Where do you meet these people?

I have instituted a foreigner-bubble to protect me from the shit going on in the news. Fact is, I have enough on my plate with stuff that I cannot blog about.

Still, in terms of integration, things are going alright. Aarhus is way better than Fredericia in terms of opportunities to socialise and relax. I feel a bit more at home here than I did in Fredericia. At-homeness would peek in at the weekends when I went to the neighbour-baker and got some pastries. That was it though.

Some people have asked me how it was to integrate. What it was like to come here seven years ago and settle down. And I tell them about the high points and the low points. If they are Danish, they will make a comment on the low points. Where do I meet these people? How unlucky I was to meet such unkind people! How I must be focusing on a few outliers because they surely were not the norm.

But in Fredericia, it was about 50/50. Half of the time, the people I met were friendly and helpful and the other half, they would not have pissed on me were I on fire.

Of course, friendly kind people cannot imagine someone being so rude or so unwelcoming. It’s like when women talk about street harassment and regular men are incredulous and think she is exaggerating or making it up entirely.

What would be easy, now that things are fine, would be to gloss over the details and just focus on how good things are now. This would make my conversations less awkward. It would mean I wouldn’t have to defend myself against the implication that I did something to deserve it. But I don’t. I talk about it because this is a missing piece of the integration puzzle.

Every time the news or the politicians talk about the dirty foreigners who do not even speak Danish properly, they never talk to one of them to find out why. Why is easy: I tried to practice and people were hostile and so I limited my interactions to things I knew I could do. Having a conversation with me in Danish is possible but unpleasant because I had a difficult decision

Through Door One: I could have tried to socialise with Danish people I liked with my shitty Danish. But I liked them. I didn’t want to put them through it and I wanted them to enjoy my company.

Through Door Two: I could have tried to make more small talk with strangers to level up. But I was flipping a coin every time to see if they were total shits about my accent. I’m resilient but I’m not that resilient.

So I didn’t go through either door. Which meant that when I went to my union rep training last year all but about two people were total fucking pricks about my accent for the first three days. Let’s focus on the two, on the outliers: one was a foreigner and therefore easy going. The other was actually famous for some talent show and was just effortlessly cool and awesome. He talked to me like a human being. A few of them warmed up over the next few sessions but only because I had decided ‘fuck em’ and if they gave me any shit, I blocked them out. I brought a book for the coffee sessions in case they were ignoring me and I read chapters and chapters. I tried though, in the first 3 days. I broke down in tears after trying so hard.

Though, it’s not the ignoring that gets me. I am so used to it. Honestly, I have learned that the types of people who ignore people at their table who are nodding, giving eye contact and smiling because they assume that they don’t understand Danish because they heard a foreign accent usually have nothing of consequence to say. These people lack the critical thinking needed to realise I understand more than I can say and thusly lack the critical thinking necessary to contribute anything of note to the dialogue.

What gets me, is the vinegar face when they hear my accent. And the repeating back what I said with a singy-songy accent. And the discounting of ANYTHING I have to say unless a Dane repeats it.

So, why do so many foreigners like me have such bad accents? Well, it’s simple. A clear majority of people I have ever spoken more than transactional Danish with (as in “Can I have a sandwich?” “Where is the post office?”), are not able to listen without making me feel uncomfortable.

You want accentless-foreigners? You have to start talking to the ones with the thick accents in such a way that makes them want to keep talking.

Jantelov: A primer

Once a Danish-Norwegian wrote a satire sending up small town Scandinavia. It was called “A Fugitive Crosses his Path” and I read the first half when I could speak rudimentary Danish and can report it is about poverty and things “suddenly” happening every new paragraph. I may be one of the few people who have read even this far but everyone likes to quote the best bit.

In Aksel Sandemose’s jaded vision of Scandinavian village life, anyone who tries to stand out is smacked down. There are eleven rules that, I have to admit, I have read so many times that my eyes slide off them like they are covered in bacon grease. They’re basically “You’re nothing special so who cares”

In other countries, the same thing is known as Tall Poppy Syndrome or by the delightful analogy of crabs in a bucket pulling each other down if they try to get out. These rules have been used to justify everything about Danish society from queue jumping, to racism, to poor school performance, to ‘jokes’ where you upset your friends and back again.

