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Danes switch back into their mother tongue during group work and breaks. And they may not even realise that they are doing it. How this works is shown in a new Master's thesis
‘I’m sorry. Could you please speak in English?’
For international students in Denmark, this is a phrase they are sick of repeating.
In many classes taught in English, Danish students suddenly slip into discussions in high-speed, complicated Danish, leaving international students completely in the dark.
A new Master’s thesis now sheds light on this phenomenon, which is called ‘code switching’ (alternating between two languages, ed.). The thesis is the work of Lotte Eggert Kiil, who studied English and who now works as a student assistent at the Centre for Internationalisation and Parallel Language Use.
»I was interested in seeing how Danish students interact in courses taught in English. I wanted to investigate how, when and why they code-switched,« she says.
»It was my impression that the Danish students are perfectly capable of speaking in English and do so, but that they also switch to Danish in some situations. I wanted to investigate how, when and why they did this«.
Lotte Eggert Kiil recorded the interactions of two classes of students being taught in English at the Faculty of Life Sciences. One class was entirely made up of Master’s students, and the other was a mixture of Master’s and Bachelor students.
She observed lectures, student presentations and group work, to see whether there was a difference between how much the Danes used their mother tongue in these three situations.
»I found that the students hardly ever spoke Danish during lectures when they had questions, or in student presentations,« she explains, adding that »at the most they would switch languages if they didn’t know a word.«
But in group work situations, the Danes were much more likely to slip into their own language, sometimes excluding non-Danish group members.
»In all groups, the Danish students swiched into Danish as soon as the international student left the room for some reason. But in one of the classes, they would also sometimes switch to Danish when the international student was present. Sometimes this meant that the international student was excluded from the conversation – both in relation to the exercise they were doing, but also in relation to the small-talk,« she continues.
The use of Danish, resulting in the exclusion of non-Danish group members, is not easy to interpret, says Lotte.
There are a number of possible explanations, and it is possible the Danes simply do not realise they are doing it.
»I am not really able to say whether it was intentional or not. I think that the Danes were not always aware that they were switching to Danish. In the questionnaire most of them wrote that they never or rarely speak Danish when an international student is present. But that did not match with what I was observing,« she says.
»I don’t see any problem with students speaking Danish together in group work, unless it excludes an international student. In this case it can seem quite rude.«
Indeed, being linguistically considerate may be a skill that is acquired over time with practice, it seems.
»One explanation could be that the students at the MA course, where the students did not shift into Danish during group work, are simply more used to being taught in English. They had already taken five or more courses in English, whereas the mixed class with primarily BA students (who tended to lapse into Danish in group work) had only taken two classes of this type previously.«
However, the language spoken may also depend on the behaviour and attitude of the international student, says Lotte.
»In a questionnaire, some Danish students wrote that if the international student was ‘passive’, they might switch into Danish to talk to the other Danish group members,« she says.
She added that »in this case, it is hard to know what is cause and what is effect. It could be that the interational student is passive because the others have switched into Danish.«
Even the Danish students who stuck to English during classes and group work reverted to their mother tongue during breaks.
»When there is a break, an instant switch occurs. The Danes speak Danish with each other, and they hardly ever interacted with the international students. It seems that in the courses I observed, the Danish students are not really interested in including the international students in their social life.«
The phenomenon of code-switching is by no means unique to Danish students in Denmark, the study reveals.
In the course where the students switched to Danish during group work, there were a number of international students from the same country, and they would sometimes also swtich to their own mother tongue, Lotte explains.
Lotte stresses that the case study may not be representative of students at the University of Copenhagen. But her Master’s thesis raises a number of interesting questions.
»It would be interesting to investigate how international students perceive this kind of behaviour. Do the Danish students seem stand-offish or unwilling to cooperate with international students? And what reputation do we have among out partner universities abroad?« she wonders.
»Do students end up going back home and saying ‘Don’t go to Denmark’?«
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