revenue stream and you will find very few corporate clients, local or international, in their client database.
Sweden, the largest of the countries in the Nordics, has one of the most generous immigration policies in Europe. Twenty-five percent of the Swedish population (of 9.2 million) is composed of first or second generation immigrants. Anyone who is not a Swedish native speaker has the right to an interpreter or the right to have their personal documents translated at no cost. The policy drives the demand for translations and interpretation to a large variety of immigrant languages and LSPs specialized in supplying the need. This is one of the reasons why local LSPs can grow to impressive size and coexist with international LSPs without really competing with each other.
High income levels (and taxes) put the Nordic languages among the most expensive languages in the global marketplace. There is nothing too strange about that, considering the small populations. The high demand and low supply of qualified translators and interpreters allow local professionals and freelancers to pick and choose who they want to work for. Ask any of the larger international LSPs outside of the region and they can all confirm that it is not easy to find suppliers for the Nordic languages — at least not at the price they are prepared to pay.
But, at the local level, LSPs face the challenge of huge downward price pressure from governments that seldom take quality and capability into consideration, focusing instead on the lowest price. This forces some players to use unskilled translators and interpreters for the government demand, in some cases leading to security risks. Here industry organizations can put pressure on the governments to make sure that competence among the immigrants is taken into consideration and to secure language training in many languages.
When designing a language strategy, keep these elements in mind if you want to get a share of the Nordic wallet:
For consumer products and apps, localize into the five official languages: Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish.
Don’t assume that everybody speaks English.
Be prepared to pay: Swedish competes with Japanese as the most expensive language to translate into.
Consider the minorities: Arabic is one of the most widely spoken languages in the region.
Last but not least, never call a Finn a Scandinavian.
The Nordic countries always appear at the top in every global economic or social ranking of statistics. They are proud of their accomplishments, cultures and languages. Engaging with them in their own language is a sure path to success in business.