Global Denmark: How re-defining a word can re-define the education sector - The Post

Global Denmark: How re-defining a word can re-define the education sector

Time for Denmark to regard bilingual education as a viable alternative (photo: Pixabay)
June 23rd, 2019 5:00 pm| by Thomas Mulhern

I recently gave a keynote speech at the annual gathering of bilingual schools in the Netherlands. This network, headed by the organisation Nuffic, represents over 150 bilingual schools and 30,000 pupils participating in bilingual education nationwide. For comparison’s sake, Denmark has two bilingual departments attended by under 500 students nationwide.

Toxic vs treasured
While giving my speech, I highlighted how bilingual education in the Netherlands literally translates as ‘tweetalig onderwijs’, but how in Denmark it is a non-starter translating bilingual education in a similar fashion as ‘tosproget uddannelse’ – due to the toxicity of the word ‘tosproget’ in Danish culture.

When I said this, the room of a couple of hundred Dutch education leaders went silent in disbelief.  At first, the silence surprised me as I have grown so accustomed to the negative connotations surrounding this word in Denmark. However, upon realising I had merely taken a one-hour flight and entered a terrain where bilingual (tosproget) education is seen as a gift and key tenant of the educational sector, the absurdity stuck me as well.

Indisputably an asset
Over 40 years of research has documented that bilingual education is a gift: from improving memory function and intercultural skills, to heightening meta-linguistic awareness.

Systematic evaluations of bilingual education worldwide have shown that students attain the same levels of proficiency in reading and writing as students in monolingual (Danish or English only) programs – while developing the same appreciation and understanding of the host culture as students in monolingual programs.

In short: education using multiple languages is not a zero-sum proposition!

Word first, then the world
Denmark, to this day, has never regarded bilingual education as a viable alternative to a standard monolingual education. But what is so substantially different between Denmark and the Netherlands that this framework could not work here? When will Denmark catch up and finally launch a national bilingual education movement, just as the Dutch and other countries have done so successfully?

I submit that there is nothing so fundamentally different between the Danish and Dutch cultures as to why this cannot work in Denmark, and I truly hope the time is now for all stakeholders to jettison the false dichotomy and begin to look at bilingual education as an opportunity and not a threat.

It is time to bury the toxicity of the word ‘tosproget’ and see it for the first time as a positive word: a word full of promise.  By winning the battle over this word, Denmark can transform the education sector and better position itself to win the battle for global talent, thus safeguarding the future of the Danish economy.

Thomas Mulhern

Thomas Knudsen Mulhern, the managing director of Globally Local ( and former head of the International Department at Institut Sankt Joseph, is a passionate advocate of bilingual education in Denmark. In addition, Thomas co-hosts the Global Denmark Podcast (