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Danish staff speak up in language dispute

The attempt to please international scientists is creating a one-sided, and unsustainable, focus on speaking and writing in English, say Danish staff. The latest in a heated debate on the University of Copenhagen's parallel-language policy

»I understand that internationals feel disconnected if everything is in Danish. But it isn’t as simple as just doing everything in English. This would affect others,« says Kirsten Sjøstrøm, staff representative for laboratory technicians at the Department of Food Science (Food).

»We shouldn’t speak Danish exclusively. But we should have no illusions that everyone will be happy if we conduct our meetings in English.«

At ‘Food’ the newsletter is in English. But international staff complain that they are spammed with Danish mails, and are not informed of important things in a language that they understand. None of this matches the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) policy on parallel language use, according to both Danes and internationals.

‘Take both languages into account’

Most staff that the Danish-language site has interviewed agree with the university’s parallel language policy. It just does not work as it should, they say.

UCPH should not favour a single language and discriminate against a large part of its staff, and no one wants a solution like the Danish People’s Party’s recent idea of banning English at all Danish universities.

There needs to be room for everyone, and Kirsten Sjøstrøm wants management to come up with ideas on how UCPH’s staff can meet in a way that takes both languages into account.

Not Danish? »You don’t need to be here.«

She is backed up by her colleague Dorte Brix, who explains that many joint meetings at the pharmaceutical departments are conducted in English:

»Today it is increasingly those with Danish as their first language, who have the problem,« she says.

At other departments the opposite is true. Iranian PhD student Sasan Nazemi told the University Post recently that he asked at a meeting if his Danish colleagues would speak English. A professor answered him (in Danish): »If you don’t understand Danish, you don’t need to be here.«

English not a problem at the Department of Biology

Such unfortunate confrontations apparently still happen often. Language can be a personal and touchy subject, and choosing between Danish or English will always put someone at a disadvantage.

»If you’re not fluent in a language, you sound less smart than you are,« says Kirsten Sjøstrøm, who believes that it reinforces the internal hierarchy. »If you ask for a translation you risk losing power and prestige.«

At the Department of Biology, a huge influx of international scientists and students has led to English gradually replacing Danish without any major complications, according to staff representative Tine Simonsen.

Taboo ‘not to know English’

»Previously, many international scientists and students took voluntary Danish courses at Studieskolen (Danish for ‘the Study School’, ed), but today it’s the norm to communicate in English, so it is no longer as necessary for them to know Danish,« says Tine Simonsen.

For others, it can be the source of unforeseen problems when English becomes the main language, says Dorte Brix:

»It leads to a marginalisation of the cleaning staff, for example. For most, it is a huge taboo to say that they don’t know English, so we have to address the problem openly,« she says. Courses alone won’t solve the problem – it is primarily staff that are already sure of themselves that sign up.

‘Make room for everyone’

Sasan Nazemi who was kept out of the meeting with his Danish colleagues understands that not all Danes are good at English. But in January the University Post could report that Polish postdoc Jacek Mokrosinski of the Department of Neuroscience and Pharmacology no longer attends meetings that might be in Danish. When he has done, he »felt like [he] was just decoration,« he says.

According to Kirsten Sjøstrøm, many Danes need to relax and to be themselves during their breaks. It can be difficult to express oneself with humour and variety in something other than one’s first language.

»It’s deeply frustrating to express yourself in a language you aren’t familiar with enough to express yourself clearly,« says Kirsten Sjøstrøm.

»Is it satisfactory not to be able to express yourself well at a university?« she asks, rhetorically. If there should be room for everyone at UCPH – she hopes management will follow its own initiative and give priority to real parallel language use.

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