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Charlemagne once said that to learn another language is to gain another soul. Here’s my experience of learning Danish and the many wonderful folks I met along the way.

Æ, Ø, ugh

Living in Denmark means learning Danish. But the system that is designed to integrate us doesn’t treat us all equally

Mit navn er Lesley-Ann Brown og jeg kommer fra Brooklyn, New York.

I didn’t learn Danish when I first moved to Denmark. At first, I was skeptical. It took some time to appreciate that no skyscrapers meant being able to see the sky. I eventually couldn’t help but value a society committed to helping the socially weak. I loved that you didn’t have to pay to visit the doctor. I liked that education was free.

Over time, I learned that Carlsberg and Tuborg were pretty much the same, and that Kierkegaard’s favourite spot in the whole of Denmark was on a lookout in the old fishing village of Gillileje. I learned that Denmark had a particular attachment to engineering and functional perfection, and that Danes had a soft spot for the US thanks to World War II. Denmark was cool.

It soon became apparent, however, that I needed to learn the language. Sure, Danes speak English, but while heading home after yet another party where I felt completely out of the loop, I realised a full life in Denmark isn’t possible without knowing Danish. I couldn’t just space out and feel inadequate as I tried to form the words. I needed to learn.

The first Danish school I attended was a squat 1970s institution in Nordvest, where I quickly befriended Sara, a French-Canadian of Iranian descent who was also in Denmark through marriage. We were the only ones with a Western heritage. There was an Iraqi computer specialist and father of four who had sent out a gazillion CVs and still couldn’t find a job. He walked around with a briefcase as if suspended in perpetual readiness for a job that could be just a second away. There was a female gynaecologist from Afghanistan, Tariq from Pakistan, and Hussein from Iran. All were far from home and eager to learn Danish. Sara and I were among the few that had not escaped war and conflict.

Sara and I often spoke the blatant discrimination that our fellow students suffered. We witnessed how the others lived a parallel existence as a result of the relationship between power, statehood and migration – an existence that seems virtually impossible to escape from despite their credentials and qualifications. We saw that if you had the ‘wrong name’ or spoke Danish with an accent, you would not be tolerated. That is, unless you were American or Canadian, of course.

The discrimination was also evident in the low standards and ambitions the municipality set for our Danish class. Any excitement we might have had for quickly mastering Danish was immediately quelled. The classes were dull and designed for children. Our teacher shook as though she drank too much coffee. Though our Danish wasn’t any good, Sara and I found ourselves progressing at lightning speed.

It soon became clear that we had landed in the wrong class. The level of teaching was designed for those from non-English speaking countries, and Sara and I quickly found another school that claimed it would prepare us for the Danish exams in less than a year.

We signed up and parted ways – since Sara’s Danish was much more advanced than mine, she shot way ahead of me. I started at level 1, and each week had to memorise 15 sentences. The idea was to learn the oral cadences and phonetic nuances necessary for speaking comprehensible Danish. For no matter what the word looks like, it will never sound like you expect. Ø, å and æ might look smart, but good luck getting your mouth around them.

I looked around my classroom that was now full of savvy Europeans and others from the States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The classroom, like the other one, was full of students ready to learn Danish and make an impact. But unlike my other class, many already had jobs, jobs that probably brought them to Denmark in the first place. Some were engineers, IT professionals or teachers. Some were in Denmark due to marriage, but very few because of war. These students look busy – like they have places to be and people to meet. Unlike the other school, which hung around our neck like a weight, the atmosphere at this new school was one that aimed at success.

I met Andreas from Switzerland and Roxanna from Romania, Gunay from Turkey and Will from England. After class on Friday, we went out and drank beer and compared stories. We studied together and practiced our Danish. Everything was crisp and fast and professional. There was no time for war here, but I often thought about the students that I left behind at that other school. I was lucky, I got out. But many were stuck there because their degrees were not recognised, unlike my American one. How did they fare? Have they fully integrated? Or did some of them fall prey to the realities of immigrant life in Denmark?

I wonder about Tariq, and if he was able to get the job at the restaurant he wanted so badly. I wonder about the desperation that showed on so many of their faces, a desperation to be a part of something meaningful. To be let in. I didn’t see people who didn’t want to work. I saw people running from war. From bombs dropping on their homes.

These two schools prepared me for Danish society at large. But it also exposed me to a side of Denmark that I love much less – the institutional division between the fortunates and unfortunates. Because it’s more than a language that equips you for integration. More important is the sense that you’re even wanted at all.

You can link to the original article in the Murmur here: http://murmur.dk/ae-o-ugh/