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How good are Danes really at speaking English?

Emma Firth
Emma Firth - [email protected]
How good are Danes really at speaking English?
Photo: Redd F on Unsplash

Danes are known for having high levels of English, with a recent study from the University of Copenhagen finding 97 percent of Danes know a certain level of the language. But how much can foreigners in Denmark expect English to be used?


A group of researchers at the University of Copenhagen are currently researching the increasing use of the English language among people in Denmark, in a project called 'English and Globalisation in Denmark: A Changing Sociolinguistic Landscape.'
Dorte Lønsmann, Associate Professor at the Department of English, Germanic and Romance Studies, Copenhagen University answered our questions about the research.
What does your research show about how well Danes speak English?
As part of the project, we surveyed 854 Danes about their level of English. Only three percent of the participants surveyed said they couldn't do any of the tasks we described in English. 40 percent said they could do the difficult tasks to a high degree.
Age is an important factor in the results. Younger Danes felt very confident in their competencies across the seven questions. But even respondents over the age of 65 reported quite good competencies.
Only six percent of over 65s said they couldn't do any of the tasks, which is much lower than the last survey in 1995, where 40 percent of over 65s couldn't do any of the English tasks. So we now have most people over 65 knowing some English.


The questions we asked in the survey were, to what degree can you:
1. Follow English song lyrics when you listen to music?
2. Follow English movies without looking at the Danish subtitles?
3. Read and understand short user manuals in English?
4. Read and understand a book in English?
5. Write a letter in English?
6. Show the way to the nearest bus stop and explain where the bus is going, in English?
7. Discuss your opinions and attitudes with an English speaker?
In what context do Danes use English?
The survey showed that Danes use English at work, as well as in their spare time and hobbies, which ranged from baking, diving, gaming, fishing and gymnastics. 86 percent of respondents said they read English at work and 50 percent wrote English at work.
Media also plays a big part in the way English is used in Denmark. 90 percent of young people in the survey said they came across English everyday on social media. 75 percent of young people and around 50 percent of older people said they watched English TV with Danish subtitles everyday. 50 percent of young people watched English films without subtitles everyday.
How is English taught in Denmark?
For the past ten years, English has been taught from the First Grade, which is ages 6 to 7. Most children typically know some English before starting school from music, or TV.  English is strong in the Danish education system and at university, with many courses at masters level taught in English. 
But it's the extra use of English school children are exposed to from watching Netflix, playing Fortnite, using Tiktok and Youtube, that plays a big part. Being able to follow Tiktok in English is important for friendship groups. If someone wants status, they need to know what's going on in social media and for that you need English.


English is taught in schools as a foreign language, like French and German but English has a very different status in Danish society as it is encountered in every day language. And that does raise questions about how we should teach English. Should we teach students how to use it as a foreign language with native English speakers, or teach them how to use it in a Danish context, where they encounter English from different backgrounds and need to adjust the language.
Do Danes expect foreigners moving to Denmark to learn Danish?
English is almost seen as a second language but Danes do expect foreigners to learn Danish. In many work places you can get by in English but when I spoke to international employees they found they needed Danish for small talk and social circumstances.
My colleague Marta Kirilova has done work with international academics who said they come up against barriers outside of work for example play dates where they need Danish. Danes feel foreigners who want to live in Denmark should learn Danish to show they belong. But there's a grace period and at the beginning Danes are very accommodating. Then after a while it shifts and they expect you to have started picking up some Danish and use it at work. Then there are other languages too that are sometimes expected and needed in different workplaces.


Is English seen as a second language in Denmark?
I think to some degree English is a second language for young people. It's a natural part of their everyday lives -  they don't think about it, so they have their computer settings in English, they listen to American podcasts, so for some it already is like a second language but for others it definitely isn't. Some people feel excluded and worried about their future when they don't speak much English. One respondent to our survey said, 'I'm worried if I need to go into a nursing home and the staff only speak English and I don't.'
Are there concerns English could take over Danish as the main language in Denmark?
There was a big worry about 20 years ago, a whole debate in early 2000s, as English was used so much in advertising and in international companies. My research and others' research, shows it's never just English that is used, even where English is the corporate language, Danish is still strong.
But English has taken over other domains, for example English is sometimes used to speak to Germans rather than the German language. But it's not a concern anymore that English could overtake Danish as a language in Denmark. Danish is still used in all parts of Danish society.
The research of Dorte Lønsmann and her colleagues will be published in a book this autumn, where the findings will be discussed with the general public and upper secondary schools.



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