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.


6 thoughts on “Danish for Expats

  1. I was receiving email in Danish for a couple of weeks before I figured out what language it was. Someone had hacked my Netfix account and Netflix began sending them (me) emails in Danish. When I called to ask what was going on, they said my son in Denmark requested Danish. No red flags there. Go figure. It pays to know several languages these days.


  2. I know very few non Danish who can speak Danish fluently……full stop. I, for one, will always try and communicate in Danish whenever I think it is needed, the feedback I receive is very similar to what you stated, the most annoying being the auto changeover to English mid conversation.

    The moment this takes place the conversation is ruined, because the word you have mispronounced burns your brain like a red hot poker. Yes you finish the conversation with an English flourish and perhaps a (false) laugh.

    I enrolled on a Teacher training course at a “seminarium” not near me, not near me because it is the only one in Denmark. Of course English was to be my main subject and while studying for the English teaching studies you are expected to complete all 5 modules of Danish in these 2 years (3 years normally) therefore enabling you to take the other 2 subjects in Danish in which you will hopefully obtain your Bachelor.

    Now when you go to the local Kommune you will try to speak Danish to the point where you can hear shuffling and giggling/tutting in the waiting queue behind you and you switch to English because it goes quicker. Try doing this in Psychology in front of 29 Danish students knowing full well you’re making a right prick out of yourself…mmmm…..yes I hear you say. Oh BTW, said course revealed a very interesting twist in the exam whereas an English student with very little Danish had their partner do all the written assignments and in the oral exam couldn’t answer the questions in Danish so they were allowed to reply in English they got a 7…..American student did everything them-self written and oral in Danish…..got a 2…..the American is a brilliant student and knew everything what was needed and would definitely have got a 12 if allowed to reply in English. So WRONG.

    This situation convinced me not to take the last 2 years of the course because I would be expected to teach Danish children in Danish in History and Geography respectively…..not going to happen, simply because I would not like my child to be taught by a teacher that is not fluent in the language being used in the classroom…..simple isn’t it.

    You will always find students who will excel in everything and will complete everything but it rankles me to see the students bragging on facebook saying they are now Maths teachers or History teachers…..in Danish, well a word of warning, get ready for the backlash of not getting employed because your Danish is not good enough.

    The International lines at some “Folkeskoler” are doing an excellent service for the future of Danish students, my girlfriend went through Uni doing Chemistry, Geology etc only in English, all the books were in English, but she never had an International line at school therefore she struggled but survived. Those same books were printed for English students for English Universities as were my Psychology books for Danish students for Danish Universities…..make your own conclusions.

    My cultural outlook on life is pretty intense and can accept criticism from certain people, just don’t let some people make you feel inadequate, they, after all, are lacking in general decorum.



    1. That’s a *major* weakness in your course. They should have put you on an intensive Danish-for-teachers course for a year instead of training you for another subject.

      Assessment generally in the Danish system is poorly done, it’s rarely fair and I do not trust the results. It’s such a shame it’s another thing that is not going to change.


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