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Denmark//BILIUM – Bilinguaism. Upgrade Module

Heritage Language Policy and Mother-tongue Education in Denmark: An Overview1

Denmark has approximately 5,560,000 inhabitants. Denmark as a country includes the Faroe Islands and Greenland. Danish is the official language, 90% of its inhabitants are ethnic Danes with Danish as their mother tongue. Apart from the speakers of Danish who live in Denmark, Danish is also the native or cultural language of around 50,000 German-Danish citizens living in the south of Schleswig in Germany.2 Denmark takes an extreme position towards languages: one country – one language, while other countries recognize several languages3.

There are, however, the Faroese and Greenlandic languages and, moreover, Denmark has historical connections with Germany in its border area, which at various times belonged to one country or the other. There has developed a natural situation of German-Danish bilingualism in South Jutland.

Denmark does not have a rich multilingual history, but times have changed: the fact is that modern Denmark is multilingual, the Danish people speak somewhere between 100 and 140 languages. For example, people of 129 different nationalities live in Copenhagen, and a correspondingly high number of languages are spoken.4

During the last ten years English has gained a much stronger position and the parallel Danish/English language strategy of the Danish Government and higher education has strongly supported this development.

What is Denmark’s policy in relation to heritage languages? Do migrants have an opportunity to maintain their languages? Based on the legal framework, media analysis and current research, this paper gives a short overview of the heritage language policy in Denmark5.


There are no provisions for the use of Danish or other languages in the Danish constitution and there is no specific law providing for overall regulation of language use. But the Education Act regulates what languages may be offered to children at school and kindergarten. The national language, foreign languages, regional languages and immigrant languages are dealt with in language legislation. The learning and teaching of the national language abroad for children and/or adults originating from Denmark is (co-)funded in about 20 countries in Europe and abroad.

The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages was signed and ratified by Denmark in 20006. In connection with this ratification, German as a regional language is recognized in the Charter. Eskimo-Aleut (in Greenland) and Faroese are also protected by the Laws on Home Rule. In the Faroe Islands and Greenland, the law of autonomy guarantees the official status of the Faroese and Greenlandic languages, although Danish is a compulsory subject at schools.

There are no official nation/region-wide data collection mechanisms on language diversity in Denmark.

Thus, teaching is compulsory in Danish as a national language, while the right to learn another parental or native language is determined by historical conditions, political attitudes and the linguistic hierarchy, which is present in Danish society.

Denmark has ratified the Nordic Language Convention (1987), which secures the right of Nordic citizens to use their own language to communicate with the authorities in all Nordic countries. Denmark has also ratified the Nordic Language Declaration (2006), which is a joint policy document of the Nordic Council of Ministers. It states that both national and minority languages should be supported and protected, that universities should use a parallel language strategy ensuring the use of English alongside the use of the national languages, and that citizens of the Nordic countries should be given the opportunity to learn their mother tongue and acquire skills in a language of international importance and skills in another foreign language.

First time the bilingual students were mentioned was in the Elementary School Law of 1975. There we to be taught in Danish as well in their native. In a new School Law of 1993, a new paragraph appeared that immigrant language could be chosen as an elective from the 8th to 10th grade. Even though this particular law is 25 years old, there are no existing examples of these offers in practice7, reports the Danish researcher Bergthóra Kristjánsdóttir in her thorough comments aimed at the legislative data regarding native education and bilingual children “The exclusion of bilingual minority students through the curriculum in The Danish Elementary School”.

It was a clear discrimination, which was argued for until 2002, which the state could not complete. When the legal provision of education in minorities´ native was implemented into The Elementary School Law in 1975, there were at that time 2500 bilingual students in the school. Even though 30 years has past and the bilingual students have grown to 70,000, the options for these students have impaired. When in 1975 the law of native education was adopted, the law applied to all bilingual students. Today the law only applies to children mentioned in the directive 77/486/EØF as well children who are descendants of EØS-Citizens as well children from Greenland and The Faroe Islands, the researchers adds.

Circumstances concerning native education are in 2008 inferior to what they were in 1975 and in the years until 2002. A series of recommendation from the European Council, OSCE and FN, concludes why the state in Denmark should offer minority native education. These conclusions are especially highlighted in the article 29C in the Children´s Right Convention (CRC)8, which Denmark became a part of in 1991. A new summary of native education shows the consequences of this amendment9.

Everything that has had something to do with mother tongue education has been taking inadequate care of, Bergthóra Kristjánsdóttir, researcher, concludes. “In the Greenbook, page 8, it says that the knowledge accumulated by bilingual families is losing its value and that this process is connected with the native. Denmark is to a high degree an example of how the state consciously ignores the knowledge in minority families by underestimating the importance of minorities’ native”. The events of the legislative for native education are that children and young people are not offered and to some extent forbidden to practice their native language. It is therefore an urgent political challenge to implement reforms which includes the minorities right to practice their native, as well as it is to be recognized that competency to practice native language is a competency equal to a recognized competency of practicing a foreign language as English, German and French10.

