In northern Europe, a backlash against English is under way
CALL IT, AS the Danes do, a luksusproblem, a luxury problem. Many citizens of Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden are fluent in English and often impress tourists with their command of the language. This aptitude has also prompted controversy, however, as universities have become excellent, international institutions offering courses taught mostlyor even entirelyin English. Some citizens of the Netherlands and Nordic countries wonder what space will be left for their national languages if their flagship universities increasingly do not teach in it. Linguists call it domain loss. The language does not die out, since new generations of children continue to be brought up with it, but speakers use it in fewer academic contexts. In June Robbert Dijkgraaf, minister of education in the Netherlands, announced that at least two-thirds of teaching in undergraduate programmes would have to be in Dutch. University leaders took it badly. The head of the Eindhoven University of Technology has said that for a number of courses we cant even find professors who can speak Dutch, citing artificial intelligence as an example. (The Dutch government subsequently fell, leaving the policy in limbo.) The worry is that a language like Dutch, if neglected in academic contexts, will eventually lack the vocabulary needed for cutting-edge topics. People discussing such subjects will have to pepper their Dutch with English wordsuntil, that is, talking this way gets so cumbersome they switch to English entirely. It risks leaving the impression that Dutch is somehow unworthy, feeding a vicious cycle. Language concerns have been bolstered by economic gripes. European universities are heavily or entirely state-funded. In some countries, foreign students put pressure on scarce resources like housing. (Some 120,000 live in the Netherlands, one of Europes most densely populated countries.) In others, such as Denmark, they can even be given cash grants for living expenses. If students finish their programmes without ever learning the local language, they may scarper rather than staying and contributing to the economy. Why should countries subsidise such drive-by degrees? The answer lies partly in the necessary effort to attract great teachers and studentsand may be an unintended consequence of that effort. Michele Gazzola of Ulster University in Belfast notes that global rankings of universities, such as the one conducted by Times Higher Education, look at the number of international students and teachers as part of their assessment. This prompts universities to try to lure them in order to rise in the rankings and, consequently, to offer ever more classes in English. Like the Netherlands, Denmark courted controversy. In 2021, in an attempt to boost Danish at university, the government limited the number of places on courses taught only in English. This year it seems to have changed tack again, expanding the number of places on English-language masters programmes. Janus Mortensen of the University of Copenhagen says that that institutions recent language policy holds that tenured teaching faculty will be expected to contribute to teaching in Danish within six years. The university is to make time and classes availablefaculty are not expected to learn the language in their spare timebut it is not clear what will happen to those who fail to meet the deadline. The University of Oslo similarly prescribes parallel-lingualism. Norwegian is to be the main language of instruction, with English used when appropriate or necessary; all students and faculty should be offered classes to learn Norwegian; publications are to have abstracts in both languages; the university should prioritise the development of technical terminology in Norwegian, and so on. It is the sort of policy you might expect from wealthy, sensible Scandinavians. It is also potentially duplicative, expensive and vague. Who, for example, will decide when English is appropriate? In the past, the pushback against English mainly occurred in France, which resented Anglophone primacy (and Frenchs own faded dominance). It was a straightforward matter of languages in competition. Now some of the most liberal and polyglot places in the world are beginning to fret about the dominance of English. This is a consequence of their success. If all inhabitants can switch between different languages, the zero-sum nature of competition is reduced, but it is not eliminated. Northern Europeans are learning that their languages need upkeep, too.