How to Help Someone Learn Your Language

We’ve all been there, you meet someone at a party and they are from another country. You get to talking and you realise they have not been speaking the lingo for very long. They make mistakes, they umm and err, they look a bit lost. WHAT TO DO?

English: An illustration of a typical dinner p...
“Oh jolly good, you’re from the colonies, are you?”

Dilemma #1: International language timez? 

When is it time to switch to English/Spanish/Mandarin?

Pro:- If they understand that language and were struggling because they thought you didn’t understand it, they might be grateful that you have thrown them a lifeline.

Cons:- They might not speak that language. They might feel insulted that you don’t rate their skills in your language. They might be frustrated that you cockblocked their attempts to practice your language.

Suggestion:- Let them lead this dance. Clarify stuff in a lingua franca but keep it in the language your new friend is trying.

Dilemma #2: How long did you say you were here?

They say they have been in your country for many months. Their productive skills are pretty shitty, considering they have been immersed for so long. Is it time to support them with some friendly advice to learn the language faster?

Pros:- None that occur.

Cons:- You will make them feel self conscious. You will make them feel pressured. You will make them feel stupid. You will make them feel lazy.

Suggestion:- Back the fuck off. Also, don’t damn them with faint praise about how “beautiful” everything they are saying is. They know they are making mistakes. And this goes for all the friendly advice on how to learn. No one cares that your cousin’s Lithuanian step-mother learned your uncle’s language really quickly because he doesn’t speak Lithuanian. Did you ever talk to your step-aunt about how awful it was to not be able to express herself for months and years beyond baby talk? No.

So. Back. The. Fuck. Off.

Dilemma #3: Maybe some levity will help?

Should I introduce some tongue twisters to lighten the mood?

Pro:- If they have never heard this tongue twister, it might be an interesting cultural exchange.

Con:- If they have heard this tongue twister, and they will have done because, let’s face it, you’re not the most original guy, this will be the most tedious and irritating part of talking to you.

Suggestion:- Don’t expect them to say it. Don’t laugh if they do try. Do ask to hear theirs.  Move quickly on.

Dilemma #4: How much help should I give?

Should I consider finishing their sentences? How about correcting pronunciation? How about correcting grammatical errors? 

Pro:- Hearing things said correctly is very useful to a learner.

Con:- If you overdo it, you risk destroying their confidence, the immediacy of ideas and ultimately the conversation.

Suggestion:- Don’t put words in their mouths. If they make a mistake that made them harder to understand, rephrase what you think they mean as a question.

If you can still understand them even though it was wrong, consider weaving the correct way of saying it into conversation later.

Again. Follow their lead. If they say “Hey, please correct my mistakes, if you don’t mind,” then you have permission. Bear in mind, though, humans learn new usage by hearing it correctly several times and not having been corrected after they have said it wrong.

Dilemma #5: Maybe I’m not the right person for the job

All this advice sounds hard and maybe I’m not cut out for helping this particular foreigner until they are almost all the way fluent. I’ll just tell them I don’t speak an international language and then turn my back on them for the rest of the evening to avoid mutual embarrassment.

Pro:- They have dodged a bullet by never meeting you.

Con:- They will feel like shite because you just did that.

Suggestion:- Have a conversation with them at the level they are at! Meet them half way! If it means you are limited to talking about basic, boring, stupid stuff… then talk about it. Speak clearly but don’t shout and don’t break it down like they’re stupid. Explain words with other words or gestures or diagrams or pantomimes.

You’re only going to fiddle with your phone awkwardly for the rest of the party, what do you have to lose?

Danish racism

My country, the UK, has a lot of racists. Some of them are stupid. Some of them are bright. Some of them are violent. Some of them are passive. Some of them are just ignorant. Some of them actively seek ignorance.

Danish racists, it seems, are a lot more homogenous.

All Danish racists are stupid. I don’t mean like “Wow, that guy doesn’t have any book smarts at all!” or “What! He doesn’t even have a degree?!” but like “wow, that argument was stupid.”

