University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


German language studies accepted 23 new students in 2019 and that is far too few

Language studies — The Confederation of Danish Industry (DI) is worried about dwindling numbers among German graduates, as Germany is Denmark’s biggest trade partner. According to a professor, the political decision to give humanities a lower priority has taken its toll on the field of study.


his year we celebrate Danish and German relations. One hundred years ago, South Jutland was reunited with Denmark, and the year 2020 has been named the year of cultural exchange between the two countries.

New Year’s toasts saluted the strong bond between the two nations, but at the universities and in the private sector the champagne appears to be flat.

As a field of study, German is less popular than it has been for years. In just a decade, the number of students at the University of Copenhagen has decreased by more than 50 percent. In 2010, out of the 110 applicants, 51 students were admitted to German. However, in 2019 only 67 students applied in total. 23 were admitted – that is roughly the size of a small secondary school class.

The numbers are disconcerting according to Mette Fjord Sørensen, head of research, education, and diversity at the Confederation of Danish Industry (DI):

»We are very concerned about this development. Are we going to end up with a scenario in which we don’t have the capacity to teach other foreign languages than English in our schools?« she asks rhetorically.

According to Mette Fjord Sørensen, approximately 83 percent of DI’s internationally focused businesses trade with Germany, and the potential is there to increase export to the fourth largest economy in the world and the largest in Europe.

»But in order to do so, Danish businesses need capable employees with good language skills and an understanding of German culture and German market dynamics,« she says.

You can buy goods in English but only sell them in German

DI has conducted a survey which indicates that Germany is highly popular among the Danes at the moment. Alongside London and New York, Berlin is a top three travel destination for young people holidaying or perhaps considering a longer stay.

But if Germany has a strong cultural brand, and German speaking candidates are highly sought-after, then why aren’t more young Danes interested in studying German at the university? We put the question to director of Think Tank Europa and former vice-rector of the University of Copenhagen, Lykke Friis.

»It’s correct that Berlin is übercool at the moment, but that hasn’t translated into more young people wanting to learn the language. There’s a common misconception that all Germans speak English. Certainly many of them do, but understanding a country’s language is the best way to understand its culture,« says Lykke Friis.

»If this continues the ramifications on the private sector will be tangible,« says Christian Benne, professor mso of German at Institute of English, German and Romance Studies at the University of Copenhagen. He has witnessed first-hand how the number of students is dwindling.

Mit Englisch kommt man durch. Mit Deutsch kommt man weiter.
Lykke Friis, director of Think Tank Europa

Each year, Denmark is losing billions in trade because of a lack of qualified foreign language speakers, he says:

»It’s very simple: If you want to buy goods in Germany, English will suffice. However, if you want to sell goods in Germany you need to be able to speak the language. That’s one of the reasons why our graduates are in such high demand.«

Mette Fjord Sørensen concurs: »If we don’t understand the language, we risk losing out on the bid,« she says and references a study ordered by DI in 2016 which shows that three out of four businesses who are members of the organization have experienced problems in trade relationships due to a lack of language abilities.

Germans feel accommodated, when they are approached in their native language according to publishing director at Egmont Publishing, Marianne Gram. She travels to Berlin every other week for work and says that you can get by speaking English in the publishing world, but that she speaks German when she is in Berlin because it makes her German employees more comfortable when they can communicate in their native tongue.

According to Lykke Friis, the German language is a real door opener in Europe:

»Mit Englisch kommt man durch. Mit Deutsch kommt man weiter,« she says and shares an anecdote about the time her German abilities persuaded the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to ignore the American, Chinese, and British delegates to hear what Lykke Friis, who served as minister of climate at the time (2009-2011), had to say.

German studies is bleeding and the supply chain is breaking

Those language abilities have to come from among other places the University of Copenhagen. But it is not just the dwindling number of applicants and the drop-out rate that is threatening to hollow out the field at the university. In the fall of 2019, there was talk of making financially based decisions to consolidate degree programmes at the Faculty of Humanities which could target fields like German and French.

Head of the German study programme at the Department of English, Germanic and Romance Studies, associate professor Anna Lena Sandberg, believes that consolidating German with other fields will have a detrimental effect on the quality of education:

»We already have programmes that are consolidated to some degree in practice. However, as lectures are conducted in German, and our students are required to read, write, and speak German, we can’t consolidate the courses any further with other language or humanities subjects,« she says.

Head of study, Kirsten A. Kragh, would love to see more investments in the German programme at the University of Copenhagen. The graduate degree programme in particular is struggling with its limited course options because there quite simply aren’t enough students enrolled.

