Monopoly for Danish in Denmark?

OK, OK, we’re back to serious again, although we remain in Denmark. The main serious thing that is happening there currently is that there’s an election campaign going on, heading for a vote scheduled for February 8. Here is CNN’s coverage if you want a little background; basically the incumbent premier, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, is currently doing well in the polls, is required to hold a general election sometime this year, and so would to prefer to do so now.

But I don’t expect you to care. Shoot, I don’t care myself. If you send your web-browser to EuroSavant expecting at all to read Danish election coverage on any sort of regular basis, well, then you clearly misunderstand the wildly-scattershot quality that is central to this weblog’s self-conception. (Look, I’ve got eight languages to cover – don’t forget to include English! – and a focus that, if it even merits that name, shifts abruptly and unpredictably with my very whim.)

No, we don’t care about the upcoming election to the Danish Folketing (that’s their unicameral parliament) per se; what we might care about is the remarkable or even silly things that the pressures of such an election campaign might move Danish political parties and/or politicians to utter. And we have a prize specimen here today, from Politiken: Danish People’s Party Wants to Forbid Other Languages.

You might have heard of the Danish People’s Party (Danish abbreviation: DF) before. Certainly you’ve heard of it before if you’ve been following this weblog for any appreciable length of time, for I wrote about the DF and its (female) leader, Pia Kjærsgaard, as recently as last August, in a post based upon an interview she gave to the Danish newspaper Information, entitled The Next Election Campaign Should Also Be About Foreigners.

Well, here comes the next election campaign; and, sure enough, the DF is making its move to ensure that it’s about foreigners. The party has announced its plan to submit a draft law to the Folketing next Tuesday (1 February) mandating that, from now on, Danish public institutions interact with people only in the Danish language. According to Claus Blok Thomsen, the author of that Politiken article, the straw that broke the camel’s back for the DF was apparently their discovery that Copenhagen’s electrical company, Københavns Energi, issues an instruction booklet for customers in Arabic. The commentary of DF spokesman Peter Skaarup: “. . . we fundamentally believe that one should be forced to speak Danish if one lives in Denmark. If one speaks Arabic or some other language at home, and the public authorities also interact with one in Arabic to boot, then one will never learn Danish.” Thus this upcoming proposed legislation, which Thomsen reports will mandate that all public documents be only in Danish, and even that teachers only speak Danish to their students in the free universities for adults – the folkeskoler, presumably one of the main institutions to which non-Danish-speaking residents go to learn the language – even during breaks.

This is all part of the consistent recent pattern in Denmark of drawing in the welcome mat that used to be placed for new immigrants. Only a little while ago the idea was introduced into the Danish political arena of instituting a more careful evaluation of potential immigrants to the country, so that candidates with saleable skills and competencies could be preferred to those who would arrive and promptly become merely an ongoing burden on the state. And even though this particular proposed measure is clearly just an electoral gimmick – for now – it still must strike fear down the spines of those in Denmark who have managed to get word of it via their native-language media (because that was the only way they could get word of it).


For let me tell you, Danish is one of those “Kids Don’t Try to Learn This One at Home” languages, truly a tough one to master and even to begin. This kid did in fact try to get started learning Danish at home; but while the grammar is simple enough, the actual pronunciation is impossible to handle without, really, a native Dane in place there to help you. I managed to find that native Dane, and that set me off to the races. But consider the even more-serious flip side of those troubles with pronunciation: it’s a devil of a language to understand orally. What’s more, my friends, this is the aspect of any language that can’t really be taught but can only be nurtured, through continued exposure to the tongue (together with a build-up of vocabulary and grammar-awareness) until one finally attains the “Ah-ha!” moment and what is being heard starts to make sense. You have to suspect that Pia Kjærsgaard and her DF people know all this perfectly well, in other words that their seemingly patriotic proposal to buttress the continued existence of the Danish language in a globalized world is in fact yet another deliberate measure to exclude foreigners from the country by making things impossibly uncomfortable for them when they are there.