Current statistics shows: out of 690,000 students11 in primary and lower secondary schools approximately 69,000 (10 per cent) are bilingual (2008 figures). Approximately 6,000 - 7,000 of these 69,000 students are given the option of learning their mother tongue at school with government support, but as extracurricular practice, subject to certain criteria (children of parents from EU/EEA countries, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, minimum numbers of students, availability of an educated teacher, etc). Parents claim that they often have to fight for their right to education in the mother tongue if they want the municipality to establish a class.

An amendment in 2002 abolished central government subsidy for mother tongue education for approximately 62,000 - 63,000 bilingual students from third-world countries. The 2002 amendment, therefore, represented a drastic deterioration in the conditions for obtaining mother tongue education for most bilingual students in Denmark. The municipalities are still allowed to offer mother tongue education on equal terms, but with the withdrawal of central government support most of the municipalities have chosen not to. In 2008 approximately 7 per cent of the total number of bilingual students received mother tongue education compared with 1997, when the figure was approximately 41 per cent12.

In accordance with the educational act of 2002, the question of mother tongue education for children from other countries, the so called third-world countries, is passed to the municipalities for their consideration and depends on their good will, without which no-one would be responsible for this. Russian is also included in this category of languages.

The vast majority of municipalities do not willingly finance their native languages. This means that for most bilingual students – those who originate from third-world countries – there is no provision at school and no funding from the state. There are only private or community initiatives.

Mass Media

Following the intention to be open and supportive of the ideals of democracy, which are inherent in Danish society, the mass media in Denmark creates an opportunity for a wide discussion of questions important to society. A highly developed mass media culture in Denmark provides a high level of informational fidelity. In the first place, this is ensured by a good quality press, if we can say so, and secondly, a fairly well developed media management.

Good-quality press is achieved by the general tendency of serious newspapers to publish scientifically based articles in most areas. Developed media management means that the media quickly responds to keenly debated topics in society. Such developed media is also helped by the fact that many projects and public organisations have their own information portals, which keep society in the loop of current events and discussions.

Published material concerning natural bilinguals can be found in the profiled media, such as "Information" (“Information”), "Videnskab" (“Science”), "Folkeskolen" (“Elementary School”), "Underviser" (“Teacher”), and in major reputable newspapers read by the Danish political and cultural elite, such as "Berlinske" with their week-end supplements, “Weekendavisen” (“Weekend Newspaper”) and "Politiken" (Politics).

There are also more specialised sites whose purpose is to feature existing research. Among these are an independent online community of experts «» (“Yestolanguage”), a working group of the Ministry of Education project consultants “” (“Twolanguagetaskforce”), a project group of the Ministry of Culture “” (“Language”), the Public Relations Professionals' Association “” (“Twolanguages”) and others.

The topic of bilingualism presented in the mass media is shown to be multifaceted and nuanced, and it reflects not only political and legislative but also scientific and educational assumptions. The media transmits the viewpoints of the all interested actors on this topic: scholars, teachers, analysts, politicians, journalists, parents, active readers.

We will begin our media analysis with an article published in 2007 (see section 1.1) because of its importance to the climate of bilingualism in Denmark. This article takes a “middle path” stance in relation to those media reflections concerning the mother tongue issues of non-Danish children over the past 12 years. There were more than 2,500 publications on bilingual education in Denmark, according the media-publishers' own statistics.

A review of major topics on “natural bilingualism” and bilinguals themselves in the Danish mass media reveals the following dominant themes:

  1. Mother tongue education in different aspects: opposition between researchers and politicians; state funding of bilingualism and discrimination/equality; the importance of mother tongue education for families and children.

  2. Bilingual children, bilingualism and bilingual pupils.

  3. Multilingual perspective in community development.

Below we will show the examples of the publications that characterise the main paths of discussion – arguments for and against, different approaches and critical issues.

  1. Mother tongue education

    1. Opposition between researchers and politicians

The newspaper published the article “Manglende modersmåls-undervisning tynger indlæringen” in 200713. Journalist Lise Richter wrote: a new evaluation recommends focusing more on mother tongue education. The report recommends that all teachers with bilingual students in the classroom gain more knowledge about Danish as a second language and a greater focus on mother tongue education.

This article reflects the debate between Danish science and Danish policy. To master the mother tongue is important because the first spoken language is what the student must build on throughout his school years, explains Professor Anne Holmen. "All learning is about building onto the knowledge children already have. This is a prerequisite for learning Danish as a second language and English for Danish-speaking children," says Anne Holmen. She says it is 'incomprehensible' that mother tongue education is not supported to a greater extent by policy makers.

Anne Holmen also emphasizes the social value of Danish schoolchildren mastering many languages: "But if the linguistic value is to be used later on, it requires that you can read and write the language at a certain level." She points out the paradox that Denmark contributes to mother tongue education in Africa through assistance to developing countries: "Mother tongue education includes more children and fewer children drop out of school, but this argument is apparently not good enough in the Danish school system".

President of the Danish Principal Association, Claus Hjortdal, believes it has been difficult to maintain mother tongue education in schools where children speak many different languages, but he has no doubt that the government's abolition of state support for this education has left its mark on bilingual pupils' learning. This problem was already brought to the attention of politicians by experts and educators in 2001 after the government’s discussions on the elimination of mother tongue education.

