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University of Copenhagen
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Academics lose status when they teach Danish with an accent

Danish as a second language — International researchers have to teach in Danish after three to six years at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH). But the Danish students give them poor evaluations because they speak Danish as a second language. Alberte Ritchie Green has investigated what it feels like to go from being an academic expert to being a language novice.

»Denmark is one of the world’s most intolerant language communities,« the linguist Jens Normann Jørgensen once said. The late Prince Henrik, husband of the present Danish Queen Margrethe, knew it, as he was ridiculed throughout his life for his French accent, even though he spoke excellent Danish as a second language.

»Danes have a first language ideal associated with the communication,« says Alberte Ritchie Green. Danish should preferably sound exactly as it normally does, if there is to be a seamless exchange.

27-year-old Alberte Ritchie Green got her MA In Danish at the end of 2022 and now teaches highly-educated non-Danes in Danish at a language school. Her students say that when they go about their lives and speak to Danes using the phrases they have just learned, Danes automatically switch into English.

Native speakers of one of the larger world languages, like say English, are accustomed to hearing their language spoken in a multitude of different levels and ways, often with strong accents. In Denmark, however, people are not accustomed to hearing their language as a second, third or fifth language.

When the baker responds in English when a customer orders coffee and cinnamon buns in Danish with a strong accent, it is an attempt to ease the interaction and avoid having one of the sides losing face in the language interaction. Even though the pastry normally ends up with the customer, it is demotivating for them when they want to practice their language.

Denmark is one of the world's most intolerant language communities.
Linguist Jens Normann Jørgensen (1951-2013)

Everyday phrases are one thing. Teaching at an academic level is completely different. The University of Copenhagen expects international researchers to be able to contribute actively to teaching in Danish after three to six years.

This was what Alberte Ritchie Green’s master’s thesis was about on the Danish degree programme. It turned out that the language requirement is seen as a major burden for a number of international teaching staff who move from a status as academic expert to a language novice.

New language policy, new requirements

The University of Copenhagen has had a language policy since 2008. At first, a parallel language policy was introduced between Danish and English, and the primary objective of the policy was that all employees should be able to teach in academic English.

At that time, there were no requirements for international employees to have Danish skills, but this changed in the next decade:

»The political focus shifted, and there was a feeling that Danish should not lose status in universities,« says Alberte Ritchie Green when the University Post met her in the old university library.

The proportion of international staff at the University of Copenhagen has risen dramatically in recent decades, and 40 per cent of all researchers had a non-Danish background in 2020. This trend put Danish researchers under more pressure to teach, because the teaching on most bachelor’s degree programmes is in Danish.

Parallel language use

Internationalization and globalization have meant that both staff and students increasingly have to function in both English and Danish and sometimes also in other languages in their daily work at the university. In order to support its employees and students in meeting these challenges, the University of Copenhagen has had parallel language use as a theme in its strategic objectives since 2008, when it set up the Centre for Internationalisation and Parallel Language Use (CIP).


In January 2021, the Board tried to solve this problem with a new language policy that contains this sentence:

»In general, it is expected that [international] tenure track assistant professors, associate professors, and professors can contribute to teaching in Danish after 3-6 years, including grading and supervising students.«

When the language requirement was introduced, Alberte Ritchie Green was working as a student assistant at CIP, the University of Copenhagen’s Centre for internationalisation and Parallel Language Use on South Campus, where international staff take on the challenge of learning Danish.

When the news of the Danish requirement broke on the university’s intranet KUnet, it set off a torrent of critical comments from staff with international backgrounds. They feared that it would slow down their career in the competition with their colleagues who have Danish as their first language.

The critics also feared that it would place the University of Copenhagen at a disadvantage in the competition for the most talented researchers. Why go to a tiny country which requires that you learn a difficult language, when you can choose a university where you can teach in English or another language that you already master?