She points out that German is an important link in the supply chain, because future generations of secondary school German teachers are also trained at the University:

»In addition to generating graduates for the private sector, the public sector, translation, HR, communications and many other areas one of our most important tasks is to educate German teachers for the secondary school level. Germany is one of our closest trading partners, and our close relationship with German language and culture in many ways connects us with the rest of Europe,« says Kirsten A. Kragh.

»Because of Denmark’s close ties to Germany, the study of German language and culture is also the study of our own language and culture,« says Christian Benne.

»We need people who are more than just proficient German speakers, people who are experts with thorough knowledge of Denmark’s most important neighbour,« he says adding:

»If you disregard German in your perspective on the world today, you are missing out on a whole lot. If you want to study a challenging subject with a post-graduate unemployment rate close to zero, you should consider studying German. Our graduates are highly sought-after.«

Ask the politicians, where have all the language studies gone?

Christian Benne has no doubt who is to blame for the dire state of the German degree programme.

According to him, many of the political decisions made in recent years have caused the decline. He highlights the 2005 secondary school reform in which the traditional division of humanities and sciences was abolished. Under the new reform, humanities subjects were lumped in with social science subjects, while students were encouraged to pursue the field of science.

»That particular move eliminated the humanities’ foundation and the failure to prioritize language studies created an imbalance,« he says.

In addition, says Christian Benne, politicians have underestimated the importance of language studies, except for English. His solution to the problem may sound radical to some: Instead of introducing children in primary school to language studies via English, they should begin with German and French:

»Many studies point to the fact that students excel at English regardless of when they start learning it. With the other model the students would excel at an additional language.«

Our graduates are highly sought-after.
Professor mso in German, Christian Benne, Department of English, German and Romance Studies

Lykke Friis would also like to see language studies prioritized earlier on in the educational system:

»It’s a fact that it’s difficult to find capable graduates when so few students choose to learn German earlier on in their education,« she says.

»It is important to learn languages in primary and secondary school, not just for students who wish to pursue a degree in language studies at the university,« says Mette Fjord Sørensen. She recommends that all students practice their language abilities regardless of their field of study. She calls this ‘double capability,’ and she is a proponent of former minister of education and research, Tommy Ahlers’ proposed talent program in which students can choose additional ECTS-credits outside of their degree programme, if they wish to study a foreign language.

This is not a solution that professor Christian Benne believes in. According to him, it reflects the same attitude to language studies that caused the shortage of applicants in the first place:

»A degree in German does not solely exist for the benefit of the private sector. You don’t study Danish, just because you want to do business within Denmark, either. This narrow perception of language as an instrument and a means of communication is what got us in trouble in the first place,« he says.

He adds that young people do not realize early on in their education how German is useful to them, and that is a direct result of being down prioritized in favour of English.

Make German fun again

Both Christian Benne and Mette Fjord Sørensen have pondered the question of how to make German language studies popular again.

»Maybe we can turn it into an elite degree programme?« Mette Fjord Sørensen suggests. »Being able to speak a foreign language at the level of a graduate is a pretty elitist thing in itself.«

According to Christian Benne, the fact that translation is no longer a regulated profession has made language capabilities nice to have instead of need to have — everything that used to make a language study degree attractive has been degraded.

It is also a problem that German has a bad reputation in primary as well as secondary school. According to three German studies students at the University of Copenhagen, Mads Ravn, Sofie Petersen, and Siri Janfelt-Mose, German was known as a dull subject with difficult grammatical rules. They all believe this image plays a part in scaring off new students.

Christian Benne agrees:

»The reason probably lies in the fact that in the secondary school German replaced Latin as the gateway to understanding grammar. In German classes all you do is conjugate verbs and study grammar while English classes are full of interesting texts, analyses, and lively debates. The way a language is taught in school influences the future study choices among students,« he says.

Siri Janfelt-Mose is a fourth semester German student, and she can attest to the high drop-out rate in the programme. In 2016, with 54 students admitted to the programme, 38.9 percent dropped out within the first three years.

»It’s obviously a big problem. Is hard to justify increased funding of a programme that is haemorrhaging students. That is a clear indicator of a problem. But ultimately this is the responsibility of society as a whole. We have to commit to funding those who want to study in this field, because there is clearly a huge demand for German graduates in society,« says Siri Janfelt-Mose.

»We need a collaborative effort between the universities, the private sector, and the politicians in order to save language studies,« says Mette Fjord Sørensen. »And we need to determine who is responsible for what.«

If the negative development continues mirroring the past decades, in 20 years there will not be enough German graduates to replace the secondary school German teachers of the country when they retire. Und dann kommen wir nicht weiter.

Translation: Theis Duelund