DENMARK: Danglish alarms the Danes

A new report from an ad-hoc language committee warns about the demise of native language instruction at universities in Denmark. The Danish Language Council has recommended changes to university legislation, not to stem the tide but to oblige universities "to ensure the Danish language doesn't disappear completely from higher education".

In the past 20-odd years, universities in small western European countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands have readily embraced English as the language of instruction in large parts of higher education. Today, the net result for students is that the world is their oyster and the net result for universities is that they have placed themselves in more attractive positions in the market for international students than some of their bigger neighbours elsewhere in Europe.

But the swift advance of English as the main language of instruction comes at a price. Some countries are worried that eventually their small languages will come under threat. Others, such as Denmark, are concerned that university graduates will no longer be able to share their achievements with their own countrymen in their mother tongue. Such at least was one of the conclusions in a report* on the status of the Danish language by an ad-hoc committee appointed by the Danish Ministry of Culture published on 7 April.

"Universities must work at the cutting edge of their fields of study and the English language is crucial for them," acknowledges Sabine Kirchmeier-Andersen who, as director of the Danish Language Council, was a member of the committee. "But they also have a responsibility to disseminate their knowledge for the benefit of society. They cannot leave it all to journalists who often do not have sufficient background knowledge to effectively pass on this information."

Kirchmeier-Andersen is in favour of changing the university laws to ensure that at least some Danish-language instruction is saved: "We do not need specific language legislation but universities should be forced to report on their efforts to at least promote Danish communication in their fields of study," she says.

Her colleagues who worked on the report are divided on this, with only half agreeing that tougher measures are needed to protect the Danish language. Meanwhile, all relevant ministers – culture, education and science – commented on the report in a joint press release where Science Minister Helge Sander showed most affinity with the fine balance of different interests.

"Universities are institutions that must be able to operate in global networks, while at the same time they must continue to answer to Danish demands... This asks for balanced language policies that suit both our age and the specific challenges that universities face in the years ahead," Sander said.

There is, however, much more to the issue than meets the eye. Regularly appearing student complaints illustrate a growing dissatisfaction with the level of teaching by lecturers forced to use a language whose jargon they master but not the subtleties.

The scale of the problem is exemplified by some statistics. At the Copenhagen Business School, almost half of the teaching is now in English; at the Danish University of Technology, English is now the sole language of instruction in all postgraduate programmes.

Rita Cancino is vice-dean of the faculty of humanities at Aalborg University's department of language and culture, where a language counselling centre was established last year to support teachers having difficulty making the jump to teaching in English.

"Typically, teachers have a good command of the terminology in their field but they miss other parts of essential vocabulary," Cancino says, referring to one of the underrated competences that constitute the essence of quality teaching. "Everything that makes you a good teacher – as opposed to a good researcher – gets lost."

Kirchmeier-Andersen agrees: "As long as some key communication competences continue to be taught in Danish I can see the benefits of teaching in English; but if we really have to move towards a bilingual environment, we have to do it professionally," she says.

"The way in which market forces have dictated the speed of change clashes with educational commonsense. The people who have decided on these changes have not properly taken into account the pedagogical consequences of such hasty implementation."

Many teachers were thrown in at the deep end and, from the counselling centre in Aalborg, Cancino has been trying to deal with the consequences on the daily lives of lecturers. The centre wants to help teachers recognise their weaknesses and work on these but has not found it easy to address them.

"It's difficult to identify where exactly there are problems," she says. "Teachers are not keen to admit that they have difficulty teaching in English and recent accreditation requirements have made it even more important that teachers are open about their problems so they can get help. Most of what we hear comes from our student evaluations."

With colleagues from other Danish universities that have engineering faculties, Cancino has started a pilot research project to map the current status in the classrooms and lecture halls and come up with recommendations to alleviate the problem.