The Conservative education spokeswoman Charlotte Dyremose does not believe it is the responsibility of the Danish Government to provide grants for mother tongue education. "When you have to live and work in Denmark, then you should be able to speak Danish. It should be the responsibility of the parents to provide extra instruction in any language…. it is the municipalities' responsibility to ensure that students meet them. If they believe that mother tongue education is a good tool, then of course they should make use of it," says Charlotte Dyremose. But SF's education spokesman, Pernille Vigsø Bagge, believes that it is unfair that municipalities have to pay for these lessons themselves.

In The Danish Teachers’ Association (DL) there is an increasing awareness of the importance of mother tongue education. "Experience shows quite clearly that it is important that you also get instruction in the language that you are at home in. I cannot understand why Danish society does not see that caring for the bilingual native language is a resource rather than a burden," says Chairman of the DL, Anders Bondo Christensen.

Another example of when mother tongue education is viewed positively as a pedagogical tool is presented in the online newspaper «» (“Science”) in an article written by the science journalist Charlotte Koldbye Forskere vender tomlen ned for vuggestuetvang, published in February 2009. To give a short description of the article: children with Danish as a second language do not learn it automatically by being immersed in a Danish language environment, for example, at nurseries, pre-schools, schools. The “Videnskab” newspaper is looking for answers from researchers to how to promote Danish language learning. The answer from scientists is that language immersion itself does not guarantee language proficiency; as they say - “sink or swim”.

Professor of the University of Copenhagen, Frans Gregersen, disagrees with politicians’ proposals to send children of immigrant families to Danish-speaking nurseries, where they are forced to be “Danish”. “Let’s imagine,” says Frans Gregersen, “that the Germans refused to allow children from Danish families to attend Danish-speaking nurseries or pre-schools. There would be a big protest”14. The professor points out that to be a bilingual in Denmark means having a low status, but at the same time the Danish people admire bilingual speakers in other countries. Frans Gregerson also indicates that there is some duplicity in the Danish policy towards the topic of bilingualism: political debates around bilingualism deal with the languages of minorities and immigrants (e.g. Arabian, Turkish). There are no, if any, objections towards the Spanish or English languages among politicians. Hence, bilingualism in Denmark “takes the road towards social stigmatisation”.

1.2 State funding of bilingualism and discrimination/equality

The media portal “” continued to discuss this topic in 2008 in the article “Vi behandler tosprogede elever som 50’ernes sorte”15. They underline the political and legislative assumptions on the topic of bilingualism – discrimination and separation of children on the basis of ethnic majority and minority. Politicians are primarily responsible for the discrimination that bilingual students are exposed to at school - the law encourages people to think in terms of black and white students - according to two researchers, Lene Timm and Bergthóra Kristjánsdóttir. They are convinced that, in the long term, it could pay - also financially - to devote more attention to multilingual schools. The article refers to the book they released together in 2007 - “Tvetunget uddannelsespolitik – dokumentation af etnisk ulighed i folkeskolen”16, which on more than 273 pages sharply criticizes Danish educational policy over the last 30 years, and demonstrates how what they call structural discrimination by legislators and the Ministry of Education results in serious discrimination at school on a daily basis.

We can see a new reflection on this topic in the article written by Bergthóra Kristjánsdóttir and Lene Timm “Den monokulturelle skole er forældet”17, published in the newspaper «Politiken» in 2011. The article describes the difficulties that exist in the current Danish school system for certain groups of bilingual pupils and their parents - discrimination and rigid regulations that do not allow them to use the benefits of mother tongue education. The authors believe that children's multilingualism must be recognized and actively involved in teaching. They are convinced that Danish primary education is out of date and unable to accommodate the linguistic and cultural complexity that pupils currently represent. Many school administrators and teachers are actually willing to develop multicultural education in order to foster a global vision for the benefit of all children and young people in Denmark. Their challenge, though, in practice is that they must work within the framework of schools that currently discriminate against language minority students and do not see that they can exploit the linguistic and cultural complexity in teaching and in cooperation with parents.
1.3 Mother tongue education for the families and the children

The next two articles “Mine børn skal lære persisk”18, written by journalists Helle Lauritsen, John Villy Olsen and Jan Kaare, and ‘Stop russisk, mor, tal dansk’19, written by researcher Margarita Popova, describe how there is an emphasis on eliminating minority languages from the school system, and there has been a significant reduction in mother tongue instruction since state funding was eliminated in 2002. The most active parents organized mother tongue education for their children in home-taught Saturday schools. They hired professionals within their minorities, they paid the teachers themselves and they also had to fight against their children’s resistance to learn it.

These two articles also describe the functional content of the situation – the “hero” of the situation: the bilingual child with his cultural complexity. Thus, Iranian mother, a teacher by training who has two children, thinks that language is an important part of culture and identity. Her children were born in Denmark but are also Iranian, which is why they go to mother tongue classes. ”I push them towards learning Persian; otherwise they'll regret it later. It is our responsibility as parents that they learn Persian. They speak Danish and they learn English and German at school, but four languages are better than one,” she says. The Iranian mother is actively trying to gather enough students for Persian classes. These cost 150 kroner per student for a month, and the local school rents out the classrooms.