When the University Post interviewed John Renner Hansen, who led the committee that formulated the new language policy in 2020, he said:

»There won’t be a big threatening head of department at the end of this time period saying ‘you will be fired if you don’t live up to this policy’. It should be seen as guidance, so that heads of department together with associate professors and professors can work out individual plans and possibly a reduction of international researchers’ workload in the period where they are to take Danish-language courses.«

More Danish than the Danes

The use of Danish as a second language among the highly educated is something that has not been researched extensively, says Alberte Ritchie Green.

As a CIP employee, she had access to lists of participants from previous courses, but it was no easy task to find people allowing her to observe their teaching.

»Most people found it intimidating to have me inside with my recording equipment, even though I emphasised that I would observe the interaction, but not assess their Danish skills.«

Their position as academic experts is challenged by their status as a language novice when they start to teach in Danish.
Alberte Ritchie Green

Alberte Ritchie Green was in contact with 50 international employees before she managed to get ten people to agree to be interviewed. She was also allowed to observe four of them at work as teachers and supervisors. The employees had been in Denmark between three and 22 years, had all received Danish instruction, and most of them had begun to teach in Danish.

Both in the teaching situations and in the in-depth interviews, Green noticed that there is a prevalent language norm that assesses Danish as a second language considerably worse than Danish as a first language. This is both among the Danish students and among the international staff themselves.

»Their position as academic experts is challenged by their status as a language novice when they start to teach in Danish.«

HEr thesis:

Alberte Ritchie Green’s master’s thesis title is »You become more Danish than the Danish teachers« – an investigation into Danish as a second language among international academic staff at UCPH.

Alberte Ritchie Green has both seen and heard staff lose face and authority when they teach in Danish.

»My examples show that the academic staff get into a difficult and uncomfortable situation when they have to ask the students for help.«

The power relationship is shifted when the teaching staff fall short and have to appeal to the students to find the right word, concept, or pronunciation. And suddenly the students have the role of experts.

This leads to an asymmetry, says Alberte Ritchie Green, and it is something that international staff are acutely aware of, and handle in different ways.

The master’s thesis has borrowed its title »You become more Danish than the Danish teachers« from a Dutch academic who is proud of teaching in Danish. He also gauges his own success with reference to the first language ideal, says Alberte Ritchie Green:

»He translates all concepts into Danish, for example, when he prepares the teaching. A native speaker would not do this, and many of the concepts that he uses are all English loanwords, but he cannot know this. An English loanword that works and is used in Danish like ‘feedback’, for example, he translated into ‘tilbagekoblinger’ – and from a communicative perspective this won’t work well, even though the intentions were good.«

Cat or tails

All the staff that Alberte Ritchie Green have spoken to, are striving to get up to par with their Danish colleagues. But this can be an arduous process for some of them. In her master’s thesis, she also discusses how this path can also be unnecessarily lonely.

»They all speak English, and even though it is a language they share with the students, they still prefer not to use it as a staging point – they want to speak Danish and only Danish. This actually contradicts the original language policy’s goal of parallel language use,« Alberte Ritchie Green notes.

They are criticised for their accent in the student evaluations. They are simply being rated as poor teachers.
Alberte Ritchie Green

In the thesis, there is an example from teaching in an advanced statistics programme. A student uses the term ‘plat eller krone’ or ‘heads or tails’ in a statistical, flipping a coin, context. The instructor is not familiar with the idiom. And even though another student offers the English ‘heads or tails’ translation, the instructor continues with the Danish expression. It gets a minor, but crucial, semantic twist along the way however, as in the instructor’s rendering it turns into ‘kat eller krone’ or ‘cat or tails’.

READ ALSO: Bad accent is considered bad teaching

All of the instructors have had poor evaluations the first time they teach in Danish.

