The languages strategy is an important first step

Denmark now has a national languages strategy. This strategy did not make a lot of fuss about itself, probably because not all politicians agree on its importance. After all, the willingness to take action for foreign languages other than English is not the primary focus for everyone.

The problem is nevertheless significant. The proportion of Danish high school students with three foreign languages fell from 33% in 2007 to 4% in 2015. Foreign language studies at university level are also declining, and it is a major quality issue that other disciplines and programmes can only use texts in Danish and English.

Without action, there will be more blind spots on the world map since people will not have access to historical sources, literary texts or to the internet in languages other than English. The result is a smaller universe, fewer shades and a poorer ability to meet the world – both in the labour market and as a citizen in society.

Of course, not only language teachers and researchers can see the problem – Danish business life has for a long time been warning about this: not only cultural heritage and general education is threatened, but also Danish companies' competitiveness.

Now, the Danish government has realised these dangers. With the new strategy, the government acknowledges the challenges and sets up two main objectives:
  • • More students must choose foreign languages and achieve solid language skills beyond English, and

  • • Language education, and language teacher education, must attract and maintain the most talented students.

The strategy proposes seven initiatives. The most important is the establishment of a national centre for foreign languages. The government schedules DKK99 million (US$15.6 million) over the coming five years for this. The amount is difficult to judge, but the will to coordinate is central in the present situation. There will be a need to find more funding to support the work, but now that the government has declared its support, there is hope for more.

The national centre is to some extent inspired by the Norwegian language centre. The Danish centre will have two poles, one in the east and one in the west of the country, which corresponds to the idea formulated by Danish universities about establishing two power centres for foreign languages as the basis for more extensive cooperation with the professional colleges.

The new national centre should establish a coordination between all institutions offering language courses and integrating language skills into other courses. It should also support capacity building and development of languages strategies at schools and institutions. The overall strategy that applies from primary school to higher education is significant.

Local foreign languages strategies

The second initiative is a strong encouragement for municipalities and educational institutions to develop local languages strategies in order to strengthen foreign languages at individual schools and institutions; this call is necessary and should be an obligation. For many years, we have witnessed that French was closed down at local elementary schools because the continuation was not offered at the upper secondary schools in the area. And the other way around.

Also, institutions of higher education should develop language strategies focusing on how foreign languages integrate into other subjects. There is a serious need for academics who combine language skills with another professionalism, people who can handle German, French and Spanish, as well as Arabic and Chinese – at a high written and oral level – while having a professionalism beyond the language.

Lastly, it is positive that the strategy untightens certain regulations so that universities and teacher education colleges can continue the process of rethinking and strengthening their cooperation.

What the languages strategy does not mention, however, is that some of the reasons for the languages crisis are also structural, meaning that legislation, lack of resources or incentives in other directions have reinforced them.

An example is the high school reform, which has focused on sciences and caused a fragmentation of the languages and language levels, with too few students in each group and thus many cancellations.

It is important that the government set out to utilise some of the actions used to strengthen the natural sciences – such as making mathematics obligatory – but now for the advantage of foreign languages.

A follow-up group will be established which will review progress annually, including the languages initiatives in recent years’ reforms and monitoring the specific initiatives in the strategy. Against that background, the national centre will make recommendations.

Then one would hope that more support will follow, and that institutions and professional bodies will use the strategy to move forward, together. It is time for action and no time for quarrelling.

Hanne Leth Andersen is a professor and rector of Roskilde University in Denmark. She chaired the working group on languages under the ministry of education, making recommendations for a languages strategy for the minister in December 2016. She was also a member of the follow-up group for the minister of education and research where the staff of the ministry was coordinating the work.