A similar situation also exists amongst other families - the Russian-speaking population and the mixed Russian-Danish families in Denmark. They organise Russian education, pay for it, and push their children into learn it, trying to pass on their legacy with language and culture. It is extremely difficult: the children feel great assimilation pressures. “Stop speaking Russian, mum, speak Danish!" as a child of Danish-Russian parents says to his Russian-speaking mother to express the denigration, in Danish contexts, of everything that is not “Danish”.

2). Bilingual children, bilingualism and bilingual students

There is a stereotyped definition of being bilingual in Danish society. This issue is discussed in an article by one of the active readers of the newspaper “Politiken” (“Politics”) and published under the chapter “Debate” by Axel Hammerschmidt “Tosproget”: “It would seem that being a bilingual speaker is a handicap in the Danish school. This is a negative view. But is it true? ... Where are these negative assumptions coming from in Denmark?”20

The article “Facts about bilingual pupils” is published on the portal of the Ministry of Children and Education, where there is a definition of “bilingual children”): “By ‘bilingual children’ we mean children who have a mother tongue other than Danish, whose first contact with the community, possibly through the school's teaching, is learning Danish.” (See comments on Primary Education, No. 413 from 22nd May 1996).

The article points out that the definition also extends to those multilingual children who speak Danish as their second language. Thus, the official definition of bilingual children is restricted to the group of children with Danish as their second language. Notably, this definition does not include children from multilingual families with Danish as one of the mother tongues and children who communicate in Danish as their first language and having another second language (not Danish).

In discussing the issues of who is a bilingual student and how best to teach in a school theme, the maternal language occurs again, namely: the topic of education using the mother tongue for other school subjects. Part of the publications share the view of academics and teachers that besides teaching the mother tongue at schools, the mother tongue should also be used to supplement education in other classes, such as Danish, mathematics, geography, etc.

A set of articles on this topic has been published the article ”Odense udvikler undervisning på modersmål”21 in the online newspaper by journalists Pernille Aisinger and Lise Frank i 2011. “På Abildgårdskolen i Odense22 87 per cent of pupils bilingual. Principal and teachers see it as a resource”, means the director of the school. From the 2011 school year students whose mother tongue is Arabic, Somali or Turkish will have classes to learn their mother tongue, an additional two hours a week where their mother tongue will be used as the medium for instruction in other classes: every Friday at the school is a Language Day. All of the classes work with the theme of “sport and body” both in Danish and in the children's mother tongue. In this way children become skilled in both languages and begin to construct their world view using both languages.

The director of the school, Alan Feldskou, believes this policy will be worthwhile if the increased linguistic capability of the students carries over to success in other subjects. For the time being this model of education functions as a three-year experiment, funded by the municipality of Odense. The director hopes that his school will be transformed into a truly international school with education in several different languages also available to ethnic Danes and not only to the native speakers of those languages. A school with a strong profile in languages is a powerful resource that should be utilized by contemporary society.

On the website of the Professional High School, where teachers undergo training, there are many articles23 on the same theme: the use of the mother tongue of a bilingual student to supplement Danish and this is the path to increased achievement in other schools subjects. This topic is further elucidated by the information portal “”24, where experience is collected regarding the use of mother tongues in educating bilingual children at school, teaching the mother tongue itself to bilingual children, effective organization of teaching bilingual children and recommendations from the Ministry of Education.

3). Multilingual perspective in community development

Multilingual perspective in community development is the theme on which support is provided by author, translator and journalist Thomas Harder. His public presentations, articles and a book focus on translation, interpretation, language policy and bilingualism as a resource rather than a problem and that Denmark lacks respect for language as a "hard asset" and great strength.

Thomas Harder is author of the book "Mellem to sprog" (title in English “Between two languages”, 2010) and is himself of Danish-Italian origin. On his homepage he expresses concern that the one-sided approach to mother language education in recent years is a very serious problem - for individuals, for business and for society as a whole. One of his more colorful presentations in the 2012 “Sprogkundskaber er værdifulde ressourcer”25 focused on the following contention: it is important to understand this other world and be able to communicate with it. It is in the interests of Danish society that people are able to look beyond their own culture and are trained to look at every issue from as many angles as possible. Language skills and the vision that comes with bilingual children are a potential resource for Danish industry and Danish society as a whole.

The information portal of the virtual community of expert linguists “” regularly publishes articles, presentations and summaries of conferences on the themes of bilingualism, multilingualism and foreign language study as special resources for the development of modern European society. All of the current events in Europe relating to these themes are reflected in the portal. For example the “Language Rich Europe”, a conference held in England on the 2012, is reflected in the article by Anna Leclerq Vrang “Hovedpointer fra den internationale sprogkonference:”Language Rich Europe” – multilingualism for stable and prosperous societies”26, which details the highlights of the conference.

The article details some of the points made by the presenters and speakers:

- Multilingualism is a means to a stable and prosperous society: a society that creates social inclusion and secures stability, while a society that cultivates a linguistically diverse workforce creates wealth.

