Ministry: Teach Turkish? Show us the money

Educators and politicians debate whether offering students Turkish as a foreign language is bad for integration or good for business

A school’s application to offer the foreign language of Denmark’s largest immigrant group as part of its core curriculum has spurred a debate over culture versus capitalism.

A majority of the students at Københavns Private Gymnasium (KPG) have Turkish roots and a strong interest in improving their ability to speak, read and write Turkish. That is a good enough reason, according Crilles Bacher, KPG’s headmaster, to offer it as an official second foreign language – not just an elective course, as it is now offered. But first KPG needs a special dispensation from the Education Ministry – and the ministry has declined their request, reports

To be approved as an official second foreign language, a language must contribute to Denmark’s economic growth, according to the Education Ministry. The education minister, Christine Antorini (Socialdemokraterne), said that KPG failed to show that Turkish meets that requirement.

“Maybe Turkey is an important country for Danish trade, but that’s not something we took a position on in this case. The only judgment we made was about the argument the high school made in its application. They argued that they wanted to help their students improve their Turkish. But we don’t offer special dispensations just because there are lots of students of a certain nationality who want to learn how to speak their own language,” Antorini said.

In a later interview, Antorini told the Ritzau news service she was "ready to take a look" at arguments to include other foreign languages, including Turkish, in the schools' core curricula, as long as those arguments were based on the economic advantages for society.

The foreign languages approved by the Education Ministry to fulfill Danish high school students' second foreign language requirement are German, French, Spanish, Italian and Russian. English is the obligatory first foreign language for all.

Several schools have received special dispensations to offer Chinese and Japanese as second foreign languages, on the grounds that they are significant to Denmark’s economic growth.

Meanwhile, Turkish immigrants and their descendants are, by far, Denmark’s largest ethnic minority group. Numbering almost 60,000 in 2010, they account for nearly eleven percent of all immigrants – twice the amount of the next largest immigrant group, Germans.

In fact, in 2008, the education ministry under the Venstre-Konservative government granted a dispensation to ZBC Ringsted, a business high school, to offer Turkish as a second foreign language – just as KPG requested.

ZBC argued that it hoped to attract more ethnic-Turkish students by offering Turkish as part of its core curriculum. The education ministry now claims that was the wrong reason to give a dispensation.

“From a political standpoint, we think the foreign language should have absolute significance for Denmark’s economic development to be approved as a second foreign language. So, with 20-20 hindsight we see now that it was wrong to give ZBC Ringsted a dispensation,” said Merete Pedersen, an advisor to the Education Ministry.

Pedersen added that ZBC’s dispensation to teach Turkish would not be renewed.

Bacher said it was disappointing that the government apparently did not see that the students’ Turkish roots, and their natural interest in Turkish culture, could be turned to economic advantage for Denmark.

“We think that, as a society, we ought to acknowledge that students with other native languages than Danish have special competencies that we can definitely use here in Denmark,” Bacher said. “We see bilingualism as a strong resource among our students and we would like to develop it even further.”

Daniella Kuzmanovic, an assistant professor of Turkish studies at the University of Copenhagen, said there was no doubt Turkey would come to play a bigger role on the world stage.

“Turkey is under consideration for EU membership and it’s a growing export market for Danish businesses. Moreover, it’s expected to become one of the world’s ten largest economies. Familiarity with Turkey and facility with the Turkish language will certainly be critical,” she said.

Radikale education spokesperson, Lotte Rod, agreed with Kuzmanovic’s assessment.

“There are lots of reasons why it could be an advantage for Danish businesses to have more Turkish speaking young people. Turkey is enjoying rapid growth and Danish exports to Turkey have grown by 40 percent in the past five years. We should definitely be taking advantage of the fact that we have so many young people in Denmark with Turkish roots.”

Annette Vilhelmsen, the education spokesperson from Socialistisk Folkeparti, encouraged KPG to reapply for the special dispensation, but this time to emphasise the business advantages – not culture.

“What they should have done, and still can do, is apply again using the same reasons used by the high schools that got approved for Chinese and Japanese,” Vilhelmsen said.

However, Dansk Folkeparti’s education spokesperson, Alex Ahrendtsen, countered that allowing Turkish as a second foreign language would only encourage a “parallel society and ghetto identity”.

“We live in Europe, so, it’s obviously European languages we should be focusing on in our high schools,” he said.

If KPG does decide to apply again, they will have to persuade high school education council Gymnasieforligskredsen – which consists of members from both the government and the opposition parties – that teaching Turkish is good business.