The second in a new series of light-hearted columns about life as a foreigner living in the Danish capital.
Written for IceNews by Simon Cooper
I work with an older English guy whose proficiency in the – cough – ‘art’ of the Danish language came about through countless evenings at his local bar – or bodega as they say around here. ‘So what?’ you might think. What better way to learn a language than to be knee-deep in the unfiltered after-hours banter and beery slurring of city centre bars? That’s generally true, but not here. My colleague, it turns out, is a rare exception.
Unlike other places I’ve lived in or visited, in Copenhagen you need to speak Danish very well in order to use it freely. If your conversation can go for four lines of dialogue you’ve done well. Otherwise, in the manner of some highly-calibrated voice recognition software, the smallest linguistic wrongdoing will betray that English is your preferred language and you will quickly find yourself speaking that.
To properly pick up the lingo then, and to make an effort in general, many of us enrol in language schools. Danish lessons for immigrants/expats/aliens/unsightly weirdoes (misguided state terminology is another issue altogether) are by and large free on the government, and an offer too good to pass up.
Despite that, many foreigners forego lessons and spend years never really getting to grips with Danish at all.
Either way though, every non-Dane can be sure to want to avoid conversations such as the one below.
‘Hej. Jeg hedder Simon.’ (’My name’s…’)
[With cautious surprise]: ‘Ah – så du kan tale dansk?’ (‘Ah – so you can speak Danish?’).
[In a self-satisfied sort of way]: ‘Jah.’
‘Så, hvor længe har du været i Danmark?’ (‘So, how long have you been in Denmark?’ Or, some other textbook phrase which, although you know and understand well, you can’t make out because it arrives at the speed of a freight train.
At this point you accidentally give away your cluelessness with something like a squinted eye, a puzzled look or by sub-communicating ‘what the heck just came out your mouth?’ Then comes the almost perfect English.
‘I was just asking how you have lived in Denmark…’
Now it’s just a matter of carrying on the conversation – trying to relax into it, but also feeling the humbling acceptance of a young pretender who’s taken on his master and failed miserably.
Evening classes, however, are about more than just improving your impression of a drunken Anglo-Saxon peasant upturned in a barrel of mead, they’re also about the buzz of being back at school. There’s a huge mix of udlændinge (foreigners – literally: outlanders) of all ages at my school, Studieskolen – an ants’ colony of corridors and light classrooms just off Kongens Nytorv square – and it makes life interesting. Here, as you’d expect, Danish is spoken as expressively as erroneously as it ought to for those on a cultural learning curve. (The Italians and Spaniards struggle with silent letters; Eastern Europeans can’t get the ‘r’ sounds right; Brits are unable to swallow their pride enough to tackle the glottal vowels).
And in this lies the main point. You see as an Englishman, rather like a police sniffer dog does with drugs, I can recognise any trace of my own language buried beneath any amount of accent. The great game of Chinese Whispers enjoyed by English in the globalised age will never happen with Danish, but the multicultural melting pot in cities like Copenhagen will over time help people comprehend second-hand versions of their own language, as spoken by outsiders.
If a country can pick and chose aspects of different cultures to import and promote – clichéd, generalised restaurants, exotic dance classes or package tours to tourist safe havens, amongst others – then it has to train its ears to listen to foreigners make an honest mess of their language. And over time Copenhagen will. That’s the give and take nature of globalisation.
Born in London in 1984, raised in the English countryside and a graduate of journalism, Simon Cooper moved to Copenhagen in October 2009 where he has worked as an English language teacher, technical writer and freelance journalist – as well as barman and (very) occasional removals driver. “Learning Danish has been proving fascinating but difficult, and I’ve developed a penchant for sausages and the saltiest liquorice I can get my hands on. Then there’s the beer,” Simon laughs. He writes about food, culture and travel and has had articles published in English language newspaper The Copenhagen Post, in-flight magazine Baltic Outlook and American magazine Nordic Reach, among others.
The third instalment of the Living in Copenhagen Diary will appear on IceNews next week