Feeling Like a Failure in Learning Danish

A double bind we foreigners are put into early on is this:-

  1.  “Danish is the hardest language. Say a tongue twister so I can laugh at you.”
  2. “Speak Danish fluently, imperialist scum. Never mind you have no vocabulary. Just speak it 24/7 and you’ll get it.”

Add to that the four reactions we might receive if we have a go at speaking Danish.

  1. “Ahahahahaha!”
  2. “WHAT DID YOU SAY?!?!?”
  3. “GOOD DOGGY! Look at the foreigner, she thinks she’s people.”
  4. “Oh ok, I’m now communicating with you.”

Given that only reaction #4 is what we were actually going for, there is quite a lot of negative feedback. The other three reactions are ‘micro-aggressions’. As in little kicks in the shin to keep us in our place. Sure, #3 might be said by a kindly person, trying to encourage us but patronisation and condescension necessarily requires that you feel superior to another. Patting a foreign on the head for asking you to pass the salt is a way to keep them under. It’s all ego. Contrast with: a few minutes into the conversation “Wow, your Danish is pretty awesome. Let’s continue talking about the thing we were talking about in Danish!” Can’t fault that. Can’t fault that at all.

If you get a #2, you just repeat but louder and with a bit more umph. Chances are, you put the emphasis on the wrong syllable. Sounding pissed off usually puts it on the right one. Don’t worry, no one gives a toss.

Truth is. Danish is not the hardest language for English speakers. It has very similar grammar (and is at least understandable if you use English grammar), the vocab sets overlap, the sounds aren’t that crazy. At least it isn’t tonal.

What might trip you up is where the emphasis/stress goes and the way the vowels are distinct to Danish speakers but much-of-a-muchness to English speakers. It’s like the four candles sketch on ‘The Two Ronnies’ all day long.

But, and this may come as a surprise to the willing student of Danish: Fuck ’em.

Say ‘Kusse’ when you meant ‘Kysse’, say ‘Boller’ when you meant ‘Bøller’ or indeed ‘Balder’. It is funny so laugh along with them when they are laughing at you. It’s like the policeman in ‘Allo Allo’. Get zen. If the laughter is good natured say ‘Hvad sagde jeg?’ If the laughter is not good natured say ‘At least I am trying,’ in the language of your choice. If you speak anything other than English and Danish, this works especially well.

What about feeling inadequate about your written work or your vocabulary?

Learning a language takes a lot of time. You have a top speed of acquisition based on things like how many languages you already speak, what the languages you speak are like, how young you are, how musical you are, how many words you know and so on. You cannot alter your top speed.

You can work at your top speed by exposing yourself to Danish as much as possible. But. You will inhibit your top speed by thinking ‘Argh! I can’t do this!’ or ‘Why am I so bad at this?’ or ‘I should do this better!’

If you find yourself having an unhelpful thought, acknowledge it and then side-step it. So what if another immigrant got fluent before you and she arrived around about the same time as you? So what if your friend’s step mum speaks Danish all day and that’s why she’s so good now? Just breathe. Breathe, damn you!

Feeling feelings of inadequacy will get you precisely nowhere. If you feel reasonably happy about learning Danish, you will absorb it whatever conscious effort you put in. Your brain will do a lot of this on automatic. However, if you build up an association between guilt or self-loathing and learning Danish; your brain will avoid learning anything even with conscious effort.

Find things on Danish tv and youtube that please and delight you. I like Jonatan Spang, for example.

He speaks quite clearly and he is adorable.
I like to write things that I would have liked to have written in English (rather than the uninspiring crap we usually have to write for class).
I like to read things I would have liked to have read in English (magazines are especially good because they are long form but not looooog form).

You will get there. I promise. But just forget about being fluent or perfect or amazing. For now. Baby steps right now and before you know it, you won’t even be able to switch off your ears on public transport and be absorbed in your own thoughts.

And then my calf went ‘pop’

Oh the embarrassment. Though, Dr Google says it wasn’t my fault.

DHL arranged this really cool party thing in a park over two days where companies could come, barbecue and walk or run a 5K. I signed up to it, not really realising it was a relay and that only the über-sporty would sign up for the running. I’ve done around five 10ks and four 5ks, I am comfortable with this distance and  I know how fast I can do it (not very but that’s not the point, is it?) I sort of thought it would be a nice jog through the park with my friends, where the fast runners would pull away but the slow duffers like me would jog-run around the track together.

