Norway: First languages fear second place

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun May 25 00:50:34 UTC 2008

First languages fear second place

Scandinavians' pride in their facility for English is turning to concern as
their mother tongues fall out of use in business and academia. Gwladys
Fouché reports from Norway on action to reverse the decline

*Friday May 23, 2008
Guardian Weekly <>*

Few countries voluntarily adopt a foreign tongue as one of their main
languages, but Norway has been doing it for years with English. Now,
however, its government wants to protect its national language. "I tried to
learn Norwegian when I came here. But when they hear you're a foreigner,
Norwegians naturally switch languages. They're very nonchalant about it,"
says Tom Jackson, a 30-year-old academic from England. He moved to Oslo
three years ago to work in a research institute. There was no need to speak
Norwegian there as the working language was English.

"The only place I met people who did not speak English was at a fish shop,"
says Jackson. "I knew before I moved that Scandinavians were good at
English, but I was amazed at their level of fluency." Norway has long
promoted the use of English at home to enable it to be part of the
globalised economy. English has been compulsory at school for decades, and
for several years universities have been able to teach classes in English so
they can attract international students and staff. English has become so
predominant that the government says it is threatening the existence of
Norwegian. "Languages around the world are simply vanishing and are not
being used anymore," says the culture minister, Trond Giske. "Norwegian is
under entirely new pressure than it was just a few years ago, especially
because of the internet and the media."

To address this situation Giske is due to present a white paper to
parliament next month declaring that the survival of the Norwegian language
is becoming a policy priority. The white paper will focus on two areas where
English has overtaken Norwegian: business and academia. "In business, all
the top international Norwegian firms already use written English day in day
out," explains Sylfest Lomheim, director of the Norwegian Language Council.
"Norwegian colleagues will talk in Norwegian to one another, but when it
comes to writing reports or sending emails, they will do it in English.

"In academia, 30% of social sciences theses were written in English in the
early 1990s. Now it's 70%. It is possible that in 30 to 40 years' time
Norwegian will no longer be used in higher education. Do we want that to
happen?" The culture minister has suggested other ways to promote Norwegian,
such as calling for more video games to be in the national language. The
focus of the white paper will be on written English, not spoken. "It is
absolutely necessary for Norwegians to speak good English. English is not
the enemy here," Lomheim says. Instead, the "enemy" is Norwegians' relaxed
attitude towards the written form of their language. It is essential to
preserve it, Lomheim says, because "we need to keep up the ability to
discuss central issues of public debate in Norwegian. If we don't have the
vocabulary for it, we can't discuss them."

This concern is widespread throughout Scandinavia, and both Sweden and
Denmark are creating initiatives to promote their national languages. "If
some research fields became completely Anglophile, it would be impossible to
write good new textbooks in Swedish," explains Olle Josephson, head of the
Language Council of Sweden. "How do we learn about new developments in
biology or physics if we don't have Swedish words for them? This would be a
blow to public debate and democracy. "Already many good Swedish scientists
cannot write about their fields of research in their own language, because
they only do it in English."

So, since 2006, Sweden has developed a language policy to promote Swedish as
the majority language. A single language authority was established to
monitor the development of spoken and written Swedish. "Several universities
have also developed their own strategy to promote English and Swedish as
equal working languages," Josephson explains. "Some universities now ask
that if a thesis is written in English, a summary in Swedish should be
provided as well." The government is also preparing a language bill that
will, among other things, establish Swedish as the country's main language,
and protect its minority languages, such as Finnish, Sami, Romani and
Yiddish. It will also say that Sweden is a multicultural society where
everyone has the right to speak his or her native tongue. The bill is
expected to be sent to parliament in February or March next year.

Meanwhile in Denmark a government commission last month handed in 69
proposals to promote the use of Danish. It suggests the creation of a
national term bank to retain Danish vocabulary and the launch of an
information campaign to nurture children's language awareness. "Since 2004,
the official policy is that Danish should be secured as a complete language
so that public institutions can operate in Danish," explains Niels
Davidsen-Nielsen, chairman of the Danish Language Council. "Today the debate
is whether legislation should be involved to promote Danish further." Some
politicians call for a language act to be introduced, while others say a law
should force universities to keep Danish as the main language of teaching.
Others still argue that laws on language are pointless because you can't
control the way people express themselves. Parliament is expected to debate
the issue after the summer.

All these initiatives might seem to indicate that the Scandinavian countries
are fearful of the development of English, but this would be wrong. "We
should have a parallel use of language, with both Danish and English being
promoted," says Davidsen-Nielsen. "It's essential that Swedes are very
strong in English in order for the country to compete internationally. It
would be impossible otherwise," Josephson agrees. "It's OK to borrow words
from other languages or use anglicisms. If not languages would die. After
all, English comes from Norwegian," Lomheim says. "The challenge is to
develop English and Norwegian at the same time so that people are as good as
possible at both."

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