Practically, what Jantelov does, is make everyone in Denmark a fucking nightmare to be with in public unless you know them personally. Since the informal laws of this fictional village in a book no one has read tell the average Dane that no one is above anyone else, this is naturally expanded to the following world-view:-

“No one is special, so get out of my fucking way.”

You see it on the mouth breathers getting onto buses before everyone has got off: you’re nothing special so why should you be able to get out of my way so I can get on? You see it in Ikea when people stop dead in the numerous chokepoints around the store: you’re nothing special, so why would I turn my head 45 degrees to see if you are in danger of collision with me if I stop suddenly. You see it in supermarkets when people shove you aside so they can get at the bread slicer you are still using. You see it in department stores when people let heavy doors slam in your face. YOU ARE NOTHING, ME FIRST.

Most of the Danes I know personally are awesome people, so I am not talking about them and I am probably not talking about you even if I haven’t met you yet. But even the Danes you regard as decent human beings can be affected by Jantelov when they make ‘jokes’ about what an asshole you are. This is fine because you can respond in kind. But they might expand it to make you remember your country is nothing special, especially if you are from the USA. If you respond in kind, they will cut you. That’s just how it is.

Jantelov makes bragging very difficult. You cannot be proud of your achievements or mention them at all, lest you make one of the other crabs in your bucket feel jealous. No great loss to the conversation. But you cannot talk about lah-di-dah ‘elitist’ stuff either, in case people feel like you’re being pretentious. So, you’re only allowed to talk about meatballs, how hard Danish is for foreigners and how difficult the word ‘hygge’ is to understand. I mentioned I was reading A Fugitive Crosses his Path at a dinner party and one of the guests looked like he was going to be aggressively sick on me. Also, you cannot brag in a job search situation either, you have to know people in Denmark who employ others and play badminton with them until they ask you personally if you want to work with them.

In many parents’ evenings, it is common for the teachers to tell the parents to stop worrying, the kid is good enough and shouldn’t we care more about their social skills? Coming from a culture where the parents just want to know their kid is making progress, this seems like a bit of an undershoot. ‘Good enough’ is not the issue. That is set by the average and the average moves with the group. Learning something new and getting better every day, how is that too elitist?

There are people who resist Jante for the most part. They are ‘most people in Denmark according to themselves’. But even if they refuse to pull down other crabs, they are still in a bucket trying to get out with claws around their ankles.

A friend of a friend was at a job interview where they were asked “How do you feel about your customers being  the upper middle class of Danish people… like me?” This story is passed around with amused disbelief by Danes. Who is this person who would consider themselves above someone else AND then share it with another person? Then again, the foreigners who hear that story think it is a pretty ridiculous question to ask. Then again, it’s not ridiculous if you want to employ someone who won’t try to pull at your customers’ crab legs.

Though perhaps I am not being fair. I believed I could tell the dinner party guests about reading Aksel Sandemose without making them feel sick to their stomaches at my presumption because the librarian that issued the book did so with a wry smile (he then went on to being one of my friends). There are plenty of people out there who are not threatened by intellectualism or individualism and of course there are plenty who know how to move through a crowd without inconveniencing every other person. Still, it’s got a lot to answer for.

Micro Aggressions and Stranger Danes

To preserve anonymity of the people I meet, I try not to tell stories that would give away individuals. I’ve had a few experiences in the last few weeks that I really wanted to talk about but there was no way to do so without invading the privacy of others.

I don’t know what happened but I suddenly had a flood of invitations to events where I would be an unaccompanied foreigner to a group of people that do not know me or each other. A wedding, a party, a training event, that sort of thing.

And I had to meet a LOT of stranger Danes.

Here is my Ideal Stranger Dane, of which I met maybe half a dozen at these events.

