Student to buck 500 years of history by delivering speech in English

Addressing the University of Copenhagen’s Årsfest today, Gwen Gruner-Widding says her choice of English is “the correct and polite thing to do”

When Gwen Gruner-Widding addresses the University of Copenhagen’s (KU) annual ceremony today in the presence of Queen Margrethe II, she will do something that no-one else has done in the 500-plus year history of the event. She will deliver a speech in English.

As the outgoing president of the student union, Gruner-Widding thinks that, in keeping with the university’s focus on internationalisation, her speech should be delivered in a language that everyone in the hall can understand. 

“The simple answer is that I am going to speak in English because there will be international guests present, so I find it the correct and polite thing to do,” she said. “It also seems obvious at a time when there is so much focus on internationalisation.”

Gruner-Widding points out the minister of higher education, Morten Østergaard (R), who will be in attendance at today’s ceremony, has set the ambitious goal that all Danish university students should study abroad. And with the number of foreign students in Danish universities at an all-time high, Gruner-Widding thinks it’s time to buck five centuries of tradition and give a speech in English. 

“Most of us here today speak more than two languages,” Gruner-Widding will say in today’s speech. “We have all travelled to other countries. Many of us work and study across borders. And some of us even have our family living across oceans. All of this can be summed up into what we call internationalisation. And it is a fact. It is reality.”

Gruner-Widding, whose mother is American, said that her speech is in no way meant to imply the superiority of English over Danish.

“It is not an attempt to show any disrespect to Danish values or Danish culture,” she said. “A large part of my speech focuses on what makes Denmark so special and what drew my mother to Denmark in the early 1970s.”

What will the purists say?
Still, Gruner-Widding may end up ruffling some feathers whether she intends to or not. Particularly given the attendance of the Danish queen.

In October, Dansk Folkeparti criticised PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt for giving a speech in English when accepting an award on behalf of the Danish people for helping the Danish Jews escape to Sweden 70 years ago. Although she accepted the award from the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, an American-based NGO, DF’s Søren Espersen found her choice inappropriate. 

In an official question to the PM, Espersen asked: “Will the prime minister inform us if there was any particular reason that the speech she gave on October 2 as Denmark’s prime minister, in the presence of Denmark’s queen and in a room that was filled with Danes … was delivered in a foreign language?”

Hard to match impact of 1968 speech
Even if Gruner-Widding does catch flack for her language choice, the university’s annual ceremony, Årsfest, has seen much more controversial speeches in its past. 

In 1968, as student protests were raging worldwide, a group of KU students were angry that the Årsfest was excluding students and instead catering to the cultural elite. A group of students printed false tickets in order to gain access to the ceremonial hall, and a student by the name of Finn Einar Madsen approached the speaker’s podium and demanded he be given the floor. He proceeded to give a short speech attacking the cultural elite. Madsen’s fellow students were thrilled, while the rest of the crowd was not. After his speech, Madsen and the other students walked out in protest. Ever since then, the outgoing president of the student union has spoken at the event. 

So while Gruner-Widding’s speech might not be quite as revolutionary as the 1968 one, perhaps it too will start a new tradition. 




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