'Can you give a little presentation about yourself?' asked Gitte Haahr Andersen. She's the powerhouse behind Aarhus University International Club, and since I owe that group a lot since I have come to Denmark, I said yes. And I fairly quickly decided that I would give a presentation about learning Danish.
That way, I couldn't escape sharing some personal details about myself. I am a Dutch freelance journalist, 49 years old ,and the reason I am here is, as is the case with most members of the International Club, that my spouse found a job at Aarhus University. So we have been living here since August 2010.
It was obvious from the start that I would have to learn Danish, and quickly, too, because, as a journalist, my language is my tool. And since I live in Denmark, Danish is a very important tool.
Learning Danish has become a job for me. I am going to school again, at Lærdansk, a huge educational institute dedicated to teach Danish to all newcomers in Denmark: four days a week, three hours per day, with homework. I like learning languages, and I like learning, and sharing knowledge, but before I tell you how I go about learning Danish, you have to know what it is like to live in a foreign country.
Most of all, you are a professional outsider. If you like it or not, you cannot escape the fact that you weren't born here, that you grew up with different smells, songs, sounds, books, jokes, food, games, tv programmes, clothes – and perhaps also a very different climate. It is with you every minute of the day, it is part of your life.
This gives you a unique perspective: it gives you the opportunity to grow, because being a stranger allows you to discover all kinds of new things – smells, songs, sounds... and oh, I forgot about the language. See? Some things about living in a foreign country you take for granted fairly soon, and you find a way to cope with it. Your forget about being a stranger, it becomes part of your everyday life. Other things are harder to get used to: rugbrød, Danish irony, the weather...
The unique perspective of a professional outsider can also be useful for the the inhabitants of the guest country. Eveyone needs a mirror now and then, and you can be that mirror for the Danes around you. Though not every Dane is always happy to see himself or herself in your mirror. Be honest: would you? Sometimes I forget that it is hard for Danes, too, to have to get along with strangers who speak unclearly, do not act as you would expect and generally just cause problems. And who needs problems?
So there is the sore point: your new country may grow on you, but at the moments that you least expect it, you are a stranger, an outsider, you don't belong. Like grief, it creeps up on you from behind, and it makes you sad and vulnerable, and you wonder why. And why now.
A small, innocent example: I was at the computer club and brewed a cup of tea for myself. I chatted with friend, who asked: 'How are you, are you feeling well?' Mildly surprised, I thanked him for his kind words but no, all was fine, why? Well, I was making tea. And that could be interpreted as a sign of feeling unwell. Healthy people drink coffee. He didn't say that last bit, but that was what I understood.
I hadn't seen that one coming. Which is strange, because my husband starts drinking tea when he's feeling under the weather... And what struck me most was not the coffe/tea thing itself, but the fact that it surprised me so strongly.
Another thing: I found that making friends in Danish is on the one hand easy, and on the other very hard. It's easy because I am outgoing, bordering on the obtrusive. But it's also hard, because language, culture and (language) jokes are important to me in friendships. It nurtures my friendships. In Danish, I am not there yet – not by a long shot. So there I am, lost in a no-mans' land between Dutch and English on the one side, and Danish on the other. Babbling like a four-year old, trying hard to keep up with the grownups, afraid to make mistakes, wanting to fit in and frustrated to tears when she feels left out.
So you can see why learning Danish (and also Danish (popular) culture) is important, at least to me. Here's my strategy.
1. Go to school
Don't tell yourself that you dont't have time – make time. It's important. Especially women tend to push their needs aside for the practicalities of a household with children in a new country, but think of the warning you'll hear every time you are on board of an aeroplane: first put your own oxygen mask on, then help your children.
It's the same with learning Danish. If you are stranded in your house somewhere around Aarhus, no friends, grappling with daily life - which unfortunately contains more Danish than you can cope with -, how does that help your husband and children? See it as an investment, not only in your Danish life but also in the education of your children. They will learn from your example if you show resilience and a 'can do'-mentality.
2. Get a job
Another important one. It is good for your soul, because it is nice to be acknowledged for something you are good at. And people like to be useful – so do you. Also, you will be meeting people on a regular basis, so you can get used to their way of speaking Danish. Maybe some of them will become friends. You will learn to use a Danish vocabulary that is confined to your professional field, which is both surveyable and stimulating, because you can get things done without asking all the time 'Hvad siger du?' At the same time, you will learn some contemporay 'slang' Danish that will make you one of 'them'.