  • Starts out with a question or a comment not about where I come from
  • Talks to me about something interesting that we can both get stuck into
  • Finds things in common
  • Makes jokes/laughs at my jokes
  • Is patient with my mistakes in pronunciation/word order/correct word usage

Here are the things that are (more or less), involuntary that Stranger Danes sometimes do (and it gets on my nerves)

  • Shudders or pulls a face when they hear my accent
  • Keeps that expression on their face whenever I speak to them
  • Walks away/turns their back on me when I approach while they are on their own
  • Repeats everything I say back to me with a singy-songy voice as if teaching an infant how to speak
  • Does not return my smile (or if they do, it doesn’t touch their eyes)
  • Only makes eye contact when talking about crime
  • Looks pissed off when I say Danish is not actually that hard for an English speaker (the hard thing only being that it must be perfect or ELSE)
  • Looks super pissed off when I say I have been in Denmark for 6 years

Here are the things that are just thoughtless but are somewhat of a choice

  • Asks DURING Danish language conversations I am having with them, if I speak Danish
  • Asks after I have replied in the affirmative “But do you UNDERSTAND Danish?”
  • Tells me that I do not understand Danish, while I am listening
  • Goes on about how hard Danish must be for me
  • Only asks me about where I am from and why I came to Denmark
  • Ignores me after this information has been shared
  • Compares me pointedly with other people who are also learning Danish
  • Insists that if I have a problem with an activity it must be because of my shitty language skills
  • Tells me that I am not ‘integrating’ if I choose not to be ignored or patronised by choosing another activity or if everyone around me chooses to move away from me
  • Underestimates my intelligence vocally

There are plenty of foreigners who can handle this or do not notice it. But it gets to me after a while. Especially since, if I bring this up, some people will jump on me to tell me all this stuff happens because I am a fucking bitch who deserved it.

Well, it never happened in the UK and it never happened in France and it never happened in Germany. In the UK, I make friends super easily. In France and Germany, people are used to hearing their language being mauled and they’re cool with it. They just let you communicate and are more or less Ideal Strangers.

In Denmark, people are not used to hearing their language mangled and they have been infected with the idea that foreigners are bad. Our badness stems from not wanting to be part of the group and not learning the language to perfection. Look at Prince Henri, he’s pretty much reviled and his Danish is perfect… he just has a French accent. That’s enough for Danish people to think that he is a stuck up prick. That’s all it took.

Of course, none of the people who were less than Ideal were bad people. They are nice, decent, otherwise smart people. They just lack empathy, curiosity and self-awareness. So, those people didn’t get to find out about the things that we have in common or some awesome or interesting point of view that only I can share. They didn’t get to find out that I am funny. They didn’t get to hear what it is actually like to be foreign in their country. So. I guess I won that one?

 

Danes, indeed, do say ‘neger’

The use of the word ‘neger’ is not just reserved amongst the lower classes, uneducated and old. Personally, I have heard it from university educated people, young people, people I thought were friends and colleagues. Every time I call them on it, they are universally shocked that anyone has anything to say on the matter.

Friends of mine report that a similar cross-section of Danish society use the word.

Here are some internet comments from people I don’t know, talking about the frequency of hearing ‘neger’ in Denmark

growing up
Never happened in the old days
White student shocked at the frequency of its use
White student shocked

Here is an article in English about it:-

Winnon Brunson Jr: Racist insult provoked me

Here is an article in Danish about it:-

Mary Consolata Namagambe: The quiet racism in Denmark

This educated, young guy in Venstre publicly announced he would use ‘neger’ in place of ‘sort’ as a protest against Haribo removing crude racial stereotypes from bags of sweets.

Here is a Dane saying he, and everyone he knows, uses the word ‘neger’. He is either a student or a graduate of a university. Someone likes this.

Everyone I know says 'neger'
Everyone I know says ‘neger’

As for the prevalence of Danes saying ‘neger’ is closer to ‘negro’, so it is actually a neutral word. This is what I could find on the internet. There are also articles online which mirror the reasoning given in comments. There are several posts about how Martin Luther King called himself a negro, so therefore, a corruption of the word ‘negro’ is acceptable in modern day Denmark. Several articles note that since ‘neger’ is derived from the Spanish word ‘negro’, and not from the English word ‘nigger’, then the word is neutral.

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Here is a screenshot from an article from videnskab.dk where a linguist or ‘negerekspert’ as they call him, says it is not politically incorrect to use the word ‘neger’ in Denmark.

Word is acceptable here in Denmark
Word is acceptable here in Denmark

 

Danes: Stop saying ‘neger’ is not derived from ‘nigger’

Because it does not even matter that it is closer to ‘negro’. You have spectacularly missed the point.