- Immigrant languages are often not included in national language strategies, which often only focus on the national language, which should be learned, without the benefit of the foreign language.

- Knowing languages is a useful tool for getting through a crisis. Individuals who speak multiple languages are much more mobile and can transfer to any location where there is a job.

- Businesses should be multilingual if they want to secure success on international markets.

- It is more important to focus on the purpose of a national language strategy than on the process around it.

- Countries should introduce a national language strategy that combines several levels – not only educational policy but also employment and finance policies.

- Languages should be looked upon as investments – as business cases.

- Experience from Switzerland shows that parents request multilingual educational in elementary schools.

- Experience from Greece shows that students from CLIL schools do better at school than

students from traditional schools.

The phenomenon of bilingualism is also supported in articles by journalists from various “intelligent” newspapers, which focus on the different sides of this phenomenon. For example, “Weekendavisen” published an article in 2011 by the science journalist Annete K. Nielsen, “Den tosprogede hjerne: De kan jonglere”27. Here she conducts an interview with American Professor Judith Kroll, which in essence says that all children should learn at least two languages and the sooner the better. Research conducted over the past 10-15 years shows that children with developed bilingualism have a greater propensity to solving analytical problems than their monolingual peers. Neurological research shows that the brain of a bilingual child functions differently: it is as if the brain juggles thoughts, making instantaneous choices between languages, words and expressions. Bilingual people find it easier to focus and their attention is better protected from outside interferences.

Another example, the media newspaper “” published the article “Tosprogede tager klogere beslutninger”28 2012, written by the Norwegian journalist Hanne Østli Jakobsen, on the cognitive benefits of multilingualism, which can be useful “both in a bar and on the stock market.” She bases her conclusions on new research carried out in neurology in the USA, which points out the newly discovered advantages of being able to communicate in several languages: multilingual people have a better, keener sense of hearing than monolinguals, even in conditions of loud background noise, which does not impair their sense of hearing. The article also makes reference to research into the role of foreign languages in the functional development of the brain and our mental abilities: it does not matter when you learned your second language, with breast milk or in a language school; – it is economically advantageous in further education.


While the Danish government has withdrawn funding for mother tongue teaching for most ethnic non-Danish children – bilingual students, Denmark has generously funded Danish scientists studying the issues of mother tongue education and the phenomenon of bilingualism.

However, funding of this topic of study has been decreasing under government pressure29.

Denmark has a vast amount of research in this area, a long history and an extensive research perspective, and a large number of research and educational institutions are involved in this. This topic in Denmark is studied by excellent researchers, who include psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists and linguists, amongst whom are Professors Anne Holmen, Jens Normann Jørgensen, Frans Gregersen, Mariane Hadegaard, Teresa Cadierno, Cristian Edvard Horst, Paolo Valero, Jan Kampmann, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, Karen Risager, lectors and researchers Martha Sif Karrebæk, Thomas Gits-Johansen, Claus Haas, Bergthora Kristjansdottir, independent analytic and expert Lene Timm and other researchers.

Every new research project discovers more depth and subtlety, suggesting more effective and unexpected pedagogical solutions. So it is no exaggeration to say that Denmark occupies a leading position on the subject in Europe.

The study of bilingualism and, connected to it, the teaching of bilingualism and heritage, native languages at Copenhagen University has celebrated its 25th anniversary. In a similar vein to the study of bilingualism and at around the same time, in the 80’s, Danish researchers began a new topic of study - intercultural pedagogics30. Within the bounds of this topic, studies were started in applied pedagogical subjects in bilingualism such as: education for bilingual students, the right to native education, multicultural and anti-racism, language pedagogy and multicultural pedagogy.

By the year 2000, over 15 years of research was conclusively showing the positive effects of mother tongue education, of success in Danish language teaching for children of immigrants. It was, then, to be expected that parliament would pass a new law to increase the amount of mother tongue education.

However, in 2002 Danish politicians amended the laws on education in exactly the opposite direction, cutting back mother tongue education almost entirely. These amendments came as a shock to Danish researchers, who retaliated by starting a new set of studies in this area. Currently every Danish university with a faculty of humanities (there are five such universities in Denmark) studies these problems in one way or another, sometimes in interdisciplinary groups spread across several departments. The research is regularly presented at conferences, on corresponding information portals, in the press and is published in journals and books. Two such books are compendiums of material from many years of research, and are handbooks in this area; “Bilingual children in Denmark: a textbook” ( A. Holmen, N. Jørgensen, 1993)31 and “Bilingual children in Danish Society” (ed. Martha S. Karrebæk, 2006)32. While the first book focuses mostly on bilingualism, the second gives an in-depth account of the language development of a bilingual and shows the characteristics of their interaction with society; anthropological aspects are examined, as well as cultural, social, demographical, pedagogical and socio-economical aspects. Thus, themes were selected that are most meaningful for Denmark:

  • The language´s meaning for bilingual children, the psychological functions of the language, nativism, other languages, foreign language

  • Minorities and majorities in Danish society

  • Racism and equality

  • Bilingualism in anthropological and cultural aspects: the multicultural society, the multicultural school, intercultural pedagogy

  • Bilingual children’s confrontation with the Danish school system according to quantitative research methods

  • Conditions of bilingual children´s upbringing and the development of competency

  • Collaboration by parents

  • Pedagogic practice in Danish society

Materials collected in research are constantly presented in scientific journals. Particularly outstanding is the interdisciplinary scientific journal “Sprogforum”33, which was created in 2006 and regularly publishes material on this topic in a variety of aspects. Amongst these are classical and traditional studies of the problems of bilingualism, applied aspects concerning teaching, projects that have a strong social impact and new developments in this topic. In the theoretical direction, there are developments in the studies of the phenomenon of multilingualism, integrated bilingualism, poly-lingualism, multi-ethnolect, and the differences between them.

