A Paradox of Swedish Cultural Export and Linguistic Evolution & 5 tips for localizing into Swedish

A Paradox of Swedish Cultural Export and Linguistic Evolution & 5 tips for localizing into Swedish

This is the 14th installment in a series of posts, which will examine the distinctive aspects of the top 50 commercial languages, meaning the most popular languages being translated today, most typically from English into the target language. This series of posts is dedicated to discussing the languages; however, this post will examine a unique aspect of globalization and the paradoxical impact that Sweden has had on globalization.

IKEA! With its flat-packed furniture, quirky product names, and delicious meatballs, few global brands have done as much as IKEA to put Sweden on the world map. But beyond its budget-friendly furnishing solutions, the IKEA effect on language and culture is a paradoxical tapestry that’s as intriguing as the assembly of a BILLY bookcase.

Swedish Language Awareness: Across the vast corners of the world, from bustling Beijing to bustling New York City, IKEA has become an unlikely ambassador for the Swedish language. Even if the store’s visitors don’t understand Swedish, they’re regularly interacting with it. Names like MALM, KALLAX, and FÄRLÖV might mean little to the average non-Swede, but they are intriguing enough to provoke curiosity. Suddenly, phrases such as ‘Hej’ (hello) displayed at store entrances or ‘Småland’ (the designated children’s area, named after a region in Sweden) become a gateway to a foreign language. For many, these encounters are the first introduction to Swedish, and it’s through IKEA’s unique naming conventions that the language seeps, albeit superficially, into global consciousness.

The English Paradox: But here lies the irony: while IKEA is boosting awareness of the Swedish language abroad, it’s simultaneously fueling the rise of English back home in Sweden. The company’s global reach has necessitated the use of English in its corporate communications, international marketing, and employee training programs. As a result, many Swedes working for or with IKEA have found themselves using English more than they might have otherwise.

Moreover, with Sweden’s progressive and outward-looking stance, coupled with its high-quality education system, English proficiency has skyrocketed in the country. Companies like IKEA, with a significant international presence, inadvertently champion the cause of English as a business lingua franca. As Swedish youths look up to such companies for employment opportunities, the allure of English becomes undeniable.

The Cultural Balance Sheet: It’s fascinating to evaluate IKEA’s impact on the cultural balance sheet. On the one hand, the brand has made global consumers more attuned to Swedish culture and design aesthetics. The minimalistic, functional, and democratic design philosophy mirrors Swedish societal values and has found resonance across diverse markets.

Yet, on the other side, the demands of globalization have shifted the linguistic equilibrium. As IKEA champions Swedish design, it also, paradoxically, accelerates the adoption of English within Sweden’s corporate milieu.

IKEA’s narrative is emblematic of the broader tale of globalization. As brands journey across borders, they carry with them fragments of their homeland, sharing it with the world, while simultaneously absorbing global influences. It’s a give-and-take that defines our interconnected world. And in this dance of cultures and languages, IKEA, with its Allen wrench, stands as a compelling maestro.

5 tips for localizing into Swedish

  1. Understand the Nuances of Swedish Letters and Punctuation:
    • The Swedish alphabet includes three additional letters not found in the English alphabet: å, ä, and ö. Misusing or omitting these characters can drastically change the meaning of a word or make your content look amateurish.
    • Take note of Swedish punctuation norms. For instance, the placement and usage of quotation marks differ between English and Swedish. In Swedish, they use ”…” instead of the “…” that English employs.
  2. Be Mindful of Formality Levels:
    • Swedish, like many languages, has formal and informal registers. The pronouns ‘du’ (you) and ‘ni’ (you all/formal you) are particularly important to note. While “du” has become more commonplace, in certain business settings, using “ni” might be more appropriate. Your choice should reflect the target audience and context.
  3. Acknowledge Regional Variations:
    • While Swedish is relatively homogenous, there are still regional differences to be aware of, especially when targeting specific areas within Sweden. For instance, the Skåne region in the south has its own distinct dialect. If your target audience is region-specific, it’s essential to be aware of such variations.
  4. Stay Updated with Modern Usage and Local Trends:
    • Languages evolve, and new words and phrases are integrated into daily vernacular. Stay current with modern expressions, especially in industries like technology, where terms can change rapidly. Leveraging local expertise, like native Swedish translators or cultural consultants, can ensure your content remains up-to-date and relevant.
  5. Localize Beyond Words – Consider Cultural Context:
    • Localization extends beyond language. Imagery, colors, and symbols might carry different meanings in Swedish culture. For instance, if your original content has an illustration of a mailbox, a red one might signify an American mailbox, while a yellow or green one might resonate more with a Swedish audience. Localize all elements of your content, not just the words.

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