Are Swedish hospitals accessible for non-swedish speakers?

As a part of her Master degree in Linguistics, our language specialist friend Maja Britse did a project about language accessibility in Swedish hospitals. Together with project partner Ása Bergný they wanted to know how easy or hard it might be to navigate in a Swedish hospital for visitors who are not fluent speakers of Swedish?


Out of 978 770 citizens in Stockholm, 335 865 are born abroad (Stockholms Stad, 2021). We can assume that these individuals might be in need of multilingual information. Södersjukhuset (SÖS) and Danderyds sjukhus are emergency care hospitals situated in the south and north of Stockholm. These are places that everyone might need to go to at some point. Maja and Åsa each went to one hospital and took photos of various signs which were displayed outside and inside of these hospitals. This is what they found.

Example of permanent signs at Danderyds sjukhus

Swedish is the long term preference

Permanent signs are only written in Swedish and display information on navigation signs in the hospital. This shows that Swedish is the long term preference in Swedish healthcare environment, the language that visitors are assumed to use when visiting the hospital.
This makes it hard for non-Swedish speakers to access basic information.

English is the common language

There is very little display of the actual diverse nature of languages in the hospitalenvironment. In both hospitals English is a prominent common language used to bridge the language gap for non-Swedish speakers. This overlooks the myriad of languages which the members of the diverse group (at whom the English is directed) speak.

Examples of temporary signs

Other languages are mainly used temporarily

Temporary signs that display information about pandemic restrictions are written in Swedish, English, Arabic, Russian and Ukrainian. These languages are related to ethnic groups that have not been as established in Sweden for as long. It is important for this information to be understood by everyone in order to stop the spread of covid. Looking at the overall distribution of languages used, it is clear that there is a disregard of people that do not speak Swedish, as they are denied access to important information needed to seek medical assistance independently. For example, understanding which ward to go to and how.

One nation one language ideology

The organization of languages in this project shows that Swedish has a higher hierarhical position than most other languages in this specific setting. It is indicative of a preference to the 'one nation one language ideology, that is,  the belief that the use of one single common language is important for social harmony and national unity.

This project highlights how communication in a hospital setting is not only important when meeting with a doctor. Finding ones way, talking with reception, and picking up your medicine from the pharmacy are examples of situations where an interpreter is not usually present, but when communication still is important. There is still much to do to make the hospitals more accessible for non-Swedish speaking patients.