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Davidsen Nielsen - English

Language policy in Denmark – with special reference to functional domains


Niels Davidsen-Nielsen, Chairman of the Danish Language Council

In Denmark, language policy is very much on the agenda today, and the main reason for that is undoubtedly that the linguistic situation has changed in recent years. Three main factors in this change are:
The spread of English (as a result of internationalisation and globalisation),
An increased number of languages (Denmark is no longer a homogeneous language community),
Generally increased demands for command of language (transition to the IT-society).     

To a greater or lesser degree this change has taken place in all European countries (although the spread of English does not apply to Great Britain). As a whole we are thus faced with the same challenges throughout Europe.           

The role of the politicians

On March 20, 2003 the Danish language was debated in the Danish Parliament (the Folketing). Members of the Social-Liberal Party had posed the following question to the Minister of Cultural Affairs, Mr Brian Mikkelsen:     

“What concrete initiatives is the Government going to take in order to strengthen and develop the Danish language so that it can retain its culture-bearing function in the future?”     

In the debate there was striking consensus among the political parties that the Danish language needs to be strengthened. In his answer the Minister of Cultural Affairs announced that he had set up a working group which had been given the task of drawing up a proposal for a Danish language policy. As Chairman of the Danish Language Council I was appointed member of this working group.      

In our proposal, which was published on 11 September 2003 we do not recommend linguistic legislation ‘per se’ as it has been recommended by a parliamentary committee in Sweden. Instead we recommend a number of guidelines which can be laid down by the Government and the Folketing.     

On 23 January 2004 the Minister of Cultural Affairs will put forward his language political policy  statement, and then a decision will be made. The minister has commented favourably on the report of the working group and in so doing has said, “I agree in practically everything the working group write in their proposal”.           

Loss of domains     

A main challenge to the Danish language is that it is under pressure from English in research, in tertiary education and in trade and industry. A principal goal in the working group’s proposal is to ensure that Danish is a complete language which can be used for all purposes - a language whoseparallel use of languages. This implies that Danish should be used not instead of the international auxiliary language of today, English, but side by side with English.     

The academic world

It is well documented that in Denmark the language of research is to a large extent English. The advantages of using English are obvious: English is the predominant language in scientific literature, particularly in the technical and natural sciences, so Danish researchers simply have to publish in English. The use of English is also required if Danish researchers are to participate in international networks.

There are also disadvantages to using English, however. Communication of scientific results to the Danish public, a task which researchers have a democratic obligation to undertake, is rendered difficult. Furthermore, the quality of scientific work may suffer from insufficient command of  English on the part of researchers (who may end up writing what they are linguistically capable of  rather than what they wish to).

Against this background, the working group recommends that communication of scientific results to the public in Danish be strengthened. This requires that greater merit be attached to such communication than is the case today, and that there be a sufficient number of periodicals in Danish in which such results can be published. Furthermore, the working group recommends that researchers be given the offer of having their scientific work translated from Danish into English or another major language. The expenses for this are bound to be considerable but the money will be well spent, for this type of assistance will obviously be to the benefit of Danish as a language of science. It will also be to the benefit of science itself, for it is evident that a large majority of Danish scientists can express their ideas more precisely and subtly in their own language than in English. Finally, we recommend that doctoral theses written in English be accompanied by a more detailed summary in Danish than is required today. In passing, I would mention here that the percentage of Danish doctoral theses written in English has risen steeply over the past ten years.

Tertiary education

In this domain Danish is under pressure too, and here things are changing more rapidly than the      working committee had expected; what we are faced with is in fact a massive transition to English as the language of instruction. The most extreme case is to be found at the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural High School of Denmark. In a strategy which has been adopted at that university the following is stated:

“Before the year 2010 English is to be the primary language of instruction for all MA-courses,      where it is relevant.”

The same change of course is expected at the Technical University of Denmark. And at the      University of Aalborg twenty-nine lines and specialisations have English as the language of      instruction

The problem connected with this drift towards English is that general social considerations are no longer made allowance for. The Danish universities are committed not only to doing research but also to educating students so that they can occupy important positions in society. And, after having finished their university studies a large majority of graduates move on to working in a Danish context. When taking up a job in Denmark, it can hardly be advantageous for a veterinary surgeon or a horticultural adviser, for example, to be trained in English and equipped with English terminology only.     

For these reasons we recommend that Danish should be the chief language of instruction in tertiary education and that not only research considerations but also social considerations should be included in the language policies of the universities.

Trade and industry

In a period of internationalisation increased use of English in trade and industry is unavoidable. The objective of a Danish language policy must, therefore, be to ensure that Danish is a commercial language side by side with English, that is, to establish parallel use of languages here as well.

More specifically, the working group recommends that information which is of decisive importance to employees be given in Danish, that companies should have home pages both in English and Danish, and that this should also be the case when one proceeds to more specific information. We also recommend investigating how it affects people’s working lives to have a different language from one’s own as the company language.     

In trade and industry, job advertisements are now increasingly in English. Danish companies      extensively advertise for a sales manager, product manager or accountant rather than for ‘salgschef’,’ produktchef’ or ‘regnskabsfører’. As this policy is also adopted by Danish firms wishing to hire Danish employees for work in Denmark, it is considered ridiculous by some Danes.

In a satirical column in a Danish newspaper it was proposed that a person who cleans toilets should henceforth be called, ‘deputy head of rest room hygiene and paper towel supply controller’.

Closing comments

Not many years ago the view was often put forward in Denmark – particularly by linguists – that the best you could do was to let language look after itself. Language planning was considered either suspicious or futile: ‘Suspicious’ because changes made in Danish might be ‘purist’, for example adaptation of loanwords in spelling, pronunciation or inflection which made them less foreign; ‘futile’ because as far as the status of the Danish language in society was concerned there was no real chance of carrying into effect changes which were at variance with market forces. This view is rarely put forward in Denmark today, and since it is not really tenable that is hardly surprising. Admittedly, language is difficult to control but its development is not governed by fate.            


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