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