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University of Copenhagen
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Comment: Time to stop being nationalistic

In industry, speaking and writing in English goes without saying, argues a University of Copenhagen scientist. And if Danish science wants to make it internationally, the university has to actively counter its provinciality

I worked at the University of Copenhagen, then called the KVL, from 1998 to 2002.

I sometimes encountered a strange behaviour related to language. I remember a department meeting that was held entirely in Danish, despite some of the staff being from abroad who did not speak the language.

One of my colleagues in the lab, a professor and also a foreigner, had explained to me that he felt living in an information vacuum as a result of the language issue. Most of the e-mails intended to inform the staff were in Danish, as were some of the official documents.

In industry, English is taken for granted

Despite the good international reputation of the university, around the year 2000 still a local, Danish, focus seeped through in many matters. It was also impossible to receive my salary on a non-Danish account. I was very pleased by the attitude of the Danske Bank as they asked me if I wanted all my bank related information in English or in Danish. But they were an exception.

Most, if not, all, colleagues at the University were perfectly capable of communicating in English, but some sort of strange force seemed to tell them to minimise it. This is even more surprising when one encounters Danes on the streets, in shops, etc. where most show a willingness and ability to help you in English. This is exactly what one would expect from a small country where international relationships and export are very important. I must add that the group I worked in was an exception, possibly because it contained many international staff.

In my current job, in industry, whenever we suspect that one person in the meeting may not be totally comfortable with the Dutch language, the whole meeting is held in English. As a result Dutch meetings are an exception, and English is spoken as a matter-of-fact. Even at informal meetings, and at the coffee machine, as soon as a non-Dutch speaking colleague is spotted, everybody switches to English. Nobody ever complains about it, as everybody recognises that we are working in an international environment.

But this is not like France

The larger universities are also working in an international environment. The language of their trade is English. There are smaller, local universities, but the University of Copenhagen is certainly not of that ilk. I have worked at another university in the Netherlands where English is also used a lot. There are many classes taught in English as very often there are foreign students in the audience, I don’t believe that there has ever been much opposition to that.

I cannot help thinking that the strong adherence to speaking Danish has to do with a strong feeling of a national bond among the Danish (other Scandinavian countries have it too). The acceptance of the European euro currency is also lagging in Scandinavia compared with many other European countries. I also see evidence for this little theory of mine in the ubiquitous use of the Danish flag. However small the festivity, Danish flags will be waved in the office, and of course the Danish language spoken.

The French have a similar language problem in that sticking to their language appears to have withheld progress in certain scientific areas in the past.

If it wants to remain strong, then…

Years ago, when I was involved in organising an international conference in France, I was told that there is a rule that all conference information has to be given in French, hence the bilingual folders. Even to this day, I have problems finding an English website for some of my colleagues who work at (large) French Universities. But that’s France, not Denmark.

Danish science has a great international history and is very strong in many fields,

But if it wants to remain at this level, some of the nationalistic remnants, e.g. those that show in language use, may have to be actively countered.

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