On Being a Language Learner and the Princess Mary Principle

I am back to my old self now. When I first moved to Denmark, I did not want to be a cultural imperialist. I did not want to tell people off for being rude when they were not being rude by their standards. I did not want to force people to speak English.

Then as I went through culture shock, that uncomfortable process of finding out what is rude, what is acceptable and what is expected, I became increasingly impatient with the level of rudeness I was experiencing.

I was getting a lot more shitty incoming, at precisely the same time I could not handle it, because my Danish was poor. I would go into a shop and ask something and be greeted with incredibly poor manners. They would look me up and down and decide “Yes, this person is fair game.”

As my Danish got better, and my expectations got somewhat lower, the poor experiences were fewer and fewer. It really does seem to be a minority of people who do this and they only do it to freshies. You might get through your first few years of integration without ever meeting one. Or maybe, just meeting one. And thinking “What a prick!” and not becoming mentally scarred.

I was getting a 50% hit rate. Fifty percent of the time, I would meet someone who would try to tear me down or was dismissive or unkind. And it really really fucked me up.

Did I tell you about the time I visited France? My French used to be pretty hardcore and now it is just reasonable. Even when my French was still crappy, I was happy to have a go. Think around corners. Just talk. When I was 11 and had been learning French for 3 months, my mum asked me to ask where the baker’s was. I could not remember the word for baker so I asked for the “bread shop” and we were shown the way. Anyway, I visited France, not understanding the number the bad-danes had done on me. I blithely went into a pharmacy, looking for ear plugs (youth hostel), and halfway through the interaction completely panicked and shut down because I realised I did not know the word for earplugs. Pre Denmark, it would not have fazed me, I would have just said “Hello, I would like…” mimed the international symbol for “I’m not listening” and said ear and then put my fingers close together to mime how small the object I wanted was. But I just went red, shut down and went “OMG I am sorry. Ear plugs? Do you speak English? Sorry.”

That is what Denmark did to me. And I was worried the damage was permanent. Now, I am happy to even ring people up, people who are not expecting a foreigner on the end of the line, and sort some shit out.

Even though I am working in an international environment right now, I have spoken Danish dozens of times in a week. The majority of these times have been fine. There have been two were I thought “Ahh, shit, I should have said it like that,” after the fact but the person I was talking to was okay with it. I impressed myself with a complicated call to the post office about a re-delivery. Like during the call “Hey, this is impressive stuff.”

But like the men with bladders on sticks hitting kings on the head as they go through crowds, I must be reminded that I am not a god. My reminder was yesterday at the bank. I also found out that I am back to normal because I reacted to it in the exact same way I reacted to camera magazines being placed under men’s interest in WHSmiths newsagents the week before I moved to Denmark “Well, you can see why I would be confused, photography is unisex. So your layout does not make any sense.”

I got an old 50 kroner note from the 7/11 and I thought as I walked away “Oh shit, is this still legal tender?” (It’s the femti one they got rid of about three years ago) I resolved to go to the bank and ask. I walked down to my bank branch in Aarhus, in the snow, got inside. Found out they do not have money anymore. Just cashpoints. So what do you do if your card gets stolen, geniuses? They also want to charge me for having a bank account. I will be changing banks as soon as. I told my boyfriend about this story and I think he was disappointed it was in Aarhus, he has been hoping all this shit has been local to Fredericia and people in Aarhus are a bit more cultured and used to foreigners.

A lady of about 50 said “Can I help you?” and I said

“Hej, jeg har lige kommet fra en butik. De gav mig sådan en (showing note). Kan det stadig blive bruges, eller skal jeg skifte det her?”

(Hi, yai har lee comet fra en booteek. Day gayw ma sawden een. Kan day staredy bleer broous, eller skal yai skifte day here?)

And she goes


*Le sigh* I had been practicing it in my head all the way down to the bank.

“Didn’t you understand ANY of that?”


And I thought “!” but I said (channeling Judi Dench, as I do in stressful situations)


M (James Bond)
Oh no you dittent


“Would. You. Prefer. I. Asked. In. English?”

And she goes “Yes, English.” (to which, I now realise I should have said “WHAT?!”)

A brief interruption on the matter of culture. In Danish, there is supposed to be a cultural assumption that no one is better than anyone else. They have a form of polite you that is only used in extremis. They call each other by their first names. You can tell your boss you don’t think much of his decisions and he will not get mad.

Now, if this meant, no one was lah-di-dah and everyone got treated with the respect they deserved as human beings, then that would be the best thing ever. EVER. But it often means a race to the bottom in terms of courtesy. Why should I treat you like a human being, you’re nothing special? So words and phrases that lend an air of consideration like “Må jeg lige komme forbi?” (Excuse me) and “Må jeg bede dig om …/ Jeg vil gerne bede om…” (Please) and “Det må du undskylde” (Sorry) and “Hvadbehar?” (Pardon) and “Beklager” (Apologies) are almost entirely wiped out. I only ever hear ‘please’ from children, ‘sorry’ when someone has totally shit the bed and ‘apologies’ ironically. I learned all these phrases about two years in. Not at language school. Not from any of my interactions. In the first two years. If these phrases were pandas, there would be a campaign to save them.

You need to bear in mind. If I had been an 80 year old woman, a businessman in a suit and tie or Princess Mary, there is no way on God’s green earth that woman would have said “HVAD?!?” she would have said “Hvadbehar?” or “Beklager, hvad siger du?” or “Undskyld, engang til.” It is not a crime that she did not understand me, foreign accents can be hard if you are not expecting them. It is because she talked to me without any respect or consideration.

So, we are not equal. We are not considered equal. We are not treated equally. Some people are treated with no respect and then told it is because of some book that the person has not read (I have read it. It’s a satire. It also over-uses the word “Pludselig”) Some people are treated with great respect. Deference even. The way this matter is settled is through the magic of prejudice. Look or sound a certain way and forget about getting courtesy from small minded people.

Did I tell you that the last time someone said “Hvad siger du?” to me with an air of superiority, I said “HAH!” and parrotted the phrase back back with a Danish hick accent to them before asking again really slowly? Because, helt ærligt!

End of intermission.

So she says (as if I am stupid), that yes, the note is still legal tender.

Customer service is pretty poor in Denmark, yo.

And I said thanks. She turns to go and I think “No, fuck it. Fuck it. I’m saying something.” I think I skipped becoming my mother and went straight into becoming my grandmother. (Though, my mother DID do this sort of thing a lot when she was my age and I would hide behind her legs and go “No, not the manager AGAIN.”) My grandmother does not take this kind of shit, either. But where I differ from my mother and my grandmother is how I respond. My grandmother responds with biting sarcasm. My mother is very direct. I respond pedagogically.

“Can I give you some feedback. (No pause for her response, I just launch into it). When you say “HVAD?!?” like that, it’s not very helpful. What would have been more helpful is if you had said which parts you did not understand or asked a clarifying question about what you did catch. Just shouting “HVAD?!” at me makes me not want to speak Danish anymore (tears of rage showing in eyes), and it hurts my feelings.”

She looks surprised and sorry. She did not mean to treat me like dirt, nor hurt my feelings. She is not sure why she did, by the looks of her face. I am talking to her like she is a child and she is responding in the same way even though she is 50.

“It’s just it was so fast…”

“That’s great, that’s perfect. So, next time, you could say something like “Could you slow down, please?” and I would have felt a lot better about it.”

“Ok. Sorry.”

“That’s okay.”

And she squeezed my upper arm (which is a primate thing for “I am dominant over you” and I know that so), I twisted my arm as she reached so I could squeeze hers simultaneously. And I left the bank.