I love language. I love learning foreign languages. Having said that, I can sometimes get extremely upset about language issues. One that gets me going anytime, anyplace, anywhere, is
”I cannot express myself as I wish in Danish. If I really have something important to say, I will speak in English because I cannot convey all the subtleties that I want to communicate in Danish.”
This is a real, deeply felt problem for almost all foreigners in Denmark. Or, for that matter, for any foreigner in a country with a language that is not his – or hers.
So I don't want to play down the problem. But really, that is the destiny of being a foreigner: having to fumble in a language that is not your own, however much you may be at ease with it. And in it.
There's also the opposite: Danes who, even though they can speak some English, refuse to do so. They are afraid of making mistakes, I guess. Or they want to make a point - most often a nationalistic one.
To a certain extent I can accept that. It's a free country. But I get furious when I hear that civil servants at Skat, the Danish tax service, refuse to speak English to callers who called to a special phone number, designated to calls in English! And that for a public service! From my 'skattekroner'! Why on earth bother having special phone numbers for that, Skat?
Sorry, I got carried away.
I can also accept, to some extent, foreigners in Denmark who refuse to speak Danish at work. They consider that it is better to maintain a professional position as a relative outsider not speaking Danish, than to try to talk professionally in Danish and sound like a five-year old. Speaking Danish that way would undermine their professionality, they say, and they are probably right. Also, it takes quite some time to build up a vocabulary that is extensive enough to communicate professionally.
Fine. But don't come and complain to me about those cold Danes if you don't even want to make an effort to speak Danish (and the idea that you make friends at work in Denmark is another fallacy - read here).
But what I find really hard to accept are English native speakers who refuse to speak Danish because they cannot express themselves as they mean in that language, so they keep on talking English. To them I have a question and an observation. The question is: what gives you the right to put the Dane you are talking to in precisely the position you so desperately want to be out of – the one who is stumbling, looking for words, feeling uncomfortable?
And the observation is: welcome abroad! This is what living abroad is all about for the rest of us non-Anglophones! Do you really think speaking English has grown on me overnight? Don't you think I feel silly making mistakes, in both Danish AND English? Don't you think we sound different and more at ease in our own languages? Oh, and another thing: do you really mean it when you are paying me a compliment for my 'excellent' English – or are you doing the polite English thing?
I tried to tell all this, as politely as I could, to an Anglophone who innocently told me he did not speak Danish with Danes in certain situations, thereby unwittingly setting off all the alarms. Of course I tripped over my words doing so, and accidentally called Anglophones... Anglosaxophones. Thereby proving my point in several ways: speaking and thinking in a language that is not your own tends to make you trip over your words. And you tend to make a fool of yourself, even if you try very hard not to.
He and I laughed it off, and it became a running gag between us. Anglosaxophones. It has a, well, kind of special ring to it.