Is interest in language courses in critical freefall?

Questions are being raised about the fate of Denmark’s national languages plan following the presentation of the government budget for 2018, which contains barely a trace of measures addressing the plummeting interest in language courses at universities, according to the Danish researchers’ magazine Forskerforum and web newsletter Ugebrevet A4.

They are demanding to know: “Has the national plan for languages at universities been scrapped?”

Interest in language programmes at universities appears to be in freefall, except in the case of English courses. While the number of courses in languages taught at Danish universities dropped from 97 in 2005 to 56 in 2016, there are also many empty seats at language courses offered this autumn.

All seven universities and colleges offering studies in German are reporting unfilled study places, as are the three institutions offering French.

The number of students seeking German, Spanish and French as their first choice fell by 25%, from 371 in 2011 to 280 in 2017.

This number is a low proportion of the 91,832 first priority choices received in total at Danish higher education institutions.

The effect of the scrapping of more minor languages, as University World News has reported, is now clearly demonstrated.

At the University of Copenhagen, out of 11,741 first choices for 2017, 200 are for English, 24 Italian, 12 Portuguese, 28 French, 74 Spanish, 35 German, 11 in Eskimology, 12 in Greek, 8 in Indian languages, 8 in Indo-European languages and 110 in Middle Eastern languages. The total of 492 amounts to 4.2% of students’ first choices.

This compares with 782 first choice applications out 9,374 in 2000, or 8.3%.

In the meantime, Turkish, Czech, Tibetan, Polish, Persian, Dutch, Near Oriental, Korean, Japanese, Indonesian and Finnish have disappeared.

The Confederation of Danish Industry or DI, after surveying the need for competence in languages among its member companies, has issued a stiff warning.

Danish industry survey

In 2016 DI surveyed 376 internationally oriented companies in Denmark about their usage and need for language competences. Some 88% reported collaboration with partners taking place in English, 82% in German, 61% in French, 55% in Spanish and 42% in Russian. Other languages mentioned were Portuguese (31%), Arabic (30%), Turkish (25%), Hindi (19%) and Urdu (18%).

On the question of which languages they see a need for within the next five years, the majority said English (95%), German (69%), French (38%), Spanish (29%), Swedish (29%) and Chinese (22%).

Some 65% reported that in the future they would not recruit language specialists in particular but a staff member, for instance an engineer, who “could understand and speak a language at a high level”.

When DI asked the companies if the lack of language competences had caused them to lose orders or experience ‘difficulties in negotiations’, 15% said they had lost orders and 75% that they had experienced difficulties in negotiations.

National debate

Lisbeth Verstraat-Hansen, a lecturer in French at Copenhagen University, and Per Øhrgaard, professor emeritus in German literature, published a book in spring this year entitled Language-Less World Citizens: On educational policy that disappeared.

The two authors explain how Danish language policy evolved, the role of foreign languages in general education (dannelse, Bildung), and openness to key foreign influences, from Germany and France, and later involving English and a wide range of other languages.

The book identifies a “national crisis” in which “half of university degrees in languages in Denmark have been closed down”, according to one reviewer, Robert Phillipson, professor emeritus of Copenhagen Business School or CBS.

He said this included the closure of a programme at CBS, which has abolished translator and interpreter training despite there being major needs in the European Union system and the commercial world.

“CBS has failed to maintain a critical mass of teaching and research in any foreign languages,” he said.

Phillipson said: “English has been reduced to purely instrumental functions. American studies, European studies and the study of languages as integral to national histories, have all gone. The foundations for well-qualified intercultural understanding and interaction have been undermined.”

Sprinkled throughout the book are examples of how “alarmingly incompetent recent Danish policies” have been, he said.

Ministry activities

The ministry has tried to address the situation of languages at Danish universities several times, and had two working groups make recommendations that were presented at a major national conference for languages in November 2016.

Professor Hanne Leth Andersen, rector of Roskilde University, who headed the ministerial working group which delivered a report in December 2016 and has made recommendations for a national languages strategy, told University World News that she is optimistic that a strategy for tackling the freefall of interest in languages will emerge soon.

She said the process was delayed due to a shift of ministers, but that Minister of Higher Education and Science Søren Pind has stressed that languages are important for a cultural nation like Denmark with the ambition of playing an important role in the ever more globalised world.

“Even if this is not followed up initially by many resources, it will help if the politicians take a positive stand on languages, because this will give young people a reason to believe, for instance, that there will be a need for language teachers in secondary schools and therefore to choose language studies.”

“One action I would like to see”, Leth Andersen said, “is that languages are given special treatment by the Quality Commission appointed by the ministry to work out recommendations on how to strengthen quality at Danish universities.”

An earlier set of 42 working group recommendations, published in 2011 under the title Language is the Key to the World, advocated strengthening language teaching at all educational levels in Denmark.

“Foreign languages, except for English, are under pressure at all levels in the education system,” the 2011 working group warned. “A vicious circle is developing.”

In January 2017, writing in the major Danish newspaper, Berlingske Tidende, Hanne Leth Andersen and Per Holten-Andersen, president of Copenhagen Business School, called for a concentration of language teaching at two Danish universities, Aarhus University in western Denmark and Copenhagen University in the east.

“A concentration of the language milieus will ensure a critical mass, a sufficient number of students and, as a consequence, strengthen research and improve the quality of teaching,” they argued.

Minister Pind told Forskerforum that the ministry was working on the question of a national plan for languages, but it has been due since January.

Professor Emeritus Øhrgaard told University World News he thinks the situation is critical but one positive step to take would be to restore the status of languages in the curriculum.

“The importance of languages has been drastically reduced, also in basic education.”

He accused businesses of hypocrisy in calling for languages now after previously approving all the changes that have undermined them.

“Copenhagen Business School is closing down all courses in languages even though the director of the Confederation of Danish Industry is a member of the board,” he said.

He said the position of languages will not improve before employers – both public and private – are ready to pay for the skills. “People vested in languages are badly paid.”

He said the strategy that was announced has not come out yet, and “nobody knows what it is going to contain".