I was sitting in my car in Copenhagen’s Vesterbro district waiting for my friend to grab a shawarma when a patrolling police car pulled up right next to me. They asked if I realised I was parked illegally, but I was quick to reply in English rather than in Danish. As if by magic, the police officer’s tone became friendlier, and I got the assistance I needed to find my way.
As a foreigner living in Denmark, you are expected to both learn and speak Danish. But my experience as an Arab-looking person living in Copenhagen is that when I speak Danish, I am treated differently than when I speak English.
While I admit that it is a great advantage to speak the language of one’s host country, I choose to speak English on a daily basis. I have lived in Denmark for over twenty years and I speak, write and read fluent Danish. I am even a Danish citizen, and proud of it. I arrived in Denmark as a Syrian-Palestinian refugee in the early 1990s, having grown up in Cyprus. There I attended an international school, and at home we spoke English more than my parents’ native Arabic.
After living in Denmark for a few years, it became clear to me that speaking the Danish language and being accepted as ‘Danish’ are two different things. Denmark changed after the 9/11 terror attacks in New York. A general election soon after saw right-wing parties take power after adopting fearful rhetoric about foreigners and Islam.
This political rhetoric – negative spin about foreigners and their impact on Denmark and Danish identity – has become the norm for any political party wishing to advance in government. I cannot help but notice the damage this rhetoric has had on both ethnic and non-ethnic Danes. One of the most damaging effects that I have noticed is the enlarged intolerance gap between these two groups. It has created a stronger sense of ‘us’ against ‘them’.
So when I speak English at shops or cafés, I am no longer identified with the unwanted and dangerous ‘other’. When I speak English, I am no longer seen as a troublemaker and an irredeemable criminal. I am no longer a ‘perker’, the offensive word of choice to describe immigrants from the Middle East.
As soon as I speak English, I am perceived as an exotic tourist. The shop assistants become over-eager to help me, and I am nearly carried through the shop as if I were royalty. The exact opposite happens when I speak Danish. It is as though there is an automatic reflex that makes some Danes see me in a different light just because of the language I speak.
While I don’t want to generalise or overstate the situation, this has been my honest experience in the many years I have lived in Denmark. I still choose to speak Danish at work, when dealing with the municipality, or when I can see an advantage in speaking and knowing Danish. But in my everyday life, speaking English is what carries me through and makes all my interactions with Danes smooth and sweet.
The fact is that Danish people are lovely when they do not perceive you as a threat. Sadly, there exists a mistrust towards ‘perker’ and foreigners. We need to do a better job of bringing together Danes and ‘the others’ because, despite what politicians tell us to feel and think about each other, our lives would be enriched by each other’s cultures and perspectives on life.
I am so happy that my friends are used to my switching between English and Danish when I speak. I fancy a spot of shopping, but as usual I will only speak English. So those of you that would like to give it a try, by all means, do speak English: you are guaranteed great service. M