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Stand-off over Danish language at meetings

One professor pulled his weight and insisted on speaking Danish at a staff meeting. Disrespect to non-Danish staff and scientists, a PhD student protested. But a language compromise seems impossible

It is one thing that the University of Copenhagen is having a hard time ensuring that information in e-mails and newsletters is also in English.

It is another that the University is finding it hard to ensure that both Danish and non-Danish speaking staff and scientists can hold face-to-face meetings effectively without getting into a tug-of-war over language.

The University of Copenhagen’s parallel-language policy stipulates that e-mails to all staff should also be in English. The level of information in English to non-Danes, according to the policy, (but not in practice, as a soon to be released report shows) should be the same as in Danish to Danes. But in the University of Copenhagen’s parallel-language policy statement (here in Danish) there is no direct reference to a parallel language policy for staff and scientists at meetings.

And, as some international scientists tell the University Post, the broad policy guideline of ensuring that non-Danish staff and scientists are included can be met by a form of language civil disobedience by both Danish and non-Danish staff.

Don’t understand Danish? … You don’t have to be here

The University of Copenhagen’s parallel language policy stipulates that non-Danish students and staff should be ensured the same level of information as their Danish colleagues. But a staff meeting at the former Faculty of Life Sciences over new immigration rules turned into a confrontation.

A professor refused to speak English at the meeting, relates Sasan Nazemi, an Iranian PhD student.

»I simply asked if it was OK for people to speak English, as there were, as far as I could see, at least two who did not understand Danish. But the professor responded back to me in Danish.«

»‘If you don’t understand Danish, you don’t have to be here!’«, Sasan quotes him as saying. »The crazy thing was, that he was not even a Danish professor«, Sasan comments.

Don’t want to make a deal out of this

In a letter of protest, Sasan subsequently thanked his head of secretariat for inviting him to the meeting, and went on to outline why he would have a hard time turning up to this kind of meeting again.

»I can understand Danish a little bit, and I am improving my Danish language not because I have to, but because I want it to,« he wrote, and continued: »I’m not familiar with everybody in our department but apparently the professor, who gave his speech in Danish, has a problem with international students.«

»I don’t want to make a big deal out of this but some people, no matter where they are coming from and what sort of education they have, they can’t communicate with others as they should.«

Back and forth between English and Danish

The argument for holding meetings in Danish is that some Danish staff and scientists will be at a disadvantage relative to international colleagues if the meetings are held in English, and that it is of course easier among a majority Danish staff. The argument for meetings in English is that it is more inclusive of non-Danes.

Holding an effective meeting in parallel-language terms, in two languages seems, so far seems to be an insoluble paradox.

»The trouble is, of course, that there is always going to be someone who is at a disadvantage,« says Joyce Kling Soren who is doing her PhD on the use of English-language teaching at the Centre for Parallel Language Use (CIP).

The CIP is a University of Copenhagen unit that researches the use of English and Danish in academia, and does English-language teaching courses for academics. The CIP itself has attempted to experiment and find best practice for communication in its own meetings. It includes Danish and non-Danish speakers, but most fluent in English – and they switch freely between the two languages.

According to Joyce, there is no easy solution.

»Right now CIP meetings are going through a transition period, and we have not yet landed on a policy, but prior to this, we just responded in whatever language we felt comfortable with.«

»If something was not understood, the rule was that you asked for clarification.«

The language in meetings debate is far from being over.

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