Play Parks and Dog Forests

Once, on a warm spring day, I suggested to my friend that I take her kid to the play park. It was lovely weather and my friend was sick. The kid had recently become very difficult, a reaction to the divorce.

Picture it: a childless woman in her late twenties with a 4 year old in a playpark. I kept her entertained with see-saws and swings and helping onto climbing frames. We played some hide and seek in the woods around the equipment. We had a good time. Until the little one was in the mood to push in the line for the climbing frame.

The kid she wanted to push in front of was about 2 years old. If she pushed him out of the way, it would hurt him. I tried using my words but she was not in a listening mood. I tried to explain how important looking out for each other is. I tried going over the concept of ‘turns’ again. Nothing. So, I held her back. She screamed bloody murder, cursed my name, cursed my family. And then once the boy had made it up to the top, I let her go and she forgot all about her anger and asked me sweetly to help her up.

I looked around for adult moral support. The park is lovely but not very busy even at peak times. The only other adult was the dad of the 2 year old and he avoided my eye contact like one avoids staring at the sun. I was doing something wrong. Was it my accent? Was it the way I was hands on? Should I have let them work it out for themselves, even if his kid inevitably came off the worse? There was no way of knowing because he refused to acknowledge my existence.

I put her on the swings and sat on a bench. Other kids came to play, their adults sat on benches too. Nowhere near me. Not making eye contact. Not looking my way at all. Not interacting with their kids either. Just letting them get on with it.

Ahh, the Danish way, making kids more independent. Allowing them to discover their own limits, negotiate their own boundaries. Not for me, but that is not really for me to judge for others. Not for me to judge either, this bubble around Danish adults making friendly informal temporary contact between others impossible.

Fast forward four years and I have a puppy now. She is 6 months old and in some ways has a better sense of propriety around turn taking and interacting with her dog peers than that small child back then. She knows when to back off and when to play and she respects the limits of smaller and younger dogs. This isn’t something we have taught her, particularly, she figured it out in her litter. We reinforce, of course, at home but dog body language is not even our second language and we mimic imperfectly. We take her to the dog forest so she can play with other dogs and run around in a stimulating environment.

Our dog is a scaredy pants and if a bigger dog, no matter how friendly, interacts with her, she squeals and lies on her back. She does this for about 15 minutes, gains confidence and then plays nicely with them. I can see the other dogs are playing nicely: body language, facial expressions, vocalisations all add up to “Hello little dog, let’s play fight, ok?” But she’s crying out like she is being killed until she gets used to them which is a little disconcerting for anyone that does not know her. The owners call their dogs off. “He’s not usually like this! Would you like me to tell him to stop? Messi GET DOWN”

They interact with their dogs and teach them right from wrong, not just about play fighting but all types of play. They ask how old our dog is, tell us about their dog and interpret the body language of all the participants. No one sits on a bench and ignores their dog at any point. Only once has my accent been interpreted as a cloak of invisibility. The dog park is intensely social for the humans as they trade dog tips and stories.

Dogs are not trusted to work out their limits for themselves and the humans feel no problem with telling them off when they step out of line.

What happened to Danish society that the adults feel like giving structure or boundaries to their children is inappropriate when they understand that their pets need gentle reinforcement of how to play nicely? Where do they imagine their children are learning these skills if not explicitly from adults? Why is chatting to other parents in the park verboten but to other dog owners de rigeur? It makes no sense to this outsider.

Consequences of Brain Farts

Sometimes I have “no Danish” days where my brain just cannot get with the Danish programme. What happens is that I understand about 3/4 of what I usually can and I can express myself about one half of my potential ability.

These days happen when I’m tired, sick or out of practice. They are not a big deal really and they happen less frequently than they used to. 

I was having once such day today and it’s frustrating because it coincided with meeting someone with no understanding of how languages are learned.

My working week is such that I have Thursdays off to run errands and do boring teacher stuff. One errand was to get my blood taken, so I went there first.

As I was saying my person number to the phlebotomist, my brain farted and I couldn’t remember the Danish word for 80. This is because the Danish word for 80 is almost identical to the Danish word for 70. And the Danish word for 70 is almost identical to the Danish words for 50 and 90 and so, yeah, brain fart.

So, being the Language Thinker Around Cornerser that I am, I just switched to single digits. And she reminded me the word for eighty and I went on with the rest of my code.

The phlebotomist corrected it into two digit pieces as in “twenty”, “ninety-four”, and not two zero nine four*, why not correct it into two-thousand-and-ninety-four? And then she said “But it’s right”. Yes. It was right. It is a number I have memorised and read back in single digits because that is how I learned it.

Then she said “Don’t worry, it’s not just foreigners who struggle with the numbers. Children do too.” and I thought “Sucks to be her, she has no social skills and cannot hear in her head how condescending it is to compare someone you just found out** is nearly 32 with a child

And as I had not been stuck with the needle yet and was also feeling a bit tired and sick (new job, new commute), I just smiled like an idiot and said something like yep, poor kids.

Then she asked me what I was doing in Denmark, was I here to study? And I said, no, I was a teacher and she could not keep the surprise and dismay out of her facial expression. She recovered and said “Oh, of ENGLISH though, right?”

