Interview: Jarl Cordua on the importance of speaking Danish in Denmark

We catch up with the political commentator to speak in-depth about expats and their difficulties with the local language

When Danish political commentator Jarl Cordua picks up the phone to answer some questions on a recent article published in Berlingske, he laments half-jokingly that we are not speaking in Danish. I point out that the newspaper is English-language. 

“But then it’s on your terms,” Cordua observes. How so? “Well, you say your mother is Danish – this is part of my point. Anglo-Saxon people don’t want to speak Danish, and you even have Danish family. Still, we’re having this conversation in English.”

Cordua is teasing at this point, but he is serious about his message to foreigners: buck up and learn Danish, for fanden.

Among his complaints about those who come here to live from abroad – who he emphasises add massive value to the country – is their slowness to learn, and even disrespect for, the Danish language.

Danes not spared either
And he is no happier with the Danes themselves either.

“Why,” he pines, “when I go to a bar in Prague, for example, does everyone reply to me in their mother-tongue, but in Denmark we are happy to switch immediately to English, even when just one person in a group of ten is English-speaking? Can you see the Chinese or the Russians doing something like that?”

Then there is the local habit of using English swear-words: “I mean, people are swearing in English in a way that even English-speaking people don’t like. Four-letter words in almost every every sentence. People think they are speaking English, but they’re not.”

Snobby or sympathetic?
More than anything else, Cordua seems unhappy that Danes do not cherish their mother-tongue as they should. “Where is the sense of pride found in other countries?” he asks.

But foreigners might have a different perspective. A classic complaint levelled at the Danes is that if you try and speak their language, they will reply immediately in English as soon as they have understood you are not Danish. Is this snootiness, or are they just trying to be helpful?

“Well, it is definitely a fair point,” Cordua replies. “That’s one of the reasons that I began my small campaign to get people speaking Danish.”

He adds that there is no need to be snobbish when confronted with someone who speaks imperfect Danish: he just gauges their ability and replies accordingly. Some people just switch to English too easily, for whatever reason.

Brazen bourgeoisie 
Europeans in Denmark, according to Cordua, are more conceited than their ‘non-EU immigrant’ counterparts when it comes to learning the local language.

“If people come from a Muslim country, speaking Arabic or Turkish is a huge problem. You should have learnt Danish yesterday, people think.

“But if you come from Europe, and particularly from an English-speaking country, you can say whatever you want, speak in your own language and not bother to learn Danish, and that’s fine.”

This ties in with who Cordua thinks is really at fault in the ‘Anglicisation’ of Denmark: the country’s crème de la crème.

The elite
“I’m actually picking on the elite here. And I think that they should be aware, because whatever the leader does, many other people will follow in their footsteps. If our leaders are not aware of what they are doing, I think we are at risk of adopting a foreign language over time.”

Is there really such a risk though? Surely Danish won’t be replaced by English.

“In many ways, I think it has happened already. In the business environment you have all those English terms you’re using, and Danish has fallen by the wayside.”

But is there not a benefit in the mixing of languages, like what has been happening in Europe for millennia?

“That’s definitely some people’s point of view. I mean, wouldn’t it be great if we went back to the times of the Tower of Babel and everybody spoke the same language? Wouldn’t that be great? We would save a lot of money.”

Man the fort
Cordua’s position exemplifies the contradictions of living in a small country in an age dictated by the whims of global superpowers.

On the one hand he supports globalisation and sees himself as a pro-European, well travelled cosmopolitan; on the other, he is a fearsomely staunch defender of a culture that has warded off foreign mannerisms (particularly German ones) for centuries.

“We defended our culture in the Schleswig Wars in the 1800s. Why should we give up now and let the English language take over?” says Cordua.

“We Danes, including myself, used to make fun of the Norwegian and Icelandic people’s insistence on making up their own silly words for everything, instead of importing the English ones.

“But now I’ve changed my mind: I think they have a point.”