There's a big problem, though: it is really, really hard to find a job, let alone one in your field – whatever it is. Finding jobs in Denmark 'happens', mostly via informal ways. For this you need a network, and for a network you need Danish. Aaarrgh! To make things worse: almost all women work in Denmark, so a non-working woman stands out like a sore thumb. Your status is very, very low. Sometimes I feel like a parasite here, a lazy bitch spending her husbands money. Which is, of course, exactly what I am... for the moment, that is. Which is what I keep telling myself. Happiness is also self-delusion :-)
3. Get a voluntary job
If you can't get a real job, do voluntary work. It has all the advantages of a real job where selfrespect, acknowledgement, making friends and learning the language are concerned. And if you choose you voluntary job well, you will develop a network that may lead you to a paid job. Also, it will be appreciated by Danes around you that you make an effort to do your bit.
4. Pick up a hobby
Why not indulge yourself and pick up a hobby? Do something you really really love, something you are good at. Again, it is good for the soul, it is a great way to get to know people,(you have a hobby in common, that helps!), and to develop yourself.
You can also choose a hobby in a field that is totally alien but still attractive to you. I am a regular of OSAA, which is Aarhus hackspace, but I know very little about computers. But something tells me that OSAA is the place to be for me, and I trust that feeling, so every Tech Talk Tuesday (first Tuesday of the month) you can find me there, listening to presentations about computers and programming that leave me baffled. And the 'nørds' are extremely helpful and friendly – and maybe a bit baffled about my being there, too.
Or start out on a hobby that has been sleeping in your heart since you were a child. Since Aarhus lies on the sea, I started taking sailing lessons. Sailing is something I wanted to do since I was eleven, but somehow never got round to actually doing it – you know, life got in the way, as John Lennon said. But the opportunity to sail was created by Danish circumstances, and sailing has been more fun and satisfying than I ever expected it to be.
5. Make everything into a project
There are many, many ways of letting Danish into your life. Make your shopping list in Danish. If the plummer is coming around for repairs, look up the right words in a dictionary and make a 'shopping list' for him (or her), too. Listen to Danish radio programmes with your favourite music. That way you already have an idea of what they are going to say, so it will be easier for you to fill in the blanks. Watch the Danish television news. I like watching DR Update (we call it 'Doctor' Update), because the transmission is repeated endlessly, and that allows you look and listen again, again and again. And after the fifth time, you will understand a little bit more.
Read local newspapers, children's or girls' books. Watch childrens' DVDs, perhaps with your children. Watch Danish DVDs for grownups with Danish subtitles on, and see how much you can grasp. Watch English movies on Danish television with Danish subtitles.Use apps for your smartphone as pocket dictionaries. Every little bit helps.
Learn Danish songs! It will endear you to Danes, and the combination of music and words has an uncanny way of finding its way into your brain. Singing will also help you with Danish pronunciation, or 'udtale'.
For the funny thing with Danish is that it doesn't sound like it is written. Basically, you leave out most of the consonants and just pronounce the vowels. But you have to 'think' the consonants while saying the vowels, otherwise you don't say the words right. In other words, consonants in Danish are like sexy lingerie under jeans and a jumper: you don't actually see it, but it's there and the effect is undeniable :-)
And once you have dreamt your first dream in Danish, celebrate! It is a sign that Danish has become a part of you, and it means that from then on learning will be easier.
By the same token, let no one tell you that everything has to be Danish now. Your own language is the fundament on which your Danish is being built, and it needs love and care, too.
6. Make speaking and understanding into a game
See how long you can keep up your end of a Danish conversation without having to fall back on English. In the beginning you will get stuck in the first sentence, but very soon it will be two, three, four - you can probably measure your progress in weeks. And again, celebrate the moment you had a complete conversation in Danish, no matter how small. Or the first time you understood a joke. Or the first time you made a joke – in Danish. Or the first time you presented yourself in Danish, in public – at your children's school, at a small party with friends... the opportunities for this game are endless. There are many firsts because you are in a new environment. Make them work for you.
7. Finally: don't be afraid to say the magic words
These are: 'Kan du hjælpe mig?' If you appeal for help, nine out of ten people will react positively. It really works! Even in English! But do try it in Danish first, and see how far you get...