While following some interesting personalities in Denmark lately on my Twitter feed, (I have a pretty good online translator and sometimes people write in English), I came across a curious development that probably exists in other non-English speaking countries as well: American English has infiltrated Danish in technology, business, and education to the extent that now there are movements to protect the Danish language.
One new Twitter acquaintance is Copenhagen-based freelance journalist Lene Hundborg Koss (pictured right). Ms. Koss gave me her take on this fascinating language phenomenon, which she often writes about.
JS: What is language globalization? Is this the development of English infiltrating Danish and other languages?
LHK: When we in Denmark speak of the language globalization it is mainly about Danish being influenced by the American English language. Denmark is a small country, and it is important that the inhabitants speak other languages than Danish in order to maintain a certain level of competitiveness in the fields of research, business, and more.
Danish universities hire teachers from other countries, and when you are a student at the master level, the lectures in many fields will be in English. This is for good reason as it means that the university has a broad diversity in research and education and that the students are offered highly skilled teachers within their fields. The students in many areas have to write their reports and theses in English in order to build themselves a position in the international research environment.
But with this being the case, some language specialists fear that the Danish language over time will lose its technical/research terms.
JS: When did this globalization start to appear?
LHK: The Danish language has always been under influence of other languages, for example English, German and French. But the influence of American English is increasing fast–not least because of the globalization.
JS: Are English words being used only for technical things, like computer culture and the Internet? Or is there a general way that English is creeping into the language?
LHK: Areas that are mostly affected are science/research, tech, business, PR, sports, entertainment and political journalism. But yes, it is also coming into the language in a general way.
JS: How do people in Denmark react to this? Is there a generational divide? Is it mostly in people below a certain age, say people under 40, who use English?
LHK: Outside of business and education language, as described above, it is mostly the younger population that uses American English terms a lot. In order to communicate with the world–via Twitter for example–you have to write in English. That is a natural evolution and again a fact of globalization.
JS: What has been the effect of American television on your culture? For example, MTV and youth culture. Are there any specific films and TV programs that have influenced the language?
LHK: TV affects the language, but this has been the case for many years, as programs and movies from abroad are broadcast in the original language
with Danish subtitles. The globalization is especially affecting research, tech, and business language. (Business language, however, cannot be regulated easily as one cannot force businesses to write or speak in a certain way. But the education system can be regulated).
Today a teacher who speaks English does not really need to learn Danish in order to work at the university because he or she can also use English socially. This is an evolution that has taken place since the 1990′s. But a teacher that stays for years will still need to learn Danish, if he is expected to lecture the students below the master level as these lectures will typically be in Danish.
Teaching at the master level in English can also be a problem for some Danish teachers, if they don’t feel at home in the English language. This can lead to uninspiring and limited lectures as the teacher mainly will stick to his or her manuscript without the humor and comments that are born out of mastering the language.
JS: How do people feel about the new influence of English? Are they upset, happy, don’t care?
LHK: In the field of language research some people are upset, but for the most part I do not have the feeling that the general public is really upset about it.
JS: Is there a concern, as I’ve seen in some of the comments on your blog, that people may lose Danish or their first language and speak English instead? I find that hard to imagine.
LHK: In general Danish is not regarded as a language that is about to die, but some people find that we ought to be more careful about preserving the language in all its facets. In 2006 the first International Mother Language Day was celebrated with a special ceremony at UNESCO Headquarters. Goodwill Ambassador and former President of Iceland, Mrs. Vigids Finnbogadóttir highlighted the value of languages both as a means of communication and as expressions of culture and identity. Mrs. Finnbogadóttir qualified languages as “humanity’s most precious and fragile treasures”.
JS: Are there any movements–either cultural or political–to preserve Danish and make sure that this English globalization doesn’t corrupt the language? If so, what are they?
LHK: In 2007 there was a political initiative to look into the situation of the Danish language – a committee of experts discussed the issue and in 2008 they published their views in a report called “Sprog til tiden” (“language in time” or “timely language”). This has resulted in a campaign called “Gang i sproget” (loosely translated as “come on, use the language” or “power to the language”), which is now going on.
The committee agreed it is important that the Danish people are skilled in both Danish and English at a high level (and also are skilled in other languages). Researchers must publish and use their knowledge internationally in order to pay back society for their education. They also agreed on the importance of the universities incorporating language politics that serves both the preservation of Danish (also in research terms) and the use of English and other languages. They could however not unite on a set of rules that could be incorporated in the law about the universities. This means that there is a diversity in the use of English and Danish language at the universities today. The goal of the rules was to secure that the Danish language also in the future will be a full language with, for example, all research and technical terms.
JS: Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share with us on this subject?
LHK: I am a freelance journalist and as such professionally interested in the language for my work. I blog about writing and about language: http://skrivebloggeren.mediajungle.dk. I am also married to a German researcher who is an associate professor and teaches at DTU–The Danish Technical University. This means that I know about using a language, which is not your mother tongue, and have an interest in the debate about using two languages parallel in everyday life, for example at the university and at home. I tweet in Danish under the name @DenMagiskePen.
P.S. From JS: If you live in Denmark and have some personal experience of the American English globalization, I’d love to hear from you. Please leave your comments below and join the discussion here–in the language of your choice. Tak!