'Watch out – here comes a foreigner asking for money'

Danske Flytninge HjælpThere’s naturally been a language barrier for me ever since I arrived here in Denmark, though so far it’s never been a serious issue. However, today I am left wondering how many people will die due to my lack of Danish-speaking abilities.

I started learning Danish back in 2007 when I discovered an ancient selection of Linguaphone cassettes and accompanying books at Nottingham Library. Over the next five years I slowly developed an odd yet strangely successful system of reading, writing and listening, that got me to a level of ‘I-can-get-by-ness’.

But nothing can quite prepare you for suddenly being submerged in to the culture and the constant bombardment of a foreign language, no matter how much you’ve studied. It’s a good thing for sure, though I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard the response ‘Hvad siger du?’ But yesterday, people’s lives were on the line as I went collecting money for Dansk Flygtninge Hjælp.

The concept, in theory, is relatively simple. One goes around a predetermined route with a collection device, information leaflets, and a friendly personality. Of course, I had all three; but what was seriously lacking was the natural ability to smoothly and confidently ask ‘Excuse me, but can you afford to spare a small amount of money to help people stuck in war zones?’ It’s a simple question (in your native tongue), but try saying it like you mean it in your adopted language. It meant that people were answering the door to a strange foreign man with piercings, fumbling with a leaflet and asking for money in stiff, badly-rehearsed Danish. It’s times like this that people get suspicious, and rightly so. As a result, it took my partner and I much longer to complete the route, as she had to provide backup with her soft, friendly, female (Danish) voice.

It bothered us both when we finally returned back to the collection depot and discovered we’d only raised 700kr between us. One little girl was beaming as she’d managed to raise over 1300kr. Fair play, I thought; but then who in their right mind is ever going to say no to a sweet, local, nine-year-old girl?

For those of you who have read some of my previous posts, you’ll be aware of my struggle to obtain a residency permit – that little yellow card that will help me fit in a lot better. Because I don’t yet have this card, I cannot benefit from the authorities’ free three-year Danish language programme and therefore cannot improve my skills. One of the reasons I can’t get the card is because my current work contract says ‘Variable Hours’ instead of the recommended 16-per-week. Many companies’ first question when I walk in with my CV is ‘Do you speak fluent Danish?’ Of course, the job goes to the next guy who walks through the door and can answer ‘yes’ to that one, so another week goes by without an employment contract that the authorities will accept. This annoying merry-go-round has been frustrating enough without having to worry about how many people will have to suffer because of some ridiculous red-tape.

I’m left wondering whoever came up with the phrase, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’

2 Comments Add Yours

  1. Aleksandra Goinska

    Hej Matthew

    I love your way of writing, hahhaha intelligent, insightful and funny.

    I have the same problem.. I am in Denmark 3 years now and when I am really trying to opem my mouth and say something that I think sounds good in danish, they ask ‘hvad siger du?’ grhh.. then I immiedetely switch to english, of course, to avoid embarassment.. .)

    I just checked your portfolio – love the pictures, especially from Photojournalism 2 :)))

    Aleksandra

    • Matthew James Harrison

      Hi Aleksandra. Thanks for your kind ‘review’ and for taking the time to look at my images. It’s a funny old language, isn’t it. And having been very very bad at French during my school days, I’m surprised I’ve got even this far. What are you doing here in Denmark?