A Swedish Language Teacher learning Danish
Language is so much more than words - it could change your personality, and it often does. It makes you doubt your social skills, and it is a constant struggle of getting the right pronunciation. It is also a whole culture that you are trying to get integrated in.
I must admit that after spending the last few years, living and working in my hometown, Stockholm, I became a bit comfortable. This is despite the experience of living several years abroad in England, Ireland, Germany and US were still vivid memories and the awareness of the culture differences were still there. There is a comfort in spending too many years in the where everyone speaks my native language and where the culture was familiar from the first two decades of my life. You could even say that I am in a “safe zone” not having to go through the process of learning a new language again in order to get integrated in a place or to get a good job. In regards to culture, I can navigate smoothly, especially since my way of communicating and reasoning from Germany and the US have almost been washed away by years tucked up in “Swedishness”.
A Swede in Denmark
However, my situation changed the last month, due to a teaching assignment in Copenhagen. It is only one hour flight and one bridge apart, but so different from Stockholm. Due to its close geographical position and the similarities in regard to written language, I (and other Swedes, I assume), quite easily get the wrong idea about Denmark, Danish culture and Danish language. Believe me, it is not easy. The reason is, simply, that it is another language and culture.
One just needs to have a look at Meyer´s Culture map. to see the differences between Swedish and Danish culture, in terms of communication and especially when it comes to expressing feedback and criticism The Danish directness has often created a first, spontaneous reaction of irritation, or anxiety from my side. After thinking the words through once more through, or reading an email once again, I realized that the words directed to me were not as harsh or bad as I interpreted. Viewing this aspect from another and more positive perspective, I have been able to present detailed and in this case negative (but constructive) criticism for a certain project without feeling rude or awkward. On the contrary, the Danish management has been happy and content to hear about every aspect, and to see that everything, regardless of success rate, has been brought to their attention in a clear manner. The result (and only after one meeting!) is an immediate implementation of improvements and adjustments to this particular project.
Doesn’t it help to be a teacher?
Since I am teaching languages and I already speak three languages fluently, it is somehow contradictory that my experience of learning Danish has been a bumpy ride with many ups and downs. Being a language teacher, I was already familiar with the process of learning a language and the natural, uneven progress that a student makes - from a theoretical point of view. But when this comes to practice, what effort! What struck me the most were not the new words or the grammar but the fact that I turned from an outspoken, social being to a quiet and rather shy person at dinner parties and other private events. This due to my lack of Danish language skills. Before any social gathering with my Danish aquantaintances I checked words and practices sentences that I could use, but once there and among the Danes, my pronunciation was not Danish enough, or good enough, for them to understand me and my well prepared phrases. It is one thing to know words and grammar and a whole other issue to get the right pronunciation. The same thing often happened when ordering coffee and a sandwich in a coffee shop. When hearing the cashier´s answer in English, I knew that I had failed and that it had been obvious I am a non-native speaker. That was the major obstacle with learning Danish, and the thing that goes into the section of “downs” so to speak.
The “ups” were the moments when I could participate in a conversation with easy means of short reaction phrases and when I actually understood 80% of a dinner conversation and not only 30%. I felt that I still had my social skills and that I was closer to being myself; a social being that feels like a part of a whole, and like someone who contributes to an event.
Is it worth the struggle?
Now, you might ask why I did not turn to English when struggling with the Danish. The Danes with whom I socialised would only speak Danish to me and I felt too much of an outsider if speaking English to them. In addition, I wanted to get into the Danish culture in a quick way and to better understand the Danish way of communicating. Hence, I wanted to be integrated and I realized rather fast that speaking only Danish with and to me was the best help and push for my my progress.
Regardless of country, language and culture, it is hard to move to a new place and learn a new language. The struggle really goes beyond words and linguistic problems. But it is a struggle worth taking and one that is often necessary to to take, if you want to have chance of being understood both linguistically and culturally. The trick is to always look ahead and to accept both ups and downs.