This must be taught during samfundsfag in folkeskole considering how often it is brought up by well-meaning Danes.

If an English speaking person dares say anything about the distressing use of ‘neger’ in Danish polite society, a Dane will pop up to say “BUT REMEMBER, it only means ‘negro’, not ‘nigger’!”

Danes who do not want to consider themselves racist, Danes who like to think they’d invite a black person over for dinner, if only they knew any; are all over this if they see it.

Oh well, fine then! English speakers, stand down…

Except, the Dane shows no awareness that the word ‘negro’ is NOT OKAY in English anymore.

Let’s look at the history of the words ‘nigger’, ‘negro’ and ‘neger’ for a minute.

In the 1600, 1700s and 1800s Europeans kidnapped human beings from Africa, abused them and forced them to work in dangerous conditions until they died. They killed and tortured them whenever they wanted. Children were separated from parents routinely. Women were raped routinely. They did this on an industrial scale.

In order to be able to do this, the Europeans needed to de-humanise the targets for their abuse.  Much like the Nazis needed to identify Jewish people as rats to allow the atrocities of the Holocaust, the Europeans reduced their victims to one word. A word that did not give any clue it was being used about a human being.

They used the Spanish word for ‘black’. They reduced their targets to a word that summarised the essential difference in appearance between the two groups and the justification for their atrocities. As they became more comfortable with treating people like this, the word they used changed. The English speakers corrupted the word into ‘nigger’ and the Danish speakers corrupted the word into ‘neger’.

Danes don’t like to talk about the Danish slave trade anymore. They don’t even call it the DANISH slave trade, they call it the Danish-West Indies slave trade. As if there were no slaves in Denmark, it was all so far away.

Danes still refer to black people as ‘neger’. In headlines, in conversation, on television, on the bus, during physical confrontations. Black people are routinely called “neger —” where their name goes second.

Sometimes, old people mean it in a more neutral sense. In their time, it was okay to dehumanise on the basis of colour and they just have not unlearned that. Old people racism is NOT what we are talking about. Younger people who ought to know better use it. And they use it as a slur, more often than not.

I am white and I got called a ‘neger’ in a bar for speaking English. She was NOT using it in a neutral sense. Or a historical sense. She was not even using it in a descriptive sense. She was trying to verbally attack me and that was the word that came to mind.

If English speakers try to point out how messed up this appears from the outside, Danes line up to say it IS NOT actually messed up.

They always go to great pains to say that it is a linguistic difficulty. That if ONLY the English speaker was fluent in Danish, they would understand their mistake straight away. (If pressed on the point, they usually go into ‘but THEY use it’ but that’s a story for another time)

Sorry, no dice.

The word ‘negro’ is not acceptable in English. For the same reasons and strength of feeling as for the word ‘nigger’. Sure, ‘nigger’ is only used as a slur and ‘negro’ has a history of being the word people used in the olden days. But this word is not acceptable. Because it dehumanises. Because of its association with slavery. Because of how it makes people feel to be described in those terms. Because it is a reminder of a painful chapter in history and all the negativity that went along with it.

You want to claim ‘neger’ is closer to ‘negro’? Fine. Stop defending it. Stop defining it in comparison to a worse word.  Stop saying it is neutral. Stop using it.

 

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.

Learning Danish

 

I have been thinking about taking the “studieprøve” which is the Danish exam at the C1 “Proficient user” level. To be able to do this, I need to become a “Proficient user”, so I have been doing a lot of Danish writing.

 

To get better, I have been making myself flashcards on memrise, maybe someone else would find them useful too?

 

I bought two (very reasonably priced) books for students at my level. There are not many available. There are more than a handful of beginner’s books but there are only a smattering of upper-intermediate books. Add to that how picky I am about Danish language textbooks, I don’t have much choice. I reserved two books from the library that are at my current level. They are both called, I am not lying, “Danish is hard”. One is about pronunciation, the other is grammar drills. Who are they trying to kid? It’s no Mandarin, this one.

