Tale of two Danes

It is interesting to hear from people about how their Danish language skills or lack of them are received by Danes.

Whilst I think it is very important to at least have a basic grounding in the language of your new country to help you feel more settled, as time goes on here it seems increasingly hard to actually use your Danish language skills as so many people will immediately switch to English if they detect a non native accent. So it is slightly ‘amusing’ (and I have put that in inverted commas) that there are certain sections of Danish society who are aggressive in their insistence that all immigrants and expats must speak and understand Danish yet in the main we struggle to even use our Danish, thanks to the helpful nature of people who want to speak English to us (and this isn’t actually always a help especially if you have spoken first in Danish). The current government has also made it harder for newcomers to Denmark to get these language skills by taking away free Danish lessons and then penalising the same people for not speaking Danish or integrating sufficiently.

Recently, and on the same evening, I encountered two very different attitudes to the acquisition of Danish. The two people were both the same age of around 70 but their opinions couldn’t have been more different.

The first one was an elderly gentleman on a motorised scooter. I was waiting at the bus stop near my home and he called out – Hvad klokken er det? (What time is it?) I checked my watch and replied (in Danish in my Norwegian accent). He asked, again in Danish, where I was from. Again I answered in Danish and supplied some more details about how long I’d lived here. He immediately switched to English (perfect in pronunciation) to tell me all about his connections with the UK and also to express surprise at my proficiency in Danish. He also talked about what he saw as the importance of international experiences, both from the point of view of Danes travelling outside of Denmark but also of the value that people from other countries can give to a small nation like Denmark. We have to look outwards, he said, not inwards and to stop preserving a solely Danish experience without seeing the benefits of other nationalities. My bus arrived and I sadly left the conversation.

I was still mulling it over when I arrived at my destination. I run a crafting group and we have a monthly meeting. At this point we used a community room close to Carlsbergbyen. It was a warm evening and we had the doors open. There were about fifteen people sat around the tables having a hyggeligt time. We speak in English at our group as we have members from all over the world and it is a shared language. A slightly grumpy looking woman (around the same age as the gentleman I had encountered earlier) poked her head in the door. She asked loudly in Danish if we were a knitting group. The women closest to the door didn’t understand so I got up and explained in Danish what we were doing. She snapped at me and said that as this was Denmark we should be speaking Danish. I explained where everyone came from and that English was a common language plus it was a private arrangement. She repeated her statement and stood looking confrontationally at me. I just smiled and returned to my table and she soon took her leave no doubt muttering to herself.

I thought later about the difference of approaches to expats and immigrants. How one section of society see newcomers as a constant threat, ready to erode all that is good about the culture and the other side of the coin, who see the benefits of bringing new ideas, thoughts and experiences into Denmark and feel that the Danish culture is strong enough to be able to accept this without losing all identity.

What is important about this story is that both protagonists were of a similar age and from the same generation yet had such polar ideas. Yes, as newcomers we do have a responsibility to try and adapt to the new country we live in but we can do this with respect to both our new country and that of our origins. We can bring in positive things to a new country and we should be welcomed to do this.

The current government is slowly and quite insidiously bringing in laws and changes that are blatant in their attempt to alienate newcomers and to actively prevent them from integrating and then punishing them for the lack of integration. The refrain from the right is that if you don’t like it, go back to where you came from. Now for privileged expats this is an option but for many people living here from other parts of the world, they are not economically able to just leave and move elsewhere. Democracy is letting this section of the community down. The idea that you can change the country you live in through the ballot box is a laudable one but with Danish citizenship increasingly hard to obtain and thus the right to vote in national parliamentary election and make a change so it is down to open minded Danes, like the first gentleman, make a change for us.

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