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7 Comments

  • Great post.

    I’m sure it’s true that many Danes overrate their competence, but as an American married to a Dane, I must say that I find Danish competence nonetheless to be staggeringly good. That said, my circle is a group of well-educated Copenhageners in their early 30s, precisely where the level of English can be expected to be the best. Nearly all of my wife’s friends could teach in English, give a presentation, handle a lively conversation on a complicated subject or otherwise. Any mistakes they made would be so small and/or rare that they wouldn’t even distract.

    Danes’ English is so good that outsiders like me find it hard to practice our Danish in Denmark; the first hint of an accent and the Danish bartender or barista will switch to perfect English. It’s almost annoying, except that I know they’re trying to be friendly internationalists, not to obliquely criticise my Danish (and after seven years, my Danish is definitely adequate to the task of getting myself a beer, pretty much the first thing I learn in any language…)

    Sadly, promotion of Danish is tinted with nationalism a bit; the anti-immigrant Dansk Folkeparti has made it a cause. It shouldn’t be a bad thing to promote Danish, but this association is one that pro-Danish Danes could do without. The solution is of course a relentless promotion of mulilingualism, both-and not either-or, as you point out. But there are only so many hours in a day, and promoting multiple languages inevitably means not promoting something else with the same teaching hours and kroner. So you really have to want it to make it work.

  • I could not agree more with everything that Lane says above. I am a Brit living in Jutland and it is incredibly easy to find excuses for me not being better at Danish, but one of the difficult things I find is a kind of “lip-service internationalization”. What I mean by this is that a company or other organisation may declare their concern language to be English, but on closer examination one finds that many important discussion still take place in Danish. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that Danish organisation “should” conduct all their business in English, but if they truly want to be international and declare themselves to be so, and thereby attract foreign talent and compete globally, then it is incumbent upon them not to engage in this halfheartedly.

  • As a regular user of Den Danske Ordbog and ordnet.dk, I’m pleased to see this piece by its managing editor. I work as a freelance translator of the three Scandinavian languages (Danish, Norwegian and Swedish) to English. Most of my work involves legal and commercial texts, and I have noticed the ever-increasing influence of English in these realms. My personal opinion is that Danish is the most threatened of the three over the long term.

  • I wonder if we should see it as a threat or quite simply as a historical development. I am German and grew up bi-lingually, and my impression is that English influence made the German language more accessible, more liquid, more playful. When I read German texts from the 19th century, it all feels clumsy, stiff, not to the point, over complicated. Texts by contemporary post WWII writers are smooth, elegant, more precise and more fun to read – they are more English, more Carl Sagan than Karl Marx. And that goes for fiction and none fiction alike. I am rather relaxed. It is a new world. A different historical period. And languages have never been static. They are alive, and life always means change.

  • For an adult to learn another language well is hard work. People in general won’t do it unless it’s necessary. If it isn’t, why bother? I’d like to be able to read and speak Danish… or Mandarin, for that matter… but it isn’t necessary or very useful and I have far more important calls on my time.

  • I sympathize with Lane to some extent: it was 3 months before I could order an øl without a certain amount of misunderstanding. However it is, I think, a mistake to go only by your own circle. Most Danes in Sjælland or Jylland* (outside Copenhagen) will have a smattering of English, but would find it hard to sustain a lengthy conversation. And of course that applies particularly in many businesses.
    The few Danish international-facing organizations I have dealt with at any length, however, do seem to me to take 2nd language competence seriously – which after all is in their own interest.

    Personally I take the view that if one accepts to live in a country, one owes it to oneself, not to mention the natives, to get a reasonable grasp of the language (though after 60 years of learning and reading French, and living in the country for 5 years, I still find it very hard to understand – I think my ear is defective for French, whereas German and Danish I fell into within 2 years).

    However my first job in Denmark was cleaning offices at night – I could not get a ‘proper’ job, in spite of usable ‘skills’. My wife had assured me that ‘all Danes speak English’, and it turned out that educated ones often did: So they did not need someone to speak English for them to the outside world – it would have been more use if I spoke Urdu or Mandarin. But even getting a job as a cleaner was not easy, since every time I rang up, it was assumed I was a Turk. My wife had to make the call, and then go along and convince them that I did not need that much Danish to talk to my hoover.

    Thanks for an interesting post.

    *cannot speak for Fyn