One argument they like to make is “I don’t want to feel like I’m a racist, so that wasn’t racist,” another is “Only a few people/No one has complained, so it wasn’t really racist,” and my personal favourite “Oh, you’re calling me out on racism? I bet that means you like *whatever it is I’m saying ALL MUSLIMS EVERYWHERE DO because some people from that group did it*”

I mean, seriously, you have to be either a child or incapable of critical thought for some other reason (“the stupid”), to come up with that shit.

Danish racists are un-self-aware. They will say shit like “Don’t generalise about Danes! They are not all the same.” and “Well, Danish people never commit violent crime” and “Don’t be so sensitive!” and “I’m not racist, so no Danish people are racist and you should stop talking about Danish racism.”

Danish racists are simple. It is all black and white. And when they see a grey on the horizon… Perhaps, they have realised they are talking to a foreigner… they will say

“Oh no no. I don’t mean you. I mean THE OTHER immigrants!”

Which shows a singular lack of deep thought. Yes, yes. The other immigrants. All of whom you have not met.  And if you did meet the thousands of them personally, you’d say the same. Until you met the dozen or so people who you actually mean and then you would say “I do mean you.”

Meanwhile, when you meet Bad Danes (of which there are many many more), you do not say “I guess it’s your culture that made you rob that house/rape that woman/beat your child to death.” You dismiss it as an anomaly. (As you fucking well should!)

Danish racists are trusting. If their rotten media serves up a story about immigrants (for example, immigrants are over represented in prisons. Possible interpretation: “Foreigners are sentenced more harshly/Foreigners commit more serious crimes. Because around 10x more Danes are convicted of any crime than people with a foreign background.” Danish newspaper interpretation “Foreigners are criminals”. Or another example, half of convicted rapists are foreign. Possible interpretation “Danish men are believed in court when they say ‘She was plenty willing!’ and foreign men are not.” Danish newspaper interpretation “Foreign men are rapists.” Another example, a few hundred Somalis cheat on their taxes and a report says “they” keep themselves to themselves. Possible interpretation “Only a couple of hundred, why that’s the same per capita incidence of tax fraud as the Danish population! And that’s still a lot better than companies like Nestlé and Q8! And keeping yourself to yourself is the Danish way. Way to go, Somalians!” Danish newspaper interpretation “Why are they here? I wish they would die in a fire.”) they believe it. They do not check facts. They do not ask around. They do not question “Who benefits?” They do not think “What is their agenda here?” They trust it. And they quote it to you. And they treat it like solid gold fact.

Danish racists are the mainstream. Now, racism is widespread across all cultures and it’s something that is part of being human. There are weird things we all believe that are not true, not just to do with race and culture. But this brand of “Arab/Muslims are just bad to the bone, we should treat them badly because a minority are criminal. But Danish criminals are an anomaly and besides, their crimes are just “nicer”, aren’t they? Asian people are all sluts and say ching-chong. Black people are all stupid and say ooga booga.” racism is the only one you will find. You won’t find the variation in opinion that you might find in other countries. And the Danish racists are the mainstream.

There are Danes who are not racists and they are working overtime to keep that shit afloat, man. Because it’s EVERYWHERE. And it’s normal!

My boss at the kommune suggests schools should select children at least in part based on ethnicity, and everyone says “not racist enough”. Across the parties, there were a bunch of explanations given about how “they” need spreading out. So “their” culture is not dominant. So “they” can learn alongside Danish children, which will improve THEIR results. A cinema in Copenhagen says “Watch out: it’s Eid and “they” get rowdy” and then says “Sorry IF you were offended but “THEY” ARE ROWDY AT EID.” A playpark bans all Somali-looking people and when they are told off say “What? That’s ILLEGAL now?” Or when you go into a shop and the person working there realises and then they treat you like shit because “you are all the same.” It’s mainstream. It’s everywhere.

It’s easy for me to be careful in case I’m being racist because that is mainstream in my culture. I have had a lot of practise.  It’s easy for me to question racist interpretations because I have had training at school.

So, here’s to all the non-racist Danes. Keep up the good work, guys!

Four Years

Wow, you really do get less for murder. I have been living in Denmark for four years to the day.

I remember arriving, it rained and soaked everything I had. I brought only two bags and lived out of them for the first few months. My first impressions were so positive and everything was going to be wonderful.