The overview of university research in Denmark from 2007 to 2012 is rich and shows new scientific projects and publications, some of which we will showcase here.

  • Researchers Bergthora Kristjansdottir and Lene Timm in the book ”Tvetunget uddannelsespolitik – dokumentation af etnisk ulighed i folkeskolen”34 (2007) describes how the Danish educational policy increases ethnic inequality at elementary school: the newspaper Politiken has been a catalyst behind enforcing and institutionalising ethnic inequality at elementary school. The political framework for the education of bilingual children hinders bilingual children at school. Students need bilingual education, the book points out. Educational policies are currently ignoring and denying accusations that they have led to the institutionalization and discrimination of ethnic minorities. The low grade results of bilingual students make it difficult for them to meet the criteria for secondary education, university education and the labour market. It can, therefore, be inferred that educational policies have major consequences for the integration of ethnic minorities in society.

  • Researcher Lene Timm in the rapport ’Danmark har ondt med modersmål//Dokumentations- og rådgivningscentret om racediskrimination’35 (2008) for the European Commission GD for Education and Culture, Brussels describes that from the time Denmark entered the EU in 1972 up to 2002 Denmark has fulfilled its obligation in relation to promoting foreign language education in bilingual children’s native language for working immigrants, paragraph 77/486/ EØF, in respect of both children as EU citizens and children with a third-world citizenship. Bilingual education was given on equal grounds for all bilingual children 3 to 5 hours a week. When the current political party came to power in 2002 the law changed regarding bilingual educational, which resulted in the governmental support for bilingual education being cut, except for children who are EU citizens and children from Greenland and the Faroe Islands. The result was a substantial decrease in the quality and presence of bilingual education for the majority of bilingual children in Denmark – children with a third world citizenship.

  • The book ‘Uhørte stemmer - sproglige minoritetsforældre og samarbejde med skolen’36 by Bergthora Kristjansdottir and Lene Timm ( 2011) is a research report documenting why the integration of people with an ethnic background causes problems and poses the question; how come children from the same group score low in the PISA-International Student Assessment? Recognition of ‘new-Danish’37 children’s language and culture strengthens their confidence and self-esteem, which is a prerequisite for their approach to positive and constructive learning. Some authors are of the opinion that in some areas this recognition is lacking. The Elementary School Act caters for a monoculture even though people agree that “shared goals” to some degree opens up to a necessary multi-culture with a global approach. It is a catastrophe that most municipalities do not provide equal access to ‘new-Danish’ children´s native language. The book also states that ‘new-Danish’ children´s language and cultural background is to be understood as something lacking and a handicap which must be overcome and should not be dealt with as a resource. The theories of the famous psychologist Vygotskijs concerning the nearest development zone, as writes of the researches, does not convince everyone that it is necessary to take ‘new-Danish’ children´s native language and culture as a point of departure. The book builds upon Denmark’s and foreign research as well as interviews with ‘new-Danish’ parents.

  • Danish-Swedish research”The teaching of bilingual pupils in Denmark and Sweden”38" (2011), has been completed by researchers from the National Institute for Municipalities and Regions Analysis and Research. A new study of the teaching of multilingualism in Denmark and Sweden, that Used Municipal Research (UMC) has been completed and gives us new knowledge about the case. The study shows that there is no harm in children living in Denmark and Sweden using their native or parents’ language, even if it is a language other than Danish or Swedish; quite the contrary, in fact. This report researches the differences and similarities in the Danish and Swedish approaches to the bilingual education of students of an immigrant background, with the intention of evaluating what attempts can be made to improve the academic results of students of an immigrant background in Denmark. The conclusion is that multilingual students in Denmark and Sweden who receive mother tongue education after school hours do better on average than other multilingual students, when we compare the students and their academic results – both in reading and in mathematics. The results of the project are based partly on register-based analyses, partly on qualitative analyses in the form of documentary studies and case studies at six schools in both Denmark and Sweden.

  • Research project by reserchers Thomas Gitz-Johansen, Camilla Eline Andersen, Thor Ola Engen, Chamilla Strdet Kristoffersen, Lise Skoug Obel, Sigrun Sand og Berit ‘Den flerkulturelle barnehage i rurale strøk’39, (2007-2011) presents results from a survey that was carried out in kindergartens in rural areas in Norway. The data from this survey provide knowledge of how kindergartens work with a diverse group of children, and thus function as a basis from which to critically plan future educational policies in the field of early childhood education in a multicultural society. For clarification, a multicultural kindergarten was defined in the survey as a kindergarten attended by children from linguistic and cultural minorities. The research asked how kindergartens worked with children and families from linguistic and cultural minorities in their institutions, how they worked with linguistic minorities to learn Norwegian and to support home languages in formal and informal activities, how all the children are exposed to the fact that Norway is understood to be a multicultural society.

