A fellow blogger friend posted an article today entitled, “Danish for Expats.” It’s pretty much her version of a post I’ve been planning to write about the struggle of learning Danish as an English speaker. So I’m not going to write that post, I’m just going to call your attention to hers, and invite you to click on over there, give it a read, and maybe pretend that I wrote most of it ;-)
There’s a big long topic on a message board I belong to about people living in the US, but not learning English. People are clutching their pearls and complaining about foreigners and waxing on about how when their ancestors came to America they had to learn English because they were no signs in Italian, Polish, Portuguese, or whatever, and now we’ve made it too easy for people not to learn English.
One woman was particularly appalled by a patient in her doctor’s office who had been living in the US for a year and a half but still needed a translator. She’s clearly never lived abroad or had to communicate in a foreign language, because if she had, she might actually have some empathy, and enough personal experience to know that learning a language as an adult is difficult enough, without learning medical jargon in said language. I take my health pretty seriously, and I wouldn’t risk miscommunicating in Danish if I had the opportunity to communicate in English.
It’s amazing how judgmental people can be from behind a keyboard. No one has been able to give me concrete evidence that the people they’re talking about are in fact not learning English, it’s not like they’ve asked them. They just assume that they’re lazy foreigners, which may or may not be true. My grandmother was a Cuban immigrant who took ESL classes pretty much up until the day she died, but her English was still barely passable, and now I understand why. Learning Danish as an English speaker is hard, and I can imagine that learning English as a native speaker of another language isn’t any easier.
The Reality of Learning Danish as an English Speaker
If you haven’t lived in a foreign country, I can tell you that if you did, you’d likely find yourself seeking out other foreigners. Unless you have a foreign partner (and even if you do), it can be very difficult to crack the local social scene. Being an expat gives you an instant social network of other expats, and we speak English when we get together because English is the Lingua Franca. Judging from my childhood memories, I think it was the same for my grandmother, except she spoke Spanish. For most of us, living here is a challenge and we often feel isolated, so when we get together, we’re not all like, “hey, let’s practice our Danish and become the best immigrants we can be!” It’s easy to sit comfortably in your home country and be judgmental, but unless you’ve lived abroad, and not as a student, you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Learning Danish as an English speaker is my achilles heel of living here. Fresh off the plane, I signed up for Danish classes as soon as my yellow benefits card arrived. My excitement over learning a new language was stomped on the first week when the teacher told me that I was having a worse time than the others because I hadn’t learned any Danish before coming to class. I’d only been in the country for about 3 months at that point.
I switched to another class, hoping it would be better, but after 6 months, that teacher advised me that I didn’t have a flair for foreign languages and my time might be better spent on something else. So I quit. I’d felt alienated before I even started classes though because the letter telling me about my pre-enrollment interview was in Danish. I don’t know what they were trying to achieve with that, but I just thought, “I’m here, and I’m trying to follow the rules, trying to learn the language, I obviously I can’t read the letter. Why are they doing this?” I knew so little about Denmark back then.
I decided last fall to extend my visa beyond the initial 3 years I’d agreed to. So I decided to once again face the challenge of learning Danish as an English speaker and I re-enrolled in language school. I fully expected that since I could read a decent amount, knew some phrases, and was used to hearing it spoken, that I’d catch on this time. And I did have an easier time, but after 9 months my “free” classes were terminated because I’d been here for 3 years, and in that time, I can’t say my language skills improved in proportion to the time and effort I’d invested.
The sprogskole approach to learning Danish as an English speaker is too academic, and in my experience, the teachers are quite poor. I had one last fall who actually smirked at my pronunciation. For a country that talks so much about integration, they sure don’t make it easy. Adults trying to establish themselves here do not need to know the grammar rules, they need to be able to communicate and be understood in daily situations. All I’ve learned in my cumulative year plus of language school is the basic stuff that I rarely use… what’s your name, where do you live, where are you from, do you like rugbrød, etc. Everything else I’ve learned through immersion, which is limited due to the high level of English skills among Danes and the fact that I work and socialize in English. Let’s face it, three hours a week of class and some self-study with workbooks and CDs isn’t enough to make one fluent.
And now they’ve cut the language class benefits from three years down to one for people on work-related visas. All “official” messages tell me that learning Danish as an English speaker is not important. But not being fluent makes living here difficult. I hate going to the doctor, having to hire a plumber is an ordeal, and the other week, the woman at the secondhand shop overcharged me, and claimed “no English” (in English!) but my Danish wasn’t good enough to argue. At least I can mostly read my mail now.
