Is Language Culture?

A debatable query.  I think language is a challenge.  I moved to Denmark in 1998 and am going through a constant, continuous integration process.  When I moved to this country with the intention of residing here permanently, the many people with whom I came into contact, including family, did not seem to take into account that I brought with me my own history and culture.

Marion Webster defines integrating as “a form, coordinate or blend into a functioning or unified whole:  to incorporate into a large unit.”  I am not sure how completely that definition fits into cultural integration.  I like to think of integration as a person who makes an important contribution  to a society, like the wheel to a car.  The wheel is a component in itself but important to the vehicle and vital to the function of the car.   The wheel and the car integrate to work smoothly together.  That is how I see integration – working smoothly in the new cultural environment; in other words, a give-and-take.  When I moved to Denmark I came as a person with my own history – German/American.  I don’t feel that I can or ever will give up my own personal history and culture which is who I am.  My customs, my language, my humor, my education, my job experiences is who I am.  I have every intention of fitting into my new host country, but I have no intention of relinquishing my own identity.

In order for me to integrate, I felt that learning Danish was vital.  I did not want to live here as an expat and live here by joining one of these organized groups.  For the most part, these groups are formed to help expats who are here for a limited time.  I have been a member of various expat organizations while residing in other countries and even helped establish one or two of these while living abroad.   These organizations are wonderful and a great support for newcomers,  especially if you are in a country for a limited time.  I joined two of these groups here in Denmark, but once I started my Danish language classes and then began teaching in the International School here in Denmark, I  got thrown into the Danish way of life.  Furthermore, my contact with the international community through the school was sufficient to sustain me.  It was wonderful to fraternize with people who, like me, were married to Danes with intended permanent domicile.

After investigating the possibilities, I found a school in Naerum and enrolled in a class on a grade 9 Danish level.  I attended classes faithfully, completed all of my assignments and asked for more assignments.  We had to give a presentation, which I made on Buddhism, and we had one or two written assignments.  I got the impression that our teacher was not particularly interested in teaching us; consequently, our numbers diminished during the course.  Some of the language participants were encouraged to take the class to improve their written Danish and others to improve their spoken Danish.  None of the people in the class were beginners.  Only a few of us sat the written and oral exams at the end of the course.  The exams were government regulated.  The written exam lasted two or three hours and the oral exam was approximately 40-45 minutes.  We selected one of three articles, read the article and prepared ourselves for oral discussion of the article we had chosen.  There was one examiner and one controller.  Between the two of them, they determined whether we passed or failed based on the grade they gave us.  The range for the oral exam was from 1 to 13.  I think I got an 11 or 12.  Can’t quite remember.  The written exam consisted of an article we read silently and then discussed it in written form.  We had been taught in class how to write a Danish essay and were expected to follow that procedure and format for this written exam.  We were allowed to use dictionaries – thank goodness – and some of those who sat the exam used their computers.  My essay was hand written.  Again, I passed with an 11 or 12.  My ninth grade study of Danish was now complete.

My big dilemma was where to continue my Danish language education.  Again, I searched the papers, evening schools and asked people.  I finally found a school in Hellerup called St. Lucas Stiftelse.  I drove to the school and requested a placement in their language program.  I was sent to a classroom, given a couple of sheets of paper, two topics to choose from and told to write.  The topics with which I was presented were 1)  Is it more important to have more modern libraries in Denmark 2) Is it more important to have more child minding centers.  I chose the latter and proceeded to write.  After about an hour, one of the school’s administrators came to pick up my written work.  The lady read through it quietly and told me that it was quite good, but I would never be able to pass the final exam based on my written language skills.  That was fine by me, because I wanted to take the class to improve my written, spoken and comprehensive language skills.