 

Skriv på dansk! has some resources and workshops to help me improve my writing. Unfortunately, there is a stench of patronisation on all the pages. In the preface addressed to my teacher “The texts are taken directly from the second-language context the students live in and can therefore be used as a launchpad for discussions with a view to expanding the students’ cultural competence.” What are the texts about, you ask? The environment, men and women’s roles, children, integration, health, the usual. Goodness me, if they had a text about anything that I choose to read every day on my favourite websites, I’d explode with joy. But it’s fine. IT’S FINE. It’s not like the test will be on things I’m actually interested in or anything, it’ll be about this “second-language context” guff I am supposed to be so interested in.

 

*And* in line with what the government seems to think I require from a language course, they go into great detail about “types of non-fiction” and “constructing an argument”, the skills taught in Year Six back in the old country. Considering you cannot even get on this course unless you have been in formal education (in a country Denmark respects), for more than 15 years (or however long), this is a damned cheek. I already know how to structure a bloody opinion piece, I just don’t know the vocab for it in THIS language.

 

The book’s not a total bust, the example sentences at the back are ALL about how cheap and healthy potatoes are. Which is either an act of extreme Danish irony genius or an earnest stab at saying something that is uncontroversial (hilariously.. and also kinda ironically). Either way, lols all around.

 

My other book is about getting the endings right on words. This is something I need to the very MAX.

 

So, that’s good.

 

I’m on goodreads and I joined a Danish book group. They have a challenge part of the group and I signed up to read ten novels by Danish-authors in ten months (starting from next month). There are ten different categories:- modern, short story collection, poetry anthology, novel from before 1960, male author, female author, an author I haven’t read before, a novel set in the Danish provinces, a crime novel and a debut novel.

 

Sounds like fun but we’ll see how long I can keep it up.

 

Anything to avoid editing my own novel into a second draft.

 

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.

 

“You had to be Danish….”

Personally, nothing gives me greater pleasure than when someone who has just been banged to rights replies “it was Danish humour.”

I will tell you what Danish humour is not. Danish humour is not license to say whatever you want. Danish humour is not a Get Out of Jail Free Card.

Culturally, what is considered “Danish humour” is the use of teasing amongst friends. There is also a bit of sarcasm and exaggerated regional stereotypes that count toward the genre. Danish humour can be quite dark, finding humour in adversity or misfortune. Many countries have similar veins of humour.

But who knows that? Danish people?

People in other countries cause offence all the time. Sometimes (usually?) they do not see what all the fuss is about and make the famous non-apology “I AM SORRY BITCHES CANNOT TAKE A JOKE!”

If a Danish person shits the bed, for example causing a major international diplomatic incident or damaging the reputation of a company or simply insulting someone socially; they can claim language barrier and/or humour barrier.

Hardly anyone speaks Danish outside of Denmark, so why not? Why not say that the translation was dodgy? How would anyone know? Very few are familiar with what tickles Danes, so why not? How can anyone prove it was not just a joke without any negative intent?

These two excuses make me happy. Because I do understand Danish and I do understand what counts as Danish humour.

“The translation is wrong,” translates to “I didn’t expect what I said would be translated,” and “It was Danish humour,” translates to “I have no way of defending what I said, so I must resort to lying.”

Which means the discussion is over and they lost.

How to Learn Danish

I have lived in Denmark for nearly five years now. (Five years in August). My Danish is pretty okay. Though, it is hard to tell because the people who give you the most honest feedback are usually the ones who do not understand that complete native-sounding fluency is an unreasonable expectation.

I will give you a for-instance. The Queen of Denmark married a French guy and even though he speaks excellent Danish, he still gets shit because his accent is French. A lot of people judge him as having not learned Danish because of his foreign accent. His daughters-in-law are also foreigners and they have perfect Danish. It does not stop some people from remarking on their “charming” accents. These guys all had private tutors and all the stops pulled out for them to learn as completely and perfectly as possible. They still have accents and they still make occasional errors.

Hey, guys! Native-sounding fluency is an unreasonable expectation!

My receptive Danish is way better than my productive. This is because I do not get a lot of opportunity to use Danish. Not because “Oh Danes speak such excellent English, I never get the chance” I live in Fredericia and often Danish is the only option. But rather because the people who I would trust to listen to my Danish where-it-is and communicate with me without ego are also the people I want to communicate with freely and comfortably. I just don’t want to put them through it!