But here’s the real kicker. In that past €S write-up about Pia Kjærsgaard’s interview, I noted in passing the DF’s party website which, I remarked, was “all in Danish, naturally.” Not any more, it isn’t, as another Politiken writer, Sisse K. Ibsen, notes (DF Is Most Diligent in Using Other Languages): this is an election season, and if you care to visit that site now you’ll see links on the right-hand side of the homepage leading to versions in ten different languages, notably including Arabic and Turkish. Yes, you, I mean you, Ahmad, you Copenhagen city-dweller originally from Morocco, we of the Danish People’s Party heartily invite you to log on and read in your own language our ambitions for Denmark’s future, incidentally including shortly prohibiting you in fact from being able to read any information you need from the government in your own language. Oh yes, vote for us! And you know what? According to Ms. Ibsen, only a couple of the other Danish political parties pay any heed to including languages other than Danish on their websites, and that is always only English! Oh, the irony!


Naturally, the DF has been confronted with this seemingly awkward juxtaposition of language-policies. And DF press spokesman Søren Espersen has his answers ready: “The two situations cannot be compared,” he says, because of course the DF is not public but a private institution. And, in any case he says, the ten languages are a service to foreign journalists seeking to find out information about the DF, whose inquiries would otherwise be much more costly to deal with if they had to be answered individually by telephone. Plus, he says, it’s of course a service to Danish Turkish- and Arabic-speakers, who can log in and read for themselves, as Espersen puts it (and I am not making this up, only faithfully translating) “that the DF isn’t so bad as the rumors say.”

The thing is, why did Københavns Energi put out its customer instruction books in Arabic as well? Mainly, as Ibsen reports, because otherwise it would have been much more costly to deal with telephonic inquiries from people who needed to turn their power on, or provide a meter-reading, or etc. and who did not master Danish. Of course, if the DF gets its way, in the near future they won’t even be allowed to answer those questions over the telephone in anything other than Danish. (But who wants to join me in betting that they will continue to use Turkish, Arabic, or whatever if they have to and they have someone available who can?)

Reaction from officials currently forming the Danish government? (And note that the DF has no officials in government, but that party’s tacit support in the Folketing has enabled the governing coalition to remain in power for its full term before elections are mandated again by the Danish constitution.) From Thomsen’s piece: Oh, mainly that they needed to actually see the proposed law and study it further. And please note the implications of that last parenthetical comment: The DF is not in government, yet recent months have seen a series of tightening-up moves in the Danish immigration regime. Well, that must mean that the current governing coalition has in fact been rather friendly to such moves and willing to bring them up in the Folketing and implement them. Indeed, some political observers describe that as one key fact as to why the premier, Andres Fogh Rasmussen, is so popular as to be able to call the election when he wants it to happen and to probably emerge at the other end of it as still Denmark’s political top-dog.


All of this is particularly interesting to observe from the Netherlands, where the opposite reaction has been in place (from time immemorial, it seems) to the same trend. Namely, here you can get any public information that you want or need in English, and frankly also in Arabic or Turkish; English starts to be taught in schools by age ten at the latest; and, on a purely personal note, I’ve had to visit the post office a couple times lately, and each time it was perfectly clear that I could go up and transact my business in English if I wanted to, with no problems (although I suspect this may not always hold at places out in the countryside). In short, you certainly don’t need to know Dutch to have a very comfortable life here, and those who do try to learn the language constantly complain that natives switch over to their English whenever they hear someone speaking Dutch who is obviously not a native-speaker.

That’s all very comfortable and convenient, and there’s no doubt that it does much towards enhancing the Netherlands’ good reputation as a place for foreign companies to come set up shop (although the favorable business-tax environment no doubt has much more impact along that line). At the same time, I personally (who speak, read, and even write Dutch – now, you just know that I do!) fully expect the Dutch language to disappear by the end of this century – ceding its place to English, naturally – and I suspect I’m not alone in that valuation.

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