You know what, the only thing that really consistently upset me in those early days was sprogskole. Poor teaching, shonky “hidden” agenda and crappy learning priorities. If I had had a Danish partner in those early stages or if I had a better school, maybe things would have looked very differently around here.

Being an unaccompanied foreigner in Denmark is a nightmare. Honestly. It is a total nightmare. Put that unaccompanied foreigner in a small town in the middle of nowhere and it’s a wonder I made it at all.

There’s a blog out there about learning languages in three months and the guy says that all you need to do is get out there and practice! No one will make fun of you! People will be helpful! It’s easy to make friends using social networks! He is working his way around the world and I really hope he comes to Denmark. Not because I want him to fail  (I want him to succeed), but because I want him to acknowledge that Denmark throws up challenges that Holland or France does not. I guess he will never see that a lot of what he says only really applies to males. Just showing up at parties where I do not know anyone, this can be dangerous or at least highly provocative as a single woman.

The guys who came over around the same time as me had girlfriends and liked sport. They were also guys, so hanging around the pub on their own wasn’t seen in the same way my hanging around in the pub on my own is seen.

In spite of all that, I have got pretty good at Danish. I’m not world class but I can communicate. I have learned how to make myself understood. I have learned how to make networks of friends from nothing. I have learned how to keep my head above water.

Honestly, if I knew then what I know now, would I have done it?

My social life is not enough. There’s not enough random shit going on. There are not enough opportunities to meet people. F-town is dead. Maybe if I had started in a bigger city, with more random shit, more opportunities, better language tuition, maybe it would have been different.

Who can tell? I feel ready to move on, either to a big Danish city (to accommodate the boyfriend I met after a couple of years of playing Nightmare Mode in the Danish dungeon of F-town) or back to the UK… or maybe even a country with people who let you practise on them.

Here’s a video I shot at my Mum’s house, inspired by the blogger’s comments on learning a language. I don’t think my accent has changed since I made my last Danish vlog…

The Danish Mentality

You cannot accuse me of topicality. The following was put on a government website two years ago. The reason I’m coming so late to the party is that I was looking at my region’s resources for newbies, including a link to the below article. In Danish (Funnily enough, a lot of the links go to Danish language pages, what on earth?)

This is what they wrote on about The Danish Mentality (The link does not work, at the time of writing, maybe the site is down?)

It’s obviously mostly bollocks (how could you hope to encapsulate 5 million people’s mentality into such a small space?), but there is some truth hiding between the lines. Especially the bit about friends.

What happened to Jante, do you think?

Danish mentality

Informal tone 
Most Danes value equality, cosiness, individuality and democracy. Danes’ tone is informal in comparison with many other countries. Friends, family members and colleagues are addressed with the informal “you” and their first name. It is also normal to address managers by their first name. The informal tone is also found in the educational system, where students address their teachers by first name.

Discussion and debate are fundamental aspects of Dane’s upbringing, both in society and in families. This means that many Danes have a fundamental awareness that it is possible to speak up and have an influence. In the business world, you will find the democratic process and structures that characterise Denmark. Associations also have a social, informative and democratic influence.

Cosiness and humour
Cosiness is a very important part of what one could call the Danish mentality. It can be difficult to translate the Danish concept of “hygge” (cosiness), but you will quickly realise that it is closely related to feeling good about one another and that food and drink are often involved.

Humour is also a significant element, and for many Danes, humour involves a large serving of irony. It can be difficult to understand this irony to start out, but it is important to understand if you wish to understand Danes’ mentality.

Friends and acquaintances
In Denmark, friendships often develop after a long period of acquaintance, and Danes generally distinguish between friends and acquaintances. In their private lives as well as in associations, Danes surround themselves with a network that is developed over a long period of time. A relationship of trust must be established before a Dane will enter into an agreement with a new business partner.

Social individualism
In Denmark, importance is placed on everyone being equal and having equal rights without regard to social background and origin.

Thus, one could be led to believe that Danes are anti-individualists; however, this is far from the truth. As in most other European countries, Danes have a fundamental belief in the rights of the individual and career, housing, etc are selected based on individual needs. Entrepreneurship and initiative are prized and self-confidence is generally high among Danes.

This ability to combine individualism with a focus on the welfare of the group is what one observer dubbed “social individualism”.