  • The book by researchers Claus Haas, Anna Holmen, Christian Horst, Bergthora Kristjansdottir ’Ret til dansk: Uddannelse, sprog og kulturarv’40 (2011) serves as a powerful addition to the visionary debate about the bilingual´s role in a multicultural society. This book is thorough and presents a theoretically supported overview of the evolvement of the view of the terms cultural heritage, freedom and equality over the last decades, while simultaneously placing emphasis on the former right-oriented political party for bilinguals. All four authors of the book have researched the language and culture of immigrants and all take the government’s actions of forcing a spread of students and the elimination of bilingual education as being discriminatory and directly conflicting with international conventions, and all of the authors maintain that there are no grounds for research into the government´s policies in the aforementioned areas.

  • The article by Professor Mariane Hedegaard ‘Minority children’s development of multiple cultural identities. A cultural-historical approach’41 (2012) proposes a way of transcending frequently encountered descriptions that connect problems children from immigrant families encounter at school to children’s cultural identity, understood as a national or ethnic identity. The author argues that children create their identity as a multiple cultural identity, and develop as agents for creating activities and acquiring strategies and motives for handling demands.

  • International project ”Investigating Discourses of Inheritance and Identity in Four Multilingual European Settings”42 (2007 – 2013) by principal investigator of Denmark Professor Jens Normann Jørgensen describes globalization and global mobility as creating multilingual and multi-ethnic societies throughout Europe and beyond. ‘Inheritance’ and ‘identity’ are no longer necessarily tied to the nation-state. Rather, allegiances and cultural traditions travel across national boundaries, as diasporic groups differentially retain affiliation to national heritage, and global communication transcends traditional borders. Many parts of Europe are now characterized by ‘super-diversity’, distinguished by a dynamic interplay of variables among multiple-origin, transnationally connected migrants. Modes of migrant transnationalism, negotiated in everyday interactions, remain seriously under-studied. This sociolinguistic ethnographic project investigates how multilingual young people negotiate ‘inheritance’ and ‘identity’ in four European settings. Young people of migrant heritage in Denmark, Sweden, The Netherlands and Great Britain may identify with a distant territory but also ‘belong’ in their present home and in global popular culture. In this study a research team across four universities investigates how cultural heritage and identity are discursively constructed in and beyond educational settings, and how multilingual young people negotiate inheritance and belonging. The project extends current understandings of cultural heritage and local, national and global identities.

  • The article 'Polylingual development among Turkish speakers in a Danish primary school - a critical view of the fourth grade slump' 43 by JS. Møller, JN. Jørgensen, A. Holmen, (2012) is a report on a longitudinal study of the linguistic development of Turkish-speaking children in Denmark. A series of data was collected from a group of children attending a public school during the period 1989-1998. The language was analysed in three different situations: in groups of both Danish and Turkish language speakers; in groups of Turkish speakers only; individual interviews. The authors note an overall tendency to speak Danish more and more as time passes, but they are also aware that children keep mixing the languages; what comes naturally and what does not depends on the level of language knowledge. Some of the children observed have experienced academic problems; however, this can hardly be attributed to stagnation in their language development. It is more likely that school activities do not allow these children to benefit from their full linguistic resources as these conflict with mainstream ideas about monolingual norms.

  • The article by Jens Normann Jørgensen, 'Ideologies and norms in language and education policies in Europe and their relationship with everyday language behaviours'44 (2012) notes that the concept of ‘languages’ as separable entities is a concept that cannot be upheld with respect to the real-life behaviours of speakers. Based on examples from ongoing studies of youth language, the author suggests that other norms are more relevant, in particular so-called poly-languaging, a term that covers the use of various features regardless of their ideologically determined association with ‘languages’. In this connection, the author also states that the scholarly task ahead is not to understand how an individual learns a language. The time has passed when there was an urgent need to understand how Germans acquire English. What we need to understand is linguistic superdiversity. How do late modern individuals cope with their superdiverse surroundings?

  • The research’s project by Martha Sif Karrebæk ’Modersmålsundervisning for sproglige mindretalselever i den superdiverse storby København’45 (2012) is a project for researching language practices, including literacy, in relation to bilingual education in the capital. The project consists of five semi-projects examining native language classes in Turkish, Arabic, Farsi and Polish. The research describes what status and meaning bilingual and native education has for the individual participants (children, teachers and parents) and how bilingual native education impacts on the individual´s identity and vocabulary. Methodologically, the project is based on linguistic ethnography and linguistic socialisation.

