Danes Worry English Onslaught Could Undermine the Language

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sat Mar 31 13:50:51 UTC 2007

Danes Worry English Onslaught Could Undermine the Language

Danish linguists fear new additions to the language will only be in

Danish linguists have warned the government that the increasing use of
English in the country, especially in education, could wear away at the
very foundation of Danish. Similar concerns are shared by others in
Europe. In a classroom at the University of Copenhagen, political science
professor Morten Rasmussen is kicking off a course on the history of the
European Court of Justice. Although he is teaching the course in the
Danish capital to mostly Danish students, the language of instruction here
is English.

"English here in Europe is becoming the major academic language," he said.
"Most European universities are offering courses in English to attract
students within Europe, also from beyond, and to improve
internationalization." Increasingly, school administrators see economic
and educational benefits in teaching in the language of Shakespeare and
Milton, or at least a version of it, instead of the national tongue. The
trend is particularly pronounced in science and business courses.
Currently, almost a third of education programs in Denmark are taught in
English, and that number is likely to rise. But for linguists and others
who work with the Danish language, there are concerns that in the race to
become a global player in a world where English is the lingua franca,
Danish could be left in the dust.

"Okay, we have these intentions, we want to be a global nation," said
Sabine Kirchmeier-Andersen, a director at the Danish Language Council. "Do
we want to lose the Danish language? Is this a price we would like to

Warning: language in decline

Last month, the council sent a statement to the government expressing
concerns that Danish risks being undermined on its own turf from the
onslaught of English. While many Danes are bilingual, and English is
widespread in the media and in advertising, she and others fear that as
education institutions move away from Danish, the language, which has
around five million speakers, could lose some of its functionality. Words
for innovations, especially in the realm of information technology, or for
ideas born in the university classroom or research lab, could only find
expression in English. Since there would be no Danish words for these
developments, the English expressions would be, by necessity, adopted by
the general population.

It has already begun, Kirchmeier-Andersen said, in several areas, and one
only has to flip through a newspaper to see concrete examples.
Advertisements and want ads often feature English words and expressions,
not unusual today in Europe. But what she finds disturbing is that some
Danish companies, even when recruiting employees in Denmark, often choose
to advertise only in English. She worries that it could lead to a
fragmentation of Danish society. "There will be an elite where people in
senior business positions will be speaking English and send their children
to schools where they only speak English," she said. "Then you have the
rest of the people who will not be able to understand what is actually
going on."

Bill under consideration

The Danish government has begun to take notice and is now debating a bill
put forward by the Danish People's Party, a controversial right-wing
populist party, which would secure Danish's position as the language of
Denmark. It would ensure that all correspondence, public speeches and
meetings are held only in Danish. It would also regulate signage on public
buildings, even down to the font size used in Danish or English words.
"It's a very defensive position, which we have a problem with," said
Mogens Jansen, a spokesman for culture and media for the Danish Social
Democrats. But his group has joined the discussion around creating a
formal language policy, something not considered necessary in the past.
"We need to secure the Danish language but also improve Danes' foreign
language skills, since the reality is that we do live in a globalized
world," he said.

Polyglot solution?

That strategy makes sense to Johan Van Hoorde, general secretary of the
European Federation of National Institutes of Language and a senior
project manager at the Dutch Language Union. His country, also the home of
a "smaller" European language, shares some of Denmark's concerns, and also
thinks a strategy of increased multilingualism is the answer, instead of
conducting a vain battle against English. He points to the French, who
have been more "alarmist" in their objections to English, having passed
the Toubon Law in 1994 mandating the use of French in government
publications, advertising and some other areas. It is considered overly
strict and reactionary by some. According to him, if the Dutch and
Scandinavians were to focus on their seemingly inborn polyglot talents, it
could bring benefits even on the economic front, especially when it comes
to the countries' biggest trading partner, Germany.

"If we can speak German to the Germans, we can have an advantage over,
say, American business which tries to approach this market in English," he
said. But in Denmark, increased business opportunities do little to ease
the fears of some about the shaky outlook for the language of Kierkegaard.
English-language publishers are already doing a booming trade in Denmark,
where one in six books sold are in English. "Language is a very essential
part of your identity. Your history, literature and your culture is
affected by the language you use," said Ib Tune Olsen, head of the Danish
Publishers Association. He becomes pensive when asked if Danish will be
spoken in 100 years.  "A good question," he said. "I could doubt it."

Kyle James


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