It’s been nearly a decade since I first started working with Danes and their English. And although, I do not intend to work exclusively with my new home market, I expect many of the observations and anecdotes on this language blog will pertain to the Scandinavian market, as that is where I am based.
As someone who has spent a reasonable amount of time living in Italy, France, Germany and Denmark, as well as my native Scotland, the level of English you find on arrival in Scandinavia is remarkable. Of course, I have met many amazing French, Italian and German speakers of English over the years, but these have tended to be academics, or individuals who have had some connection through work or family to the English-speaking world. What strikes you in Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia, however, is the ubiquitous nature of their English skills. Whether you jump in a taxi somewhere in a city, you queue up in the local Lidl to be served on the check-out by an adolescent who looks no more than fifteen or sixteen, or you invite a local joiner round to give you a quote for a loft conversion, they can all speak amazing English, and generally converse on a wide range of topics. Even the small children in their third year of primary school were capable of having a reasonable conversation in English with my daughter, when she first transferred to the Danish school system. I think since my first trip to Denmark in 2006, I have only met one person who claimed not to know any English.
Because English native speakers, on the whole, are not the greatest linguists, the first sentence out of their mouth on arrival here is invariably ‘Wow, you’re so good at English!’ And Danes take that to heart. Their English truly is outstanding. The problem, as far as I can see, however, is that Danes do not actually hear that sentence correctly, what they hear is ‘Wow, your English is perfect!’ and that is, unsurprisingly, not actually the case! In spoken English, you often encounter a mix of British and US, sometimes within one sentence. Having learnt a lot of their English from TV, the level of informality is often inappropriate, and given they have adopted our swear words into their own language while assigning them milder nuances, they often sound much more vulgar than they realise. When you move on to written English, the register fluctuates, and the heaviness of Danish style shines through, especially in their long sentences and their love of the passive voice. Again US and British English is jumbled and at times difficult to disentangle.
As you read through the job advertisements here, they often state they need someone with great English skills to write their copy or translate their websites, but these ads invariably do not mention that that person should be a native English speaker. In the many years I worked as a bilingual lexicographer, the dictionaries we produced were rigorous in their rule that everyone must only translate into their native language, no matter how good you were at the language you were translating from, and of course, only the best translators were being used. That led to the resulting products being next to none in their quality.
So, while I am not disputing that Danish English is possibly the best I have ever encountered, Danish English is not native English and never will be. In the same way as I am bowled over daily by the abilities of my new countrymen to speak my language, I would venture too that not a day goes by in this country, when I don’t come across a piece of English that is at the very least non-native, if not actually erroneous.
Interestingly, I was recently discussing why Danes are so reticent to ask for help or have a native English speaker run a quick eye over their work. Elsewhere in Europe, I have often been asked to write or, proofread something or offer advice. ‘Is it overconfidence?’ I asked. His reply was quite astute… ‘Danes as so used to believing their English should be almost perfect, that asking for help with it is embarrassing. We’d like your help, but we’d feel like a failure, if we were to ask for it!’
So going forward, I intend to use this blog to give examples of the things I encounter and would change as a native speaker, not with the intention of shaming anyone, but actually as a way of saying that it is ok to ask for some native input. Even after two decades in Scotland, my husband, whose English is outstanding, still asks me to cast an eye over his work, despite the fact that I almost never find any errors. It really is ok to use my help!