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.