I asked when I could join the class and was told that I could start immediately four mornings a week from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon.  I joined the class with great enthusiasm and was pleased to see that there was a mixed group of people ranging from professionals to foreign students aspiring to acquire a higher level of Danish to continue their studies or to be promoted in their jobs.  Shortly, after enrolling in the language program, I was called into the International School in Hellerup and told that I could begin right away as a substitute for an American who was going on maternity leave for nine months.  What a dilemma.  After only a couple of language lessons, I needed to either drop out of the Danish language class or turn down this job offer.  With great trepidation, I asked for an appointment with the administrator of the language school and presented my situation.  She was very supportive and told me, “In Denmark when you are offered a job, you take the job.”  She said it would be no problem to enroll me in evening classes.  I begged her not to forget me, not to send me to the bottom of the list and let me, please, join an evening class as soon as possible.  She promised.  I told her that I could not live in Denmark with my presently limited command of the Danish  language.  I think she was quite surprised at my exuberant interest in learning Danish.  I later learned that most people tried to get out of these classes.

I attended my first class the following week.  We met twice a week from 6:00 to 9:30 p.m.  We were given articles to read from which we were given written assignments and from which class discussions ensued.  All of the articles had to do with Danish culture – the welfare system, unemployment in Denmark, the health program, educational system, holidays, immigration, foreign policy, the political system (which I am still trying to understand) and history.  Again, I was very enthusiastic, decided to put our social life on hold and began studying.  I read every article several times, looked up and studied all of the unknown vocabulary and conjugated all the verbs that were unfamiliar to me.  I studied every evening.  The written assignments consisted of 500-word essays of which there usually were one or two each week.  I spent entire weekends studying, writing my essays, going through them to correct them, gave them to my husband who circled all of my errors, I then corrected the essays again and where I could not correct the grammatical errors, I consulted with my husband.  In essence, I wrote and rewrote each essay at least 4 times.  And still I got these back with red circles around all of my errors.  I would then take these essays home, rewrite them correcting the errors and hand in my work again, plus the new essay assignment.  In class I was prepared to answer or try to answer all of the teacher’s questions and took great risks in being corrected.

Unfortunately, I was a bit too enthusiastic and was taken to task by our teacher.  That confrontation created a tremendous impact on my confidence.  I thought I was there to learn.  I thought I added to the dynamics of the class.  I thought I was on the way to integrating into Danish society.

We were to write a summary about one of the islands.  Our teacher read an article about the island of L?so to the class;  we were to take notes.  The article was then read again and we were given one hour to write our summaries.  Again, we were permitted to use dictionaries.  To me, this written essay was to demonstrate our comprehension and writing skills.  I completed and turned in my essay, to be corrected and returned at the following evening class.  When we arrived at the next class, I spoke to Joe, one of the young Americans in the class.  Both being Americans, we spoke in English.  As the teacher walked by, she reprimanded us for speaking English, to which the young American replied, “We are two Americans, and we’ll be darned if we are going to speak Danish together!”  Now, had I made such a comment, I would probably have been sent out of class, but young Joe, well, she just said, “O.k. if you feel that strongly.”

Unfortunately, I did not have a clue as to what was to come or I would not have been so shocked.  After we arrived in class and discussed the island of L?so, the teacher said that she had selected three summaries which she would like to read to the class.  She also told the class whose essays she was going to read.  My essay was one of them.  After she read the three essays, she asked the class which one was the best, second best and worst.  Those are the precise words she used.  There was a long silence, as no one wanted to or felt qualified to pass a verdict on these essays.  So, the teacher took the initiative and said mine was the worst and why – too much detail and, therefore, not a good summary.  She then continued to evaluate the other two essays.  When she finished, I sat in shock, and the class in utter silence.  I decided first of all, that this was a good lesson for me, because now I knew how it felt to be put down in class – heaven help me to be more sensitive to my students, and secondly, I would no longer enthusiastically participate in class discussions.  Needless to say,  the rest of the evening continued without any class participation.  It was dead silent.  Even when the teacher called on one of my classmates, they did not respond.

The next class session followed the same procedure.  The third lesson, our teacher was absent and we had a substitute.  When our teacher returned on the fourth lesson after the summary incident, I asked her if she was feeling better and that we had missed her.  She replied, “I thought I was feeling better, until I came to class and saw you!”  At some stage during that evening, the teacher left the room to make a photocopy.  As she had her back turned to the class, one of the Japanese girls raised the middle finger behind her back and the rest of the class just smiled and nodded.  Somehow, I did not feel so alone in that class after that, and I slowly started to participate again.  We only had this teacher for three months at the end of which she encouraged us to go for the oral and written exams.  She made a point of encouraging me to take the exams, to which I replied that I did not feel confident enough and needed another three months to improve my Danish.  I think she wanted to encourage me, so that I would fail and she would then be justified in having put me down so hard in front of the class.

