Should there be more native speakers teaching languages in Danish schools?

Most professionals advocate total immersion, but sometimes that doesn’t suit the students, claim home-grown educators

Look through the Education supplement accompanying this edition and you’ll see that although Denmark is doing well relative to other countries, its foreign language skills are actually in decline.

It brings to mind an age-old complaint aired on expat forums these past two decades that the non-native speaker language teachers are sometimes just not good enough.

It raises the question whether there are a sufficient number of native speakers working as language teachers in Denmark, and whether there is enough focus on full-immersion language teaching – the preferred method of most leading language schools.

This is the story of The Chinese Teacher, The English Teacher, The Politician, The Student and, of course, The Danish Teacher.

Their experiences, opinions, stories and knowledge will guide us to a greater understanding of what more native speaker language teachers could provide to Danish society.

Trust in the natives
Using native teachers is “definitely the preferable option”, claims ‘The English Teacher’.

Her name is Penelope Mikkelsen, a British ex-professional snowboarder and language teacher who moved to France, met a Dane, fell in love, came to Denmark, started teaching English and bought BLS, the professional language school that hired her.

“We only use native speakers at BLS,” she revealed.

‘The Danish Teacher’ concurs there are advantages to this. “Obviously, as a Dane, I’m not as fluent in the languages I teach as a teacher who comes from England or Spain. That’s a given,” admitted Charlotte Thrane, who teaches Spanish and English at Borupgaard Gymnasium in Copenhagen.

Certainly ‘The Student’ – Karla Hamilton, a 15-year-old Danish-Brit, has some complaints in this regard: “Sometimes Danes who teach English have this really thick Danish accent. One of my teachers pronounced the word ‘again’ as ‘a gain’. She pronounces a lot of words wrongly, but actually we just think it’s a little funny. We just laugh about it.”

Hamilton recalls an incident in which she pulled out her native gun and fired at a mistake, but instead of kudos for the nice shot, she found herself in the line of retaliatory fire: “The teacher was just like: ‘No, you’re wrong’ and then moved on. They won’t listen.”

Not all Danish foreign-language teachers are like this, of course. “I have on occasion asked them if I was in doubt about anything,” Thrane said about Spaniards who took her Spanish class.

Believing in immersion
Mikkelsen utilises the full immersion method in BLS teaching – speaking 100 percent in the target language without any Danish explanations.

She’s done this ever since she began teaching French and German to children in the UK, where full immersion is the path language teachers (for example TEFL – Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) are trained to take.

“I go for full immersion. I don’t refuse to answer if students want to ask me something in Danish, but I always respond in English. I do believe it is a method that does work.”

Her own children are taught using the full immersion method in school and she’s of the opinion that “as long as the method used is full immersion, it’s irrelevant really what the nationality of a teacher is when it comes to children.”

But sadly this doesn’t always happen. “I think it would be better if teachers spoke English the whole lesson,” agreed Hamilton. “But sometimes they just don’t do that.”

Grammatical issues
But it must be good sometimes, for children, for example, to have some things explained in Danish? Mikkelsen wouldn’t budge: “I don’t agree with that actually – I think full immersion works. It’s a slow learning curve at the beginning, but then the curve boils over.”

Thrane has a different take, however. Sometimes in order to learn a foreign language, she reasons, children need to have an understanding of grammar in their own language.

“As a language teacher in Denmark you need to know your Danish grammar,” she said.

“Some high school students today have a very hard time understanding the grammar of the foreign language being taught, because they don’t even know Danish grammar. Sometimes, I simply need to explain Danish grammar as well.”

Not everyone salsas
Thrane also attributes her use of Danish to the level of motivation with which her students enter the classroom. Comparing her own habitat to language schools such as BLS and Berlitz, Thrane contends that their students tend to be more motivated.

“They are usually adults who choose to study the language based on interest, or because they know they need it. So they put the effort in,” she said.

“In high school, you can choose between several languages, and sometimes my students end up in my Spanish classes because they try to pick the ‘least painful option’ – to avoid maths or something else, like German or French.”

Such students might need more help to get in the groove of things – to salsa in Thrane’s case.

But putting all personal pride aside, Thrane would actually employ native speakers rather than Danes in her fantasy high school staff: “I would choose someone who is native. But it’s important that they speak good Danish as well and can explain the grammar. If they have both of these qualities, then that is the supreme choice.”

Qualified quality
‘The Politician’ does not believe in the full immersion method, though.
“Pedagogically speaking I don’t think it’s a good way to learn languages,” contended Socialdemokratiet’s education spokesperson Kasper Sand Kjær.

He agrees with the importance of using Danish as a tool to teach other tongues: “I believe that the best way to learn other languages is through comparison with your own.”

Given a choice between a qualified Danish teacher and a native speaker, Kjær would choose the Dane every time.

“The most important things in teaching others, whether it’s teaching a language or something else, is to be good at teaching: handing down the knowledge, creating the best opportunities for students’ learning. That’s what’s essential,” he reasoned.

And, perhaps surprisingly, Mikkelsen agrees. “The native speaker needs to be qualified. Unfortunately, I think there’s a big risk of non-qualified native speakers being hired just because they’re native,” she said.

“The main issue is the grammar. Non-qualified teachers don’t have a good enough grasp of grammar to be able to pass it on to their students.”

Cultural nuances
But surely there’s more to language than grammar and what you can learn at teaching college? ‘The Chinese Teacher’ certainly thinks so.

Born in Harbin, China, in 1983, Aobo Tai arrived in this world with a twin sister at a time when many Chinese women were not allowed to have more than one child. Over three decades later, she teaches high school students at Ørestad Gymnasium.

She contends there is no substitute for understanding the culture behind a language.

“A Danish person who teaches Chinese might have studied in China, worked in China, but they probably haven’t lived for many, many years with a Chinese family,” she said.

“So, natives know the small details better than them.”

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