Danish for Expats

For a country that sets such great store by conformity, foreigners are subdivided into a dizzying array of categories.


Plus-Belly Sneetches
(Photo credit: charliecurve)


The most favoured of all the groups is the “Highly skilled immigrant”, prized for the revenue it can generate by increasing the productivity of Danish companies, buying power in the local community and paying more tax than it can hope to claim back through using services. The Danish government’s stated aim is for these sorts to come and then leave. The tension for them is between staying long enough to help the company earn more money but not outstaying the welcome and using public services.


Three to five years is the length of time the government prefer. Any shorter and they are just doing handover-takeover, longer and they might get their money’s worth by needing hospital treatment or schooling of their children.


One of the deals offered to this group is a tax break for three years. If you stay longer, you have to “pay back” the taxes you avoided.


This group have absorbed the message that they are favoured above all the other foreigners and do not call themselves immigrants. They are “expats” and “internationals”. They float above ordinary mortals and do not share their challenges or issues. That is not to say that they do not experience problems or frustrations but rather they are insulated against some of the more upsetting possibilities.

Should these people have to learn Danish?


The Danish government does not think so. They will be offered a year of tuition. If my Danish language classes were anything to go by: they would be better served by a couple of boxed sets (Recommend: Klovn and Matador), and a library card.


One thing you must understand about me before we continue (though long-time readers might know this already), is that I love learning languages. I lived in Cardiff for six years and learned a little Welsh, some of which I can still speak years later. I went to night school to learn Japanese and Swahili. I used to speak pretty decent French. When I was in school I was in the elite group who were allowed to study German from scratch to school leaver certificate standard in two years (I got an A). I even know some words in Klingon and I cannot make up my mind between Valyrian and Dothraki. My mp3 player has French, English, Danish and Swedish tracks on it. I love languages.


One of the primary attractions of moving abroad was having the opportunity to learn another language to fluency. Even if this language is not spoken widely, it opens a door into another culture. It helps you understand how thinking occurs. It allows you to access what is going on around you.


Danish has come in handy, I won’t lie. Many doctors and nurses do not speak English or are not happy doing so. My medical Danish is pretty good now, even as my word order creaks under the strain of expressing ideas while upset, in pain or frightened. Also, as a teacher in a Danish school, I had a much easier time overall with Danish than without. It has helped with communicating with children and older people. It has helped in shops. It has helped in social situations. It has helped me act politically in my town.


However, my Danish is not “good enough”. I have been here five years and I am reminded every day, at some point, that it is not good enough. I am not even kidding. I hardly notice it anymore. I am inured. Usually people are well-meaning, they are trying to help me, it is meant in the spirit of friendliness. But you know what? I have been here five years and none of their help has come in handy. And yet, it keeps coming. There are also people who are massive turdbags. They remind me that my Danish is not native quality in a much crueler way.


In my first year or so, these people were the majority. On year five, they are the minority. What changed? I got better at Danish and became less of a target.


I am a highly qualified immigrant and I am now working in an international, English speaking environment. I used Danish this week to:-


  • Give directions
  • Read the news
  • Watch a few tv programmes on netflix
  • Go shopping
  • Eavesdrop
  • Understand the announcements on the train
  • An entire hospital appointment from receptionist to discharge
  • Order food
  • Take the piss out of my boyfriend


I use Danish quite a lot, considering. Back when I was new, I was afraid to do many things because I was unable to do them in Danish and felt bad about doing them in English. I felt like, when I got good at Danish, then I could socialise. Then I could go get asthma inhalers. Then I could buy clothes. Then I could date.


I put my life on hold for months and months. If I got official letters, I put them in a shoe box unread. I had so much money in the bank because I was only spending on itunes downloads and budget airline tickets. Eventually, I pulled myself together and tried to have a life here without having Danish fluency first. Danish fluency would come through interacting with Danish people. I found a bilingual knitting club set up by an American, in Aarhus. I went to it and she wasn’t there. The people that were there were nice until the Danish Queen Bee showed up and she was incredibly mean to me. I thought maybe it was a blip and went back the next month. Same thing only worse.