Oh how wrong can one person be? It was a relay race and I went last which meant I had to wait until four runners before me had completed their run. They all did it in just over 20 minutes (or something), so I did not have long to wait but it was at least 8.30 pm before my turn.

Because it was a relay, I couldn’t really warm up. I didn’t know when my team mate would appear and I wanted to be ready to grab the baton. So, I was pretty cold when I started.

I took it easy because of that, made sure I paced myself. I did the first kilometer with no issues. Had a walk break. Started up again at my previous pace. My right leg felt a bit sore and I resolved to stretch it at my next walk break in five minutes because I didn’t want to let the team down by running way too slowly. Then my calf went ‘pop’.

There was no pain. At least not in that moment. But I knew there was something wrong because suddenly my right leg was no longer functioning. I pulled over, did some stretches. Nothing. Nothing but pain. The pain started. I tried to walk it off. Lots of pain and limping.

I briefly considered ringing my team and telling them what had happened. Ringing my boyfriend and telling him to pick me up. I thought about it all and then decided against because it was a relay. I hoped to see a medic on the side of the course but because it was only a 5k, there were only stewards. So, I walked. Which was painful and embarrassing because of the limping. Then I ran which was less painful actually but made me feel sick. I got around the course and got to the 4k mark.

I made a decision to run the rest of the way, in case my team mates were around to cheer me on and because it was late and most people would be wanting to get home. I manipulated my body into doing something that was patently against my best interests by convincing myself that it was a cramp that I was freaking out about and reminding myself that I lived through an ectopic pregnancy. That was pain. That was fear. A sore leg? Give me a fucking break.

So, I ran at almost the same pace as I began for one km. All in, I did the 5k in 40 mins which was only 5 mins above my prediction. I got back to my team but was distracted by the pain and then had to fetch my boyfriend so I could get a lift and by the time I found him, everyone wanted to go home. I did get a beer, so it wasn’t a complete bust.

Then as I limped back to the car, I burst into tears and felt very sorry for myself. Similarly, when I tried to exit the car into my house and it had totally frozen up, I bawled with pain and embarrassment. Of course the fatty hurt her leg! What hubris signing up for the running race and not the walking race!

(Found out later, it was probably from over training rather than having a few spare kilos. Certainly my shoes need replacing as a matter of urgency.)

I discovered my calf was swollen and bruised. And all from a tiny ‘snick’ that I didn’t take seriously enough.

The next day, I got ready for school but I couldn’t even walk the length of my flat. I could hobble. I could limp. But I would need to do 1km to the station and possibly another 1km from the bus stop to my school. I couldn’t even take a step with my left leg. So, I had to ring in sick.

My leg is a lot better today, I can limp a lot faster. But it means I have to wait on the running until it is much much better. This is bad because I’ve only just got back into the fitness groove. I guess I can swim or do things that don’t need functioning legs but it is still annoying because running is my favourite.

Weird Danes and Expats

I am not an expat. I am an immigrant. I am a long-termer. Not a tourist. I have a completely different perspective on Denmark than someone who is only here for a short-term contract or an actual Dane. Denmark is my home. I have Danish friends. I understand Danish culture. But I am not a Dane.

One of my Danish friends asked me if I wanted to go to a seminar about Danish culture and I did. I did want to go. So, I went to see what I ‘should’ think about Danish culture according to an anthropologist named Dennis Nørmark.

He is very entertaining and his talk was very well pitched. But I had many thoughts and I will share them with you now.

He led with an example about ‘expats’ being negatively affected by Danes not bothering to hold doors open for them. Who knows why they don’t look behind their shoulder to see if there is anyone behind them. I have a few pet theories (their pedagogues don’t teach them to do it in daycare, it wouldn’t occur to them that other people exist, no one else does it etc). Our friend, the anthropologist, says the behaviour is considered too courtly. That Danes view each other as a family, so they do not go to extraordinary lengths (i.e. looking over their shoulder briefly when passing through heavy doors), for them.

The Danes I have spoken to (sample: two), about this say that they would (and do), hold doors open for colleagues and family. So. I am not sure what he thinks he is saying.

I was worrying for the people at the talk because I would hate for them to get the impression that all the behaviour they are interpreting as ‘rude’ is not-rude-for-Denmark. Because, and Dennis didn’t cover this in any detail, there is a lot of that too.

