Denmark has stolen children from their foreigner parents

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Learning Danish

Here is another story by Marc Anderson from South Africa, about learning danish.

I have to admit that I found it a bit weird and unexpected that I was forced to learn Danish in the first place. I understand perfectly well that it's necessary to be able to speak the language, but on the other hand you're blackmailed with not being able to get a job and reaching Danish nirvana if you can't speak it. I never suspected that this happened anywhere in the world. If I go to some new country I kind of expect to be able to use the skills and qualifications I have in order to make a living, while learning the local language by myself, without the government getting on my case about it. When I scrubbed toilets I didn't have to talk to anyone, but I got those toilets to sparkle and my customers were VERY satisfied. In the rubber factory we wore earplugs and oxygen masks while grinding and gluing all day. When I was a postie I didn't have to talk to a soul while delivering letters. I'm quite sure I could've done all of these jobs without any special language skills. On the other hand, it is obviously simply a good social advantage to be able to speak Danish well. For example, when I applied for a job that required that I edit photographs, I didn't suspect that my language skills would be in high demand. The interview went so-so. My Danish was shaky, but I managed to get the message across. I happened to have a bit of experience with photo editing. When the interviewer called to say that I didn't get the job because I wasn't extroverted enough, I realised how important it was that I speak perfect Danish because, instead of telling him where to stick his job, all I could say was "OK".

I am (or rather, used to be) a language teacher, so I know a verb from a noun. Which means I also know Danish grammar inside out. But because I haven't really found myself in an environment where it was necessary to speak the language constantly, I don't speak it as well as I should after 4 years. When you begin to take your first tiny steps into that wild and confusing world of Danish pronunciation, you'll find that most Danes won't understand even your simplest utterances like Velbekomme (You're welcome). You'll get a confused and frightened look and a Huh? Hvad siger du? (What you say?). You'll be forgiven for thinking that the Danes are just a daft bunch and that you would've been better off staying home, but the fact is that Danes are not used to hearing even the slightest variations in the way their language is pronounced. As an English speaker, I understand what you're saying no matter how you say it because I've been exposed to so many different variations of English, but the average Dane has never heard his language being mangled. This shouldn't be understood as meaning that there are no differences in the way the Danish language is pronounced. There are quite a few dialects. The Danish spoken in the southern part of Jutland, for example, is quite different from Copenhagen Danish. What I'm saying is that the "average" Dane knows standard Danish (as spoken on TV), and many won't understand the Danish spoken in southern Jutland or Bornholm, much less your special foreigner brand.

The language barrier is often seen as the most important divide between success and failure for a foreigner is Denmark. But don't be blinded by this. When I arrived here I read in a book called "Culture Shock!: Denmark" (by Morten Strange) that, if you want to make it in Denmark, it will help a great deal if you were a bit gregarious. After 4 years here, I can categorically say that this is true. Many job advertisements demand that you be udadvendt (outgoing), even if the job calls for nothing more than having to edit photographs all day. If you're the austere and taciturn type like me, and you want to stand any chance of getting the job you want, may I suggest the following key steps to success: change your personality as soon as possible, jump through 10 flaming hoops and finally, learn to speak Danish. As I mention in my course, Danish is fairly easy to learn. It helps if your first language is English, and if you speak any other Germanic language (German, Dutch, Afrikaans, etc.), you might have a slight advantage. However, my fellow students at the sprogskole (who spoke everything from Russian to Farsi to Spanish) progressed just as fast as I did, in spite of the fact that I speak both English and Afrikaans. Also, if you want to get going with Danish really fast, I suggest that you start a conversation group with some other foreigners. In my experience, speaking Danish with foreigners gives you more confidence because you're less aware of your shortcomings, you understand each other's pronunciation better, and you have more to bitch about. You can worry about speaking perfect Danish later.

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