Language and Identity
Reality and Belief


Sep 23 , 2004


In Denmark there is - and has been for years - a massive public pressure on other languages (low status languages, that is. Nobody dislikes English, on the contrary).

Denmark is about the closest you'll get to a "nation"state. Almost everybody who speaks Danish lives in Denmark and almost everybody who lives in Denmark speaks Danish. Danish language competence is universally considered an indispensable prerequisite for social succes, first and foremost to get a job. More native speakers of Danish are unemployed, of course, and more Danes live abroad than there are foreigners in Denmark, but such facts don't seem to affect the argument.

An Albanian/Turkish friend of mine from Macedonia works in a megahospital in Copenhagen together with a number of others from different regions of ex-Yugoslavia with whom she shares several languages from childhood, criss-cross. But at work they are all ordered to speak Danish only, even in casual small-talk. It is widespread and seen as a matter of course for companies with many immigrant employees, in this case a public service institution, to maintain a ban on other languages than Danish (and English). CEOs even brag about it and are praised and prized for this contribution to integration.

Danish language is universally perceived as a kind of glue that holds together our well-fare society, our democratic information-sharing, our country, our polity, our "we". Therefore everybody here MUST speak Danish. Preferably all the time!

The dominant public understanding appears to liken an individual's languages to a glass of water or something. There is only so much volume there, and if you have poured in half Arabic there will only be room left for half Danish. This metaphor may be appropriate for a conversation, I guess, but it is wildly misleading when it comes to language competence. And nobody seems to want to apply it to English, anyway.

Marginalization at least, eradication at best, is the fundamental perspective and goal of governmental and mainstream Danish policies and politics toward immigrants' languages. Lack of Danish - surmised or real - is used to justify a barrage of infringements on the living conditions and pride of Denmark's small immigrant population (at most 4%). Government and administrative politics target immigrant languages directly and explicitly. It is discussed openly and publicly - also in the civilized sections of the media - how to contain the use of these un-Danish languages and how to avoid their being passed on to future generations.

To the Danish public it seems obvious that a person who speaks Somali necessarily must suffer a corresponding lack of Danish, and thus be disadvantaged in Danish society. We cannot have lesser persons in this very egalitarian society of ours, so of course her Somali language must be done away with, for her own good. Such is the logic by which language discrimination is implemented in Denmark nowadays. And it is all over the place.

Domestic languages (barring English) are not seen as a ressource but as a liability. Tax-payers who (look as if they) have access to these dark ressources are maligned in a multitude of ways in the public sphere, and at times even punished administratively and legally.

A couple of years ago the current government did away with the former obligation of the municipalities to offer some instruction to school kids in their various mother tongues. Many municipalities have consequently closed down the classes.

Politicians, ministers, mayors and journalists; teachers, school psychologists and kindergartens in unison urge foreign language parents to skip their mother tongues and speak Danish only. To their children, even at home, even to each other, presumably in bed, too. "For the future of the kids."

Sept 16th 2004, the Danish Minister of Integration, Bertel Haarder, announced a draconian fine of up to 30.000 DKr (about 4.000 Euro) for families with recent immigrants, primarily through marriage, if the newcomer "doesn't learn Danish". Wisely, he didn't specify how or when such mishaps are to be ascertained. He did spedify, though, how the punishment is to be brought down upon the family. They have already deposited 50.000 DKr on a blocked bank account as a kind of bribe to the state ("for unforeseen expenses"), to have the new menber of the family be allowed to enter Denmark.

The same day the Social Affairs spokesperson of the same ruling party demanded that children brought up "to hate Denmark" (she didn't mean every Arab or Muslim family, not at all, only the wicked ones) should be rescued from their evil homes by the authorities and brought up with good Danish families. Remind you of anything?

This ugly phantasy shall not prevail - inshallah - but it should illustrate the current climate in Denmark. Though it oughtn't.

Maybe it's time for the international community to take an even closer interest in what is happening in Denmark, language-wise, minority-wise, immigrant-wise, human rights-wise.

Ole Stig Andersen, L O W L A N D S - L , Sept 17, 2004










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© Ole Stig Andersen Sep 23, 2004