»This is really problematic,« says Alberte Ritchie Green. »One thing is that the employees have to live with the way they lose face in the classroom. But they are also criticised for their accents in the student evaluations. They are simply being rated as poor teachers, and this is not exactly something that increases their motivation.«

One of the contributors has said that the international teaching staff find that it is, in particular, the weakest students who find it difficult to abstract themselves from the language complications that arise in the course of the teaching.

Thirty-something vowel sounds

All the people Alberte Ritchie Green interviewed express negative opinions about the UCPH language requirements.

»None of them resist it. But they find it incredibly tough. Several of them say that they did not know in advance that this was an obligatory requirement. They only realized it after arrival. Suddenly, after six months, there is a manager that asks you whether you are not taking any Danish lessons, and makes it sound like this is something that you just do.«

For international employees with a Danish personal identification CPR number, getting teaching in Danish at publicly-funded language schools is free for the first five years after arrival in Denmark.

Does Alberte Ritchie Green reckon it is at all possible to learn the Danish language, with its thirty-something vowel sounds, within the time frame set by the university?

»There are, of course, differences between Scandinavians, Germans and, say, people from Asia who are accustomed to completely different linguistic structures. Most people will be able to pass the study exam within three years, but they would not be able to do research and all the other things in parallel. And the university can’t employ people and then keep them from doing their academic assignments, even though this would be best if you were only looking at it from a language perspective.«

The time spent on learning Danish to a level that satisfies both them and their students is putting foreign staff at a disadvantage in the academic career race if you are to believe the master’s thesis.

While the language requirement was partly motivated by the need for the Danish academic staff to be relieved from extra obligations, Green’s interviewees say that it is now the careers of the international researchers that are impaired by the language requirement and the taken-for-granted first language ideal.

»The time they spend perfecting their Danish, after all, is taken from doing other things. And still the positions go to the Danes if they apply for them in direct competition with a person who has Danish as their first language, they say. My interviewees also find it difficult to find their way into leading positions, boards of studies and collegial bodies because of the language barrier,« says Green.

High expectations

From her own CIP experience, Alberte Ritchie Green knows that several language teachers note that their participants not only need to learn Danish on their courses, but also need a space where they can talk openly about how they perceive expectations, as many people feel pressured by the language requirements.

»They have made a life for themselves here and brought their family with them. And they are afraid that they can be fired or thrown out of the country if they do not live up to the requirements.«

None of the academic staff in Green’s thesis have been threatened with dismissal, something that the head of the original language policy committee John Renner Hansen also denied would happen.

»Only one of them has faced an explicit language requirement. The others have faced vague recommendations, but most of them have already sought out language instruction at an early stage themselves.«

In her thesis, Alberte Ritchie Green concludes that both international staff and Danish students could benefit from what she calls »a more active language policy« with a clear alignment of expectations based on the UCPH language policy.

»It is a lot to demand of teaching staff that they themselves have to defend their speaking Danish as a second language to the students. I think it would be better if, say, an academic manager stood forward and said, ‘you have this instructor who speaks Danish as a second language. She has been hired on the basis of her academic skills, and she has not chosen the language of instruction herself. If the language is causing you problems, please come to me, and we will find a solution’

According to Alberte Ritchie Green, language policy work should start already during the hiring process. It needs to be transparent what the university expects and what kind of help it can offer.

»In my investigation, it varies from department to department and faculty to faculty, how the language policy is administered. There are international employees who do not even know that UCPH has a language centre that offers courses that fit their requirements.

They get a huge benefit giving each other feedback – also across faculties and academic interests – instead of each of them having to wrestle with the language requirement on their own.«

READ ALSO: Lecturer provoked by poor English evaluation

It hurts to get bad evaluations on your teaching when it is actually the accent that the students are grading. One of the academic staff interviewed for Alberte Ritchie Green’s thesis formulates the first language ideal in the following way:

»You want to avoid your own expectations being below the expectations of the students, so you deliberately demand a lot of yourself.«

»You don’t want to look like someone talking gibberish.«