I continued the class for three more months with two excellent teachers.  I learned a lot and enjoyed the language class again.  Both teachers were very encouraging and the class progressed.  At the end of this second session, I consulted our teachers and was encouraged to take the exams.

I took the train into Copenhagen.  My husband drove me into Copenhagen on the weekend and showed me where the exams would take place.  Unfortunately, on the day of the exam, I was so nervous, I took the train in the opposite direction.  My husband had helped me work out the train schedule and where I would have to transfer, so even though I took the wrong train, I had enough time to get to the exams.  If I had missed the exam, I would have had to wait another three months and more classes to qualify me for the next exam session.

Firstly, we had to write a summary from an oral reading of an article and secondly, wrote from one of three choices.  We could write on an article presented to us or we could write on any subject which interested us, or free writing.  The article I chose was, “Buy one car and pay for two.”  Having taught English and writing, I knew that it would be a lot easier to write from an article where a lot of the vocabulary and grammar was formatted rather than free writing.  I followed the format presented in class – again, this is cultural.  At the time we were taught to write an introduction of the article, present the pros and cons of the article, comment on these and summarize with our own opinion.  The latter was extremely important.  The essay would not have been acceptable without my opinion.  I also wrote the whole essay in a rather dark pencil rather than pen, as I knew I would not have enough time to rewrite the essay if, after editing it, I had too many corrections.  Furthermore, I outlined my essay first and then began writing.  By outlining the essay first, I was able to look up the spelling of words, conjugation of verbs I was using, and new vocabulary which I would need to introduce into my written essay to show my command of the Danish language.  I did not try to be humorous, witty or too knowledgeable.  And above all, I did not criticize.  I wrote in the plural third person “we in Denmark” rather than the singular first person “I”.

After the four-hour written exam, we were told that the results would be sent in the mail as “Pass or No Pass.”  In the meantime we were sent a compendium of 60 articles, all of them on the Danish society, education, welfare, homelessness, immigration, the political system and foreign policy, etc.  I read and studied and read and studied until I couldn’t remember anything.  In the end I just decided if I passed the written, I would just have to do my best on the oral.

When the letter finally came in the mail, I asked my husband to open it.  I just could not face the possibility of having failed after so much effort and after having prepared so diligently for the oral exam.  PASS.  And I shouted for joy.  I was so happy, I called one of our Danish friends to share my accomplishment.  His response?  “Well, now we can begin to correct your Danish.”  I discussed this comment with my husband who just said, “He didn’t mean it.  You are overreacting.  It was meant with humor.”  Two cultural lessons in one!

My oral lesson went quite well.  Again, I had 20 minutes to choose one of three articles and read through one of them in preparation of the oral exam.  When I was called into the examiner’s room, there were again two people.  One person to lead the discussion and an evaluator.  My subject was “mobning” or “bullying” which was and still is a problem in schools.

I introduced my subject but was very grateful, when the examiner took over and began asking questions and discussing the article with me.  I noticed the evaluator sitting with pen in hand over a blank sheet of paper.  Made me so nervous.  I thought so far, so bad.  She has had nothing good to write down.  After the 20 minutes, both examiner and evaluator thanked me and asked me to wait outside while they determined my status.  After about three minutes I was called back into the room and asked to sit down.  There was a brief silence, when the examiner said, “I guess you know yourself that you passed.”  “No, I replied.  I had no idea, because the evaluator didn’t make any notations.”  The evaluator smiled and said she was so interested in what I had to say, that she forgot to write anything.  Consequently, she could not remember if I made any mistakes, let alone what they might me.  So, I don’t know, was this another lesson in language and culture?

I am still learning Danish, still reading, using Mr. Google to help me with my spelling and continuing to integrate.

Expat:  A term which came into use in 19962 meaning an expatriate person, an alien.  Another definition is a person who is voluntarily absent from home or country.

There are several expat groups here in Denmark such as American Women’s Club, Women’s International Group (WIG), and Ladies International Group Kobenhavn.