‘Language death’ in Denmark blamed on ‘humanities bashing’

Academics estimate that 32 language degree programmes have closed in the past five years

January 15, 2020
Source: Alamy

Danish academics have warned of “language death” in the country after the closure of scores of foreign language programmes, blaming the trend on a lack of regard for the humanities and the perceived importance of English.

The Danish National Centre for Foreign Languages (NCFF) estimates that 32 language degree programmes in Denmark have closed over the past five years.

Mette Skovgaard Andersen, director of the NCFF’s unit at the University of Copenhagen, said she was “not certain that we have seen the last programmes to close”.

Denmark “used to be a highly competent country with regard to foreign languages”, she continued, but for many years there has been “a discourse about ‘useless humanities’ and, at the same time, a very explicit national focus on the STEM competences”.

In addition, Danish politicians have been “very focused on promoting English”, which has led to a misconception among young people that other foreign languages were unimportant, Dr Andersen said.

The decline of foreign language study in Denmark is part of a broader European trend. A report published this month by the UK’s Higher Education Policy Institute called for universities to consider offering credit-bearing language modules to all students to tackle the decline of languages in the sector.

Hanne Tange, associate professor in English and global studies at Aalborg University, which announced the closure of three language programmes in November, said that “with a few exceptions, modern languages except English have disappeared from all universities except Aarhus and Copenhagen. We speak now of ‘language death’ in Denmark.”

She added that the number of students enrolled on the English and business international communication programme at Aalborg dropped from 171 in 2014 to 53 in 2018, after the Danish government introduced a policy capping the number of study places available in each discipline based on labour market need.

Two smaller programmes in German and Spanish international communication had previously been “cushioned by the big English programme”, but the drop in enrolment in English “meant that it became difficult to provide this kind of support”, she said.

Anne Holmen, director of the Centre for Internationalisation and Parallel Language Use at the University of Copenhagen, said “a general trend of bashing humanities” because of its perceived low social impact was a factor for the decline of languages, as was a 15-year-old reform of upper secondary school education, which has left ”very little room in students’ schedules for second and third foreign languages”.

“Finally, there is a very strong ideology in Denmark that English is enough [for a person] to be a global player,” Dr Holmen added.

Roskilde University is among the institutions that no longer offer any language programmes following a gradual closure of courses over the past 10 years because of declining enrolments.

But rector Hanne Leth Andersen, who chaired a working group on national language strategies under the Ministry of Education in 2016, said all humanities and social sciences students were given the option of integrating the use of French, German or Spanish in their degree programme.

“We need to establish a broader approach to languages and language studies. We need language teachers, we need experts on languages and we need to tell students how important it is for them to study languages. And then we need others who get a good competence in English and another foreign language integrated into their discipline,” she said.

“We have some students who choose to come to Roskilde because they know that they can use languages without studying languages.”

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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