“Why don’t we just take it in English?” When speaking to a Dane in Danish, there is nothing worse than when they suddenly switch over to English. It can cast a dark cloud over an otherwise sunny day. You might as well say, “Oh, I can hear your Danish is terrible. Let’s just speak English instead.”
It particularly annoys me when I’m sitting in a room full of Danes who are speaking Danish before one turns to me and changes language. Sure, I know it’s not done to be nasty. Of course, you’re just trying to be accommodating. But it’s still bloody annoying.
My theory is that part of the reason Danes switch to English is because they are still not used to hearing their language spoken in a foreign accent. Danish is hardly a difficult language to learn. The real problem lies in pronouncing it in a convincing accent. As an adult I have concluded it is impossible without a tracheal transplant. When listening to the radio, you can pick out the foreigner in a second. Often they have lived in the country for decades, but still cannot escape detection as a non-native speaker.
It’s a confusing limbo. For while Dansk Folkeparti bang on about integration and the parliament increases its hostility towards foreigners, I have been repeatedly asked why I even bother to learn Danish. It’s absurd. Here I am, trying to fit in and speak Danish, when someone comes along, switches to English, and asks me out loud what I’m doing trying to learn their language in the first place.
This situation reveals a commonly held belief that Denmark is a tiny little country with no impact on the rest of the world. Many Danes seem genuinely curious about why anyone would find a reason to move here. It’s doubly absurd to an English speaker, as we tend to come from parts of the world where migration is a long established fact. We have long understood that people want to learn our language and we can understand, for the most part, what people are saying even if their English is almost unintelligible. We have learned to listen politely and soften the edges of our own accent while trying to unpick the subtleties of the other.
Yet when Danes hear a foreigner butcher their language, they often decide it’s easier to switch to another language than sit through learning the nuance of another accent.
When I’ve objected, I have often been met with excuses. Here are some of the excuses I’ve heard and why I think they’re lame.
1.”I’m just trying to make things easier for you
Well thanks, Danish person, for trying to make communication in this particular situation smoother, but I’m looking at the big picture. The Danish I am learning will hopefully stay with me for life. I’d much prefer to endure this lengthy learning process rather than conduct my cappuccino order in my native English. If you want to make my life easier in the long term, then please provide me with the opportunity to practise my shitty Danish.
2. “But I want to practise my English too.”
Ok, this makes sense, but I still have a rebuttal. We are in Denmark. We should speak Danish. I’ll speak English with you until your heart’s content, should we meet in England or Australia or wherever. I’ve noticed that Danes get around a lot. Use your next trip abroad to practise your English. I can only speak Danish to Danes in Denmark.
3. “It’s just that I have lots of English speaking colleagues and I’m so used to speaking English.”
This only serves to remind me that I am an outsider in this country – you’re just lumping me in with your English-speaking colleagues, people who “don’t speak Danish”. I don’t understand how it could come more naturally for someone to speak English than their native tongue. The true reason for switching to English in this case seems to be that they know the person they are communicating with is a foreigner. I happen to come from a stable and privileged country, but what if I were a refugee, making an effort to integrate in Denmark? What if returning to my homeland is not an option? Switching to English despite my efforts to speak Danish could, in this scenario, be taken as an insult to my efforts in building a home here. It could be seen as a sign that I haven’t successfully integrated yet and perhaps I never will. So why bother trying?
In short, Danes please don’t “do us a favour” or assume we don’t want to speak your language. If you hear me making an effort then throw me a bone! When you switch to English you deny us the opportunity to integrate and become part of the future. Sure, sometimes it’s nice to get the attention for being foreign, but hey, I would like to just blend into the background too.
Man, it feels good to have gotten all that off my chest. I feel so much better. To conclude on a positive note, I would like to extend a message of solidarity to my fellow foreign comrades – don’t give up, keep on strugglin’. We’ve just got to stick to our guns and insist that those well-dressed, good-looking, flag-flying Danes speak their native language with us.
And to those Danes who have spoken, and continue to speak, Danish with me, I salute you. You are the rødkål to my flæskesteg.