And I told her no, I was teaching maths and science but IN ENGLISH. And then she asked me where and I told her and explained I was living in Fredericia still and she answered “You work at Købmagergades Skole?” and I said “No, I used to teach there but I quit.” and she asked if there were other schools with international lines and I named as many as I can remember and she asked if I worked in one of those and I repeated, I work in Aarhus and she said “Oh, in Aarhus. Ok. That’s a long commute.” 

So I thought, hey, maybe she cannot hear me. That’s maybe why she keeps echoing what I’m saying, to check she heard me right.

Then I figured, hey, I never get to chit chat in these sorts of situations, so to keep it going I told her I didn’t work on Thursdays. In case she was all like “Why is this chick getting a blood test on a Thursday?” But I couldn’t remember if it was “I have free on Thursdays” or “I am free on Thursdays” and I didn’t feel like getting corrected so I said “I don’t work on Thursdays” And she said “You ONLY work on Thursdays?” which doesn’t make any sense considering what day it is so I think maybe she did have a hearing problem. So I repeated myself in a different way, language learning skills ho! and she said “Oh you’re FREE on Thursdays.” Yep yep. But she said “Du’r FRI om torsdagen” so I am none the fucking wiser if it is “er” or “har” but learned to say “Jeg’r fri om torsdagen” so it wasn’t a total bust.

Then she said, (and thanks VERY FUCKING MUCH THE GOVERNMENT OF DENMARK), “but you don’t work 8 hour days, do you?” and did the lemon face.  And I said “I do, when you take into account” and then I was like fuck it, I’m not going to say “crime” by accident and said “preparation” in English. (forbrydelse/forberedelse FORbru∂elsa/FORbehre∂lsa)

And she told me the Danish word for preparation and then continued to make the lemon face. Like, I was lying about how much I work as a teacher! It was like living in England again. 

The Danish government has turned its people against its teachers in order to force through working time agreements. The Danish teachers are trying to fight back but because the government has touched on the “teachers don’t work the same hours as phlebotomists” nerve (last time I checked, the clinic is open from 7am to 1pm, so actually if you only count taking blood as “working”, then we have the same “working hours” but I’m sure she sees the other things she does as a phlebotomist as “working”, just as I see my other important duties as “working” but the government hasn’t tried to turn the people of Denmark against phlebotomists so she has no idea). In about 15 years time, Danish children will be completely unteachable as the attitudes being made mainstream about how awful teachers are filter down through the generations. And all to save a bit of money.

Then I thought, she has corrected my Danish about fifteen times in the five minutes of taking my blood but at least she doesn’t know how long I’ve been here. For all she knows, I’m fresh off the boat.

“How long have you been here?”

“Four and a half years.”

“Four and a half years.”

“Yep.”

“Wow. Doesn’t time fly?”

And I thought, she’s going to go home and tell her foreign daughter in law or foreign friends who are fresh off the boat “Don’t worry! Your Danish is SO MUCH BETTER than the foreigners I work with who have been in the country FOUR AND A HALF years and still don’t know the word for preparation and say their person number in single digits!” 

Because if you’re not an expert in language acquisition, you think that being able to speak like a native is the only marker of success. Not the fact that I understood everything she was saying. Not that I found other ways of expressing the same thought so she understood.

Non experts also think that correcting every single mistake will help learning. In fact, it does nothing and can actually do harm. What language learners need is to hear the correct way something like 15 times before it goes in. Just correcting someone whilst having a conversation (unless they ask “hey did I say that right?”), kills it. (Exception: when what they said made you have NO FUCKING IDEA what they meant or what they said was rude)

It makes them focus on what they got wrong and not on what they are getting right. It also casts you in the role of MASTER OF LANGUAGE and the person you are talking to as THE LOWLY LANGUAGE LEARNER. And how did you get your crown, again? Just by learning the language as an infant? Well, whoopty fucking doo for you!

Also, she will not think “I didn’t speak as good English at 14 and a half after starting to learn at 10” or “It must be quite difficult to acquire a foreign language if your working language is your native one,” or “I wonder where people get to practise Danish, we sure are a quiet bunch,” or even the good old “Danish is a VERY HARD language, good for her for giving it a go!” or “I guess it IS harder to learn a foreign language as an adult. I don’t suppose I’d do any better if I had to move to France or China or something” or “I wonder if having blood taken is stressful enough for someone to forget vocabulary in a language they are learning” or “I wonder if the reasons she is having her blood taken are anything to do with being forgetful and making minor mistakes.”

And I KNOW, omg, I KNOW, there are people like this everywhere. I KNOW that other countries do this and it happens even in my country. But I don’t have to deal with it in my country, duh. Or quite a number of countries, actually. And you know what, it’s not the point. I’m not comparing. It is a thing that happened and I didn’t enjoy it. And I would have not enjoyed it in French too!

The thing I did not enjoy the most was the “teachers are lazy” theme, I actually didn’t mind the rest of it that much. I have got to the stage where I know my accent isn’t going to be much better than it is and I’m doomed to be more of a Prince Henrik than a Princess Mary (or Marie for that matter), and I am okay with that. I actually could not give a fuck less. I know from my four and a half years experience, that I can survive and succeed in this country. I know I can make myself understood and follow the majority of what happens around me. So, it’s cool. It’s cool.

But if I’d remembered the word for eighty, none of this shit would have happened. 

* This is a made up four digit number. OR IS IT?!

** The person number contains your birth date.