I’m trying to accept that the language situation is a barrier that I’m creating. When I swallow my pride enough to ask, “taler du engelsk” 9.5 times out of 10 it’s fine. Often, it even leads to a nice chat about studying or traveling in the US. I need to not lose sight of my situation… I’m a cash cow that Denmark has no interest in keeping beyond my next visa cycle. The fact that permanent residency is tied to a level of language proficiency and education that the government no longer supports makes it clear that I’m not wanted here in the long term.
Still, as Adventures & Japes mentions, I think there is an onus on the companies who recruit foreign workers to provide a Danish language education that meets our needs. An intensive course aimed at giving us functional language skills within a couple of months is something we can handle, and it’s something that would keep us motivated and learning. The government language courses haven’t been developed for us, and it shows in our collective inability to learn Danish and our high dropout rates.
All things considered, I like living here, but I’m seriously tired of being asked if I’m learning Danish, relaying the whole ordeal of learning Danish as an English speaker, and feeling bad about it.
I remember when I was a teacher in London I would need to ring home when students misbehaved.
I’d get the mothers and some had absolutely no English. Their sons were in their teens.
It made me angry at the time, how could you be in a country for more than a decade and not be able to discuss your child with a teacher?! People of the world!
A mate of mine in the science department was the child of an immigrant and said something that stuck with me
“If you cannot read and write in your own language, it is so much harder to learn a second one.”
And I have no idea what the quality of English classes are for unemployed women.
I am a lot more compassionate now, knowing what I know now about learning a language as an adult.
Sure, they NEED English but needing is different from having any chance of getting anywhere with it.
Maybe when I go back to my country, I’ll teach English to adults.
Gracey is not my name.... says
I’m in the US..and I teach in a mostly ELL school…about 70%….having been there for about 15 years, I have seen parents make considerable progress on their English…but they still need translation at times….and it is so much harder as an adult to learn a language and as the previous commenter said, many of them are not literate in their first language…the only time I got upset was when I was volunteering as an Adult ed teacher for some Polish immigrants..and they were driving and I asked how they got their license and they said the test was in Polish..I don’t agree with that, as I think you should be able to read the native language to drive…there is too much potential for accidents..
Gracey: I took the DK driving test in English. It took a lot of studying and preparation and if I didn’t fully understand the rules and the meanings of all of the signs, there’s no way I would’ve passed. I’ve also heard that the English version of the test is more difficult than the Danish version.
I don’t think that my overall level of language proficiency (or lack thereof) has any bearing on my ability to drive safely here.
How do you feel about people driving as tourists in foreign countries? I can drive to all of Europe from here, should I not be allowed to drive in Italy, Switzerland, etc. because I can’t read the local language?
Ok, I read this blog, the linked blog, and the comments for both. So much to say…
Firstly, I think that people’s experiences tend to be all over the map, and the disgruntled ones are the only ones we hear from. I’m not saying in any way, shape or form that you have not had those experiences (I have as well), or that the system generally is lacking, to be mild about it.
But I have had (lo, these 10 years) more good reactions than bad. Of course they can hear I’m foreign; that will never change. But I am complimented on my ability when any comment is made, and generally just go about my business without any attention drawn to me being a non-native speaker most often. When did it switch from “you should be speaking Danish at home” to “you’re Danish is fantastic”? Maybe year 5 or 6. A long time in. For those who are here for a work contract and are going to leave again should be speaking as much or as little Danish as they damn well feel like.
Secondly, I am an English teacher. I teach English to (mostly) Danes, at their place of employment. The playing field gets very very leveled in that kind of setting. They understand full well how difficult it is to sound intelligent in a foreign language, and how long it takes to just feel comfortable understanding someone, let alone produce it yourself. And these are people who have had some English, spoken and written, around them for most if not all of their lives. How many of us heard word one of Danish before we came here? Yea.
Thirdly, Danes, to overgeneralize, have this quixotic way of being very Dane-centric. For such a minute country, I don’t know how this attitude is justified. But the cultural personality is that, hey, you’re here, so you must want to BE Danish. I just don’t get it. But I decided early on that I am American, will always be American, and there is nothing shameful about still being ME, and not changing who I am just because I live in another place.
This is something that many of my friends and I discuss. We’re all expats, of course, so we can go on some rants. But you just do what you can and tell them (critical Danes) that this is how it is. They aren’t terribly argumentative. If you let them know that Danish is pretty much the most difficult western language there is, and you do your best, they’ll be somewhat contrite.
Gracey is not my name.... says
Not really thought about the tourist aspect….but I still think being given a legal document that requires a test should be given in the language of the country..but I could see if they can prove they were a legal driver in their country, that could show that they do understand the “rules of the road” even if they do vary from country to country..the basics are the same…but then again, we might have a lot of illegal drivers if they could not obtain a license…so I can see the reasoning…just not sure I agree with it…