Year Five and I probably have more Danish friends than my Danish boyfriend does. Not that I am counting. But I do not speak Danish with them that much. My vocabulary is limited. When I socialise, I can agree and answer direct questions but I cannot speculate on the relative cost/benefits of varying strategies during a zombie apocalypse (which makes me such scintillating company en anglais), so I appear quite boring and flat. I am better in English.


Anyway. Should someone who already knows they want to leave in three to five years learn Danish? My heart says “of course! languages are awesome!” but my head says “don’t bother, if people are mean to you, it can damage how you learn other languages.”


Danish is of limited application, even in Denmark. If you are living in a big city, there are plenty of people who are dying to speak English to you and only a minority who want to hear your shitty Danish. At most, you need to learn phrasebook Danish. You will not often get to use it outside of tourist situations.


And yet, you will curse yourself. For every time you are on public transport and the driver makes an announcement and you don’t know what everyone is doing or what it is they said about your destination. Or when you need an electrician. Or when someone is shouting at you, pointing their fingers at you and getting animated as you blush and shrug. Or when you see a lost child. Or you fuck up at work because something vital was communicated only in Danish.


But honestly, with the quality of the Danish language programme put on for foreigners (and considering you will only get a year of it from now on), you were never going to get good enough to do those things. Even if you had worked hard and been a good immigrant. Even if you had got yourself some Danish friends. Even if you spent every evening on your homework. And for everyone that insists you should have been speaking Danish fluently after three months of residence, there are three who will switch over to English the second you screw up the pronunciation of something.


If foreigners who intend only to spend a short time in Denmark need to learn enough Danish in the first year to be able to function in Danish society without interpreters, then the recruitment of them has to change. Instead of relying on government schools, companies need to make sure that their workers are given high quality Danish tuition that targets their needs. The message “Everyone speaks English,” must be scrubbed and be replaced with “We will give you an intensive course before you arrive so you are functional.” It is this disconnect between what is said in the recruitment process and the actual reality of Denmark that bothers me. Not the need for Danish.


Danish Women’s Bodies

One of those news stories that makes scandy-philes scratch their heads made it out of Denmark a while back.

On DR2 (the state broadcaster), there is a show where some bloke comments on the bodies of some nude women. A bit like X-Factor but where the only talent the woman is judged on, is having secondary sexual characteristics? I am not going to pretend I have seen it.

So, the left-wing international press asked “People of the world! We thought Denmark was a Scandinavian feminist paradise!” and Danish feminists tried to explain the situation to them in ways they might understand.

What no one is saying is that feminism has not won in Denmark. What has happened is that the Danish people have realised you cannot run a welfare state with this number of dependents, without full-employment of those able to work.

Women work outside of the home because the country would be royally bolloxed if they did not. Not because of sisterhood or the sincere belief that women are equal to men.

Women are not equal to men in Danish society.

. (Photo credit: ЯAFIK ♋ BERLIN)

For example. The rape laws only just got changed this month, where being the husband of the woman you raped got you a smaller sentence (and a lighter charge).

The role of “mother” has been abolished and converted into the role of “parental guardian”, in the same way the role of “father” was in the last hundred years or so. This isn’t to free the people from domestic drudgery, this is the work of capitalism. Paid work is the only thing that counts. Both parents are expected to outsource the raising of their children to “professionals”. Human relationships not based on exchange of monies and services are not valued.

Danish women’s bodies are a thorny issue. Danish girls wear very revealing clothing, which goes unremarked in schools but at some point in their twenties a switch is thrown and they cover up. Most Danish women wear layers out of necessity (the weather turns around so much, that you need to be able to remove or add clothing to keep up), but they cover their cleavage with massive scarves. Uncovered cleavage is a grave faux pas. They might wear skin tight leggings but bare legs are greeted with “aren’t you cold?” by every Dane in a 2-km radius. Meanwhile, women who cover their hair or their bodies more loosely, are also subject to the reverse pressure. They are told they are being oppressed by their men and must uncover their bodies immediately because we said so.

The naked female body is everywhere. There is an advert for breast augmentation which features a pair of nude “new breasts” on most buses in the towns and cities. Hardcore pornography is sold in newsagents and petrol stations, the covers are not obscured and the titles are not always on the top shelf.