Children are fair game. They do not speak English and they have enough energy to listen to me and meet me where I am. So, this is why I sound like a child when I speak Danish. That’s my vocabulary set. STAKKELS MIG!

If you are fresh off the boat and trying to learn Danish, you need to bear in mind that some of the sounds you will need to make are not possible yet with your current tongue. You need to develop your mouth muscles before you can vocalise these sounds. It takes about a year. Sorry. I am not even sure if there is a short cut. Possibly a regular Danish mouth gym might get you there sooner?

You will also need to develop your ear and this may be the hardest thing of all. There are some vowels that sound identical to me but are very distinct in Danish ears. If you mess up, usually context is enough to carry you but there is always one douchebag who will gleefully inform you that you said “pussy” and not “kiss” or “whore” and not “listen”. The other night, my otherwise delightful boyfriend laughed when I said that cats give birth to baby chicks. IN MY FACE.

What helped me in the beginning was Copenhagen Cast, Louise is a goddamned hero. Whatever the topic, whatever the vocab set, just repeat what she says. This will help your tongue no end.

As for passive fluency, this can be achieved more easily. I found early on that the resources provided at Danish school were making things worse. The unpolished political agenda was repulsive. As were the stories about foreign bus drivers getting beaten up or women getting raped or men getting stabbed. Jesus.

What I realised was you need to make this shit brainfriendly. What sort of thing did you like to read when you were in your own country? Fitness magazines? Trashy novels? Craft instructions?

Seek this stuff out in Danish. This is where your library comes in. What will happen is that you will have a Danish-surge and get all the resources. Then you will let them pile up and not go through them. And they will gather dust in a sullen pile. Get them out of the library. It is cheaper and the next time you visit, you are more likely to pick out one or two interesting things to ignore… I mean… read through.

Audiobooks are also your friend. If you can find a trashy novel (pulp fiction tends to have simple structure, very few metaphors and allusions and vocab repeats), in print and on tape, you can have it read to you just like when you were a kid.

This is how I learned the word “Adr”

Boxed sets of Danish tv often have Danish subtitles. English subtitles are fine in the first few years too. I learned “Helt ærlig!” from Klovn. These are worth seeking out. Again. Go for the sort of stuff you liked in THE TIME BEFORE.

Look through newspapers, they are mostly online (although there are paywalls) and commuter newspapers have the double whammy of being free and simply written. Although, bear in mind, most people in Denmark lose that Honeymoon Feeling when they know what is going on around them. I hate hate hate watching Danish news because they regularly have a story about how immigrants are ruining everything. It is not quite brainwashing if EVERYONE is brainwashed but it is still pretty grim. But newspapers, you can skim and bubble-protect yourself from their bullshit.

You will also need someone to practise on. I do not know where you can get this from. Children are good but where do you get children from if you are not part of a family or work in a school? I do not know.

If you are only here for a short time, then do not buy the “GET FLUENT OR YOU ARE A DICK” message. Learn how to order coffee and you will be a king amongst men. Learn how to order dinner and you will be a rockstar. You actually do not need to know the difference between sin and hendes, even though your language teacher put in the first few modules at language school. You certainly will struggle with understanding what is going on around you from what they teach at sprogskole. You might as well just tell yourself you are a lazy bastard for three hours after work instead, for all the good it will do.

If you are here for a medium to long time, then learning the language beyond “En kaffe latte, tak” is probably not a bad idea. However, the language schools are shit (some are good). Get a personal tutor for the LOVE OF GOD. Some people can even teach themselves. I pretty much did but I regret not having the Princess Mary Polish. Or you could try the Irish Polyglot way.

What not to do, under any circumstances, is to beat yourself up for a lack of progress. It is freaking hard, what you are attempting. And it takes time. It is like an obstacle course with a series of walls.

You hit the wall and you climb it and you run! Run like the wind! Everything is easy! You learned Danish! And then you hit another wall. But this time it is taller. And you climb it but it is harder this time. And then when you clear it, you can run again… Until the next wall.

The only foolproof way of making it impossible to scale the wall, is to decide you are a bad, lazy person who cannot learn languages. So, just take a breath. Take a break. And then try again the next day. Because what you are doing is extraordinary. And you will get there.