DENMARK: Small languages under threat as cuts bite

Danish universities are considering merging more than 20 languages with other academic disciplines to cope with cuts in state funding, prompting a public outcry.

Charlotte Sahl-Madsen, Minister of Science, Technology and Development, said small languages with few students received approximately 400,000 krone (US$75,000) a year from the government. But from the next budget this would be changed so that support would be given only to languages that are taught at only one university in Denhark.

"Since there is less demand for many of the small languages, there is a need to take measures to create a critical mass," she said.

At Copenhagen University alone more than 20 languages with few students, such as Greek, Latin, Russian, Finnish, Persian, Hebrew and Polish are under threat. Greek and Latin will merge with each other and offer both bachelor and masters degrees, and other Eastern European languages will be offered besides Russian.

At Aarhus University next year Greek and Latin will not any longer be individually taught subjects. At the Southern University of Denmark in Odense several Eastern European languages will be merged.

Discussions about the mergers have been going on since early summer, when the ministry announced that the universities budget for next year would be reduced because of the fall in gross national product.

There has been an outcry from professors, intellectuals, museum personnel and others, demanding government intervention.

"Denmark is heading for a cultural disaster, which will become more serious for Denmark than for a larger country," the newspaper Politiken stated in an editorial. "The learned man has used Latin and Greek for more than a thousand years. That is our cultural heritage which we will have to pass on. We cannot lose this during one single narrow-minded generation," the editorial said.

Others said it was short-term thinking not to strengthen languages such as Turkish, Farsi and Arabic, given immigration levels in Denmark.

Professor emeritus Robert Phillipson at Copenhagen Business School, who has previously asked if English is an "EU lingua franca or lingua frankensteinia", told University World News: "It is lunatic for Denmark not to maintain strong research and teaching environments for a wide range of languages.

"This entire field has been lamentably ignored by governments for two decades (unlike in Norway and Finland, possibly also Sweden), so if the present crisis can lead to more informed long-term policies and their implementation, that is all for the good."

But some regard the potential changes as an opportunity to create more relevant language teaching. A spokesman for the Danish Business Research Academy (DEA), an independent think-thank, said: "In the future Denmark needs engineers who speak German, social scientists who understand Arabic and journalists who master Russian. And [we need] fewer foreign language experts with detailed knowledge of etymology or irregular verbs."

Bjarne Lundager Jensen, DEA's Vice Director, said the proposed changes did not go far enough, and the humanities should be developed further in collaboration with the natural and social sciences.

The Ministry of Science, in a recent note, said there had to be a "national strategy for teaching of foreign languages that will secure a continuous education in languages from the crib [in kindergartens] to the PhD".

But Sahl-Madsen said the ministry would not interfere with universities' right to prioritise which subjects to teach.

Professor Kirsten Refsing, dean of the faculty of humanities at Copenhagen University, said:
"Some of the less sought-after languages will stop having independent degrees and instead become part of a degree-bearing area of studies in which a student will be able to choose from a number of languages in which to specialise. None of the disciplines that are considered for merger will be cut.

"The Danish environment for the teaching of foreign languages has many shortcomings, not only in universities, and I regard this as a threat to Denmark's future."