Let me break this down for you: I have entered a newsagents and been confronted with a row of images of naked (except for sex toys, restraints or other accoutrements), females stood next to clothed men. Given the more violent trends in porn these days, many of these women looked unhappy, in pain or distressed. This was on the middle shelf, so in full view of any one over 1m high.

Some men (and women), like to view pornographic images and films and the law of the land says that they can. But showing pornography to children is sexual abuse. Having these images visible is sexually abusive. We are not talking about a happy lady (or lad), with their tuppenny bits hanging out joyously, these images are confusing and worrying for children and adolescents.

And wouldn’t you know, it is all so that someone can make money.

Advertisements in general show women in a particular way, they are often objectified or associated with sex, even if they are selling something unrelated to sexuality. Men are not often put in this position. When it is, it is to be ironic or to make a point. The female body is used to sell things and it is only valuable so long as it makes men think about sex.

Given that Danish beaches are often clothing-optional and single-sex changing rooms rarely have cubicles, you might get the impression that non-sexual nudity is acceptable in this culture. Every year at Roskilde, for example, there is a nude race, which is just happy-good-times for young people with bouncy ballsacks and boobs.

However, the government of Denmark has ruled that women who are breastfeeding in public may be asked to stop or leave the premises because this behaviour might offend others.

This may seem at odds with the happy-go-lucky attitude to human-female flesh in Denmark but it seems perfectly consistent to me.

For as long as a woman’s body can be used to make money or arouse sexual interest, it is valuable in Denmark. The show about a couple of fat old nobcheeses commenting on how attractive they found a nude woman showcases the attitude. Women’s bodies can be used to sell pornography, they can be airbrushed and used to make women want to pay for cosmetic surgery, they can be used to sell non-sexual products, they can be decoration but they cannot be used for other purposes.

Danish women’s bodies are for public consumption, they are to be displayed when they are young and firm and covered up when adolescence ends. The use of a breast to feed an infant makes people feel intensely uncomfortable. The advice to breastfeed for six months has been taken on board by many but to breastfeed for any longer is seen as an aberration, dangerous even. Breastfeeding must take place in secret, in toilets or designated rooms, but airbrushed sexualised imagery may be displayed anywhere at all.

For feminists to think that Denmark has made greater strides against sexism because so many mothers have full-time jobs is to entirely misunderstand how the patriarchy oppresses us all.

Should I Move to Denmark: Sprouts of Progress

When I first got here in 2008, there was many an initiative to keep highly-trained “expats” in the country. Not that I benefited from any of them, I worked in a state school in a town which had not really thought to attract international talent at that time. I was only on the periphery of it but I observed several attempts to recruit and retain foreign workers.

I am not sure what they were saying to the employers, it was not information I was looking for. But I remember what they were saying to me: if you don’t like it, it is because you are a dick.

There was a blog run by the government which seemed to be telling me everything was cupcakes and unicorn rainbows. And that anything I had to say on the contrary was because I was a bloody bastard. There were events, which I think are still going, about how to adapt to Danish culture. I have never been to one but I think the take-home message is supposed to be “lower your expectations”. Occasionally, they would ask Freshies to make presentations about how to integrate, for other foreigners or to Danish companies. They only asked people who had a proven track record for only addressing the issue in the most “positive” way. Note: not “constructive”, I do not mean someone who notes challenges and explains how to overcome them but people who reject critical thought entirely in order to promote the idea that only bloody bastards have problems getting along in Denmark.

Pictured: The expat experience of Denmark as described by the Danish government (Photo credit: Totally Severe)

And hey, it did not work. The issue with recruiting and retaining international workers remained. There was a huge problem with staff turn-over, people come and then leave before their contract is up. Maybe they say things like “high taxes” or “not much choice in the shops” but they were never going to tell you other reasons so long as they have been primed with “if you have other criticisms it is because you have not tried hard enough”.

I remember a really good blog entry by a psychologist about how to make your staff leave early, tongue in cheek, about the shitty things companies inadvertently do that make their workers unhappy. I cannot find it anymore but it was really good, you guys!