  • A remarkable new development has been made in the area of research methodology, for example the article by Pia Quist (2008) 'Sociolinguistic approaches to multiethnolect: language variety and stylistic practice'46. The article is dedicated to a linguistic phenomenon called a multiethnolect – a variety or style, which has developed in multiethnic urban communities and which is associated with speakers of mixed ethnic groups, and presents the findings of two studies, where two different analytical approaches – variety and stylistic - to studying the speech of bilingual youth in Copenhagen were applied. Among the conclusions, the author states that multiethnolect is not a result of the acts of isolated groups of speakers, neither is it a more or less automatic outcome of language contact.

  • Amongst the developments in new lines of research in Denmark one can count the following the project “Tegn på sprog” 47 (2008-2014) by researcher Helle Pia Laursen, shows that bilingual children only have one mother tongue and one second language: bilingual children are not bilingual, they are multilingual. And they perform better at Danish when the teachers draw on their multilingual competencies in the teaching.

Conclusion and Outlook

In summary of what has been said, it is worth while pointing out that the research of this topic in Denmark is characterized by its interdisciplinary character, and has a solid foundation in both theoretical questions and in solutions to applied pedagogical challenges. The phenomenon of natural bilingualism is looked at in direct connection with mother tongue instruction as well as the rights of children to learn their mother tongue and learn using their mother tongue. These problems are examined in depth, going far beyond the boundaries of linguistics across a fairly wide scientific context of social, anthropological, didactic, pedagogical, political and socio-economic issues. Appropriate methods of research are being developed for these areas.

Danish researchers make good arguments to support the idea that parallel bilingualism48 both at school and in professional education is a worthwhile endeavor. However, the argument is for parallel bilingualism with English. In our view, parallel bilingualism with German, French and Russian is no less important than English regarding science, education and business; and for example Turkish, Russian and Spanish regarding tourism, etc.

Natural bilingualism is a very concrete and clear resource for the development of society, but it is only a potential resource. Both society and wise political decisions will determine whether this potential will become ready to work for the benefit of the members of this society.

When discussing the topics of bilingualism in the Denmark it is not productive to distinguish between mother tongue and native language. In publications and discussions only “mother tongue” is used, where it means the language of the immigrant family.

The concept of "bilingualism" is treated as a linguistic and social phenomenon, the ratio of which is regarded as being dependent on the language. If a second language is a socially “desired” language such as English, the term "bilingualism" is used in the connotative meaning of "good", if the second language is a socially “undesired” language - the undertone is negative.

The problem of the native language education of immigrant children in Denmark has been discussed not only by scholars, practitioners, journalists and human rights organizations, such as Unicef, indicating a violation of Danish law and the rights of the child to a mother tongue education and training in their native language, enshrined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).

Publications reflect the conflict between the Danish cultural elite (scientists, journalists and teachers) and politicians – specifically the right wing parties which are supported by nationalistic ones. The essence of the debate is that most scientists and experts believe in the positive effect of children learning their native language and that this should be sustained at schools with financial, moral and educational support from the state. However, political resistance is preventing a legal framework for mother tongue education from being made. Scientists argue that mother tongue education improves children’s academic performance at school, their education and their integration into Danish society. Political discourses disregard researchers’ arguments and continue the policy of assimilation and social stigmatization.

As a result of the foregoing analysis, the Danish attitude with regard to mother tongue education for children of migrants can be briefly summarized as follows: professionals - teachers and educators – as well as professional institutions are caught in a cross-fire, and so exist in a state of “professional confusion” – on the one hand they have experts advising them to support the native languages, on the other hand the government does not allow them to do so.

1. Margarita Popova, Researcher in Educational Psychology, Ph.D., Department of Psychology and Educational Studies, Roskilde University, Building 30D.21 Postbox 260, 4000 Roskilde, Denmark, e-mail:;, Chairman of voluntary association for children and young people "Multibyen",, Copenhagen.

2. Anna Thoren, analyst, graduated in philosophy, Copenhagen University; director of voluntary association for children and young people "Multibyen", Copenhagen, e-mail:

3. Irina Naroznova, Ph.D. student, Technical University of Denmark, Miljøvej, Building 113, 2800 Lyngby, Denmark, e-mail:

4. Marketz Andrey, Student at Copenhagen Business School, BSc. Business Administration and Sociology, Denmark, Studying MSc. Economics and Business Administration,

5. Holdensgaard Alex, Student at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark, BSc. Business Administration and Sociology, Studying MSc. International Business Politics,

1 We would like to thank Professor Christian Horst for her valuable comments and discussions. We also thank Professors Anna Holmen, Mariane Hadegaard, independent analyst and expert Lene Timm, journalist, translator and writer Thomas Harder for materials and recommendations. However, the article only reflects the authors’ opinions.

2 Kirchmeier-Andersen, Sabine. Denmark. Language Rich Europe.

3 Koldbye, Charlotte. ”Forskere vender tomlen ned for vuggestuetvang”.

4 Multilingual Denmark. Foreword to no.19. Sprogforum. Febr. 2001 - no.19.

5 The research was conducted within the framework of the EU-project BILIUM 2012-2014, project leader Ekaterina Koudrjavtseva, Germany

6 European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

7 Kristjansdóttir, Bergthóra. Eksklusion af minoritetselever gennem curriculum i den danske grundskole. , se sider 1,3,4.
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