[Outlook]Fresh air and good English

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[Outlook]Fresh air and good English

When I arrived in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, I was surprised to see that the streets were quiet. As I live in Seoul, the difference was striking. Of course, it’s invidious to compare Copenhagen with Seoul because only 500,000 people live in this European city, while Seoul is home to some 14 million. But the small population doesn’t seem to be the only reason for the quietude of Copenhagen.
The major factor seems to be that there are only a few cars to make noise and fumes.
In Copenhagen, bicycles are far more numerous than cars. In any part of the city, you can see citizens pushing pedals. At the entrances of public facilities, schools and government offices there are spaces to park bicycles. In front of the parliament building, there are serried ranks of bicycles. One third of the lawmakers ride them, instead of driving cars. The city of Copenhagen plans to increase the percentage of commuters who ride bicycles from 32 to 40 percent by 2010.
The campaign to replace cars with bicycles stems from the country’s environmental policies. In 1971, the Danish government established the Environment Ministry, the first of its kind in the world. With the Environment Ministry acting as a coordinator, urban planners, experts on transportation and environmental activists gathered and decided to make Copenhagen a city of bicycles. The campaign was designed to solve traffic congestion, reduce air pollution and make citizens healthier at the same time.
Bicycle paths were built across the city and a new system of signals for bicycle riders was invented.
When a conventional road and a bicycle path intersect, bicycles cross first and cars have to wait. And the plan was not confined to Copenhagen. Ten thousand kilometers of bike paths were laid across the country. The scheme was made easier because of Denmark’s flat topography.
Meanwhile, the authorities imposed heavy taxes on cars to induce people to give them up.
Cars in Denmark are more expensive than anywhere else in the world. The value-added tax is 25 percent of the original price and the registration tax is 180 percent. The price of a car becomes three times higher than the original manufacturer’s price. A small car costs around $60,000. Because of the Danish people’s desire for an effective environment policy, they have accepted the excessively high car prices.
There is another thing that surprised me ― from young children to senior citizens, most Danes speak English fluently.
I asked Bertel Haader, the education minister of Denmark, what was the country’s secret. He said that it was because TV programs in the English language are not dubbed. Both public and private broadcasters do not dub imported programs but have long aired them with Danish subtitles. As a result, Danish people are very familiar with spoken English.
In Denmark, people learn English in school starting in the fourth grade. In terms of hours spent in English class, Danish people do not put in more time than Koreans. But Denmark’s average score in Toefl tests is among the highest in the world, at 263 points, while Korea’s average is one of the lowest, at 213 points, even though we spend $14 billion yearly on private English education. Of course, the Danish language is closer to English than Korean. But still, our English education seems ineffective by comparison. The Danish are exposed to English in childhood.
By the time children enter elementary school, they can understand spoken English to some extent and they can mimic the pronunciation without much difficulty.
More than half of the TV programs shown on Danish TV are made in English-speaking countries, such as the United States and England. Many commercials are in English. I asked the education minister whether this tends to weaken the cultural identity of the Danish. He answered, “Because Denmark is a very small country we had to make a realistic choice to ensure our survival.”
The Danish speak Danish only among themselves. Many speak English like their mother tongue, but there is no suggestion that English be the official language. They are proud of their own language while they have the good sense to use English to their advantage.
Prices are very high in Denmark. A meal at a restaurant can easily cost around 200 Danish kroner, which is about $40. Also, the Danish pay more than half of their income in taxes.
Despite all these facts, Denmark is usually near the top of any survey of national happiness.
Taking good care of the environment and having an open mind seem to be the keys to the happiness of the Danish people.

*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok
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