Okay, newbies, listen up. There are some things that are ‘get used to it’ and some things that are ‘rude-for-Denmark’.

In the ‘Get Used to It’ pile, is not bothering to check if someone is behind you when passing through a door. Also, in the supermarket, if a Dane wants to get past, it is not rude to push you out of the way. They do signal the intent to move into your body space, their eyes get defocused and they get closer slowly. You need to look out for it.  The same with not thanking you for putting yourself out (for example, stopping to let someone pass), and barging past you when you are waiting for someone less mobile than you to cross a more narrow walkway.

Why they do this? Fuck knows. I doubt it is because they see each other as family. I am very dubious about this guy’s interpretation of these behaviours. I agree with him that they do not think of themselves as ‘rude’ and a Danish outside observer of these behaviours would also not classify them as such. It’s just what they do here. I would classify it as ‘anti-social’ and call it quits. They don’t want to make contact with other people for cultural reasons, so they go to extraordinary lengths to avoid it. Even when it means that the other people they are trying to afford privacy to, by ramming them, making them wait, ignoring their altruism, are put out.

But. Newbies. What you need to start to understand is: there are rude behaviours too. And you will see a lot of them. Because everyone is so shy and conflict averse, they rarely call people out on them. Maybe the Get Used to It behaviours were impolite in Danish culture but everyone was doing it, no one was calling anyone out and now it is normal. Who knows.

Rude behaviours include:- pushing in queues, punching people to get past, swearing at you, urinating on you, racially abusing you etc. You will see some of these. In my first few years, I saw a lot of them. Not so much anymore.

You see, Denmark has its fair share of assholes. But they are rarely challenged. So the culture of Denmark tends towards the assholish. It’s very sad but what can you do? That is not to say the majority of people here are assholes, au contraire, the majority are delightful. But if you realised that it did not truly matter if you shoved someone when getting off the bus, would you bother trying to get down without touching the people pressing from the outside to get in? What is the point? It’s not even rude here.

Then he also said things that were not entirely true. Or true for a certain value of true. In his defence of Dane behaving in a xenophobic way, he said that the Danish culture has been homogeneous for a long time so they are catching up to the multi-culture thing everyone else has going on.

He defended this point of view with the stats that in a period during the 1800s, there were only 20 foreigners a year settling in Denmark.

Not counting the Swedes or the Germans.

And, presumably, not the slaves. And not counting the foreigners already here, like the second gen French in Fredericia and the Dutch in Amager who were just beginning to assimilate in that period.

Not counting the Swedes? Honestly, if you are going to argue from authority and bring up a historical context, you better have done your reading, boy.  The Swedes were hated in the 1800s. The Danes thought they were lazy and thieves and they deported them without so much as a by-your-leave. If you want to make the case that Denmark didn’t have to deal with problems around immigration until the 20th Century, you really ought to draw a veil over the state of play in the 1800s.

Guys, this ‘we have always been homogenous’ get out of jail free card has been revoked. Danish society is xenophobic because there is no consequence for being so. My country had a lot of immigration for its entire history but it did not stop us being pricks throughout and we are still unwelcoming to certain groups. No one has any excuse, not even Denmark.

Now, maybe what he was saying was helpful to short-termers and I should shut the fuck up. Maybe being told ‘it’s just culture, don’t be sad’ is useful for people. Maybe it helps the culture shock process?

But if I had been a newbie and heard his talk, I think it would have upset me. So, I can’t help thinking it is kind of cruel. Also, casting Danes into noble savages that don’t know any better? Give me a fucking break. There are so many polite Danes, it is possible to be kind and show empathy here. I can imagine the cognitive dissonance of being simultaneously upset by selfish or anti-social behaviour and thinking ‘it’s just their culture’ and I don’t think it is fair to put people through that.

I hold onto the fact that other Danes have had enough of the assholes running ting. Thomas Skov and Lars AP would like Danes to be more courteous and friendly. They are Danes. They are part of the culture. So when people are mean to me, I think ‘they are just ignorant peasants and they have major problems with social skills’

I guess he’s right though. People on three year contracts are never going to burst through and fix Danish culture to their tastes and so lowering their expectations will help their psychic balance. And any cultural change will be very slow, so lowering your expectations is a good idea for anyone.

But. I do wish he had kept his interpretations to himself or at least not pretended they were objectively justified.  Because what he was doing wasn’t anthropology, it was travel writing.