Stuff like:- Always speak Danish. Let them sink or swim. Forget about their spouse.

I move in different circles now and I saw a magazine bearing a cover girl that I sort of know. So I picked it up and imagine my surprise at the content!

The magazine is aimed not at The Internationals but their employers. It is written in English. It has interviews with expats. And it has guidelines for recruiting and retaining!


Guidelines such as “be honest about challenges before they get there”, “get your other employees to speak English at lunch and in meetings”, “change all your signs/information into English”, “make sure the spouse is happy”, “help them with bureaucracy” etc etc

You know, the shit that got me called “negative” when I talk about it… That stuff.

What seems to be happening now is that foreigners in Denmark who arrived after me are a lot happier. They are socialising, they are happier in their jobs, their children are being educated, their spouses are finding things to do, it is all good times.

Sure, they do not want to stay longer than the three or five years they promised their company. But they do not want to leave early. That is good. It is also gratifying that every survey I filled in, where I outlined the issues as I saw them, has been addressed.

I really want to move up to Aarhus, it looks like a much better situation for me up there. I do not want to stay in Denmark forever but at least life is actively being made more bearable. Maybe I do not need to warn people about here quite as strenuously.

What was the lockout for?

For most of April, schools in Denmark were either shut or running on a much reduced timetable. This was because the boroughs called a “lockout”, which is an action employers can use against their employees during negotiations in order to force a worsening in pay and/or working conditions.

When the boroughs and government were asked to account for this, to give an explanation for forcing this action after the unions had given so much up in negotiations already, they explained that they needed to make these changes so that state school reform could happen. Even though I work at an independent school, I was still affected. Even though these reforms will have nothing to do with my school.

The reforms they wanted to make but could not pay for without worsening the working conditions of all teachers:-

  • Longer days for children
  • “Activity” hours, mandatory play-time lessons at the end of the day
  • More Danish and maths
  • Mandatory homework “club” (or study hall)

The “activity hours” were dropped a month after the lockout. Reason: several parties in the opposition did not like the idea and would not vote for it.

Now the mandatory study hall is being dropped. Reason: one of the opposition parties think it should be a choice for students.

What we seem to be left with is longer school-days and extra emphasis on the basics.

Where I stand on this is that it is not good enough just to have children in the room for longer. Danish school days are short but they are not the shortest in the world. If children are not getting to the required standard, it is not how long they have in class that is the problem but the methods used to teach them.

Inclusion is the same story. The Danish government does not want to pay extra for special needs provision so wants to have children of all abilities taught together. Fine. Finland do that and it is great. But you don’t educate special needs students just by having them in a different classroom with children with no learning difficulties. You need to know how to help children with diverse needs access the curriculum. You need to teach differently.

Putting children in a classroom for an extra hour or two at the end of the day and giving them five extra worksheets to get through is not going to raise standards. You need to teach differently.

What needs to happen in Denmark is exactly what no one is suggesting will happen.

They need to look at international research of what works. They need to run large scale trials in schools to see which things actually work in the context of the Danish culture. They need to decide what outcomes they want to see.

If it is greater numeracy and literacy then they need to train all teachers to increase those skills. In England, there are two phrases you get to hear a lot:- “All teachers are teachers of special needs” and “All teachers are teachers of literacy.” You do not get to hear that in Denmark because it is not true. And it will never be true so long as Danish teachers are untrained in these skills.

And I am not talking about a couple of dreary twilight sessions after lessons with a powerpoint and no activities. I mean there needs to be coaching and workshops and showing-not-telling.

Good teachers of literacy and numeracy need to be identified and trained so they can share their skills with their school (or even town).

And any of the other things that governments often think they want to see in their population, like creativity or leadership or teamwork or what-have-you, they need to take a backseat until the changes in teaching the basics have bedded down and become an integral part of the Danish school. No chopping and changing, if there is a new government halfway through the programme.

But none of this is ever going to happen.

They are going to make the school day longer. Teachers are going to carry on doing what they always have. For some children, that means they have longer with a teacher who knows what they are doing and for other children, that means they will be in school longer with someone who cannot help them.

How do they expect standards to increase? By magic?