Taler du Dansk? – LærDansk’s Struggles with Integration

Taler du Dansk? – LærDansk’s Struggles with Integration

Taler du Dansk? – LærDansk’s Struggles with Integration

Denne artikel er skrevet af ”Catarina Santos, som var praktikant i CultureWays, før hun flyttede til Bruxelles og startede en organisation, der kæmper for minoriteters rettigheder og for ligestilling. Denne artikel blev læst over 10.000 gange og skabte en del debat på CultureWays´ Facebookside. Catarina skriver kritisk om LærDansk og den måde, man underviser nyankomne flygtninge og indvandrere i dansk.


LærDansk Aarhus is one of the biggest Danish language schools in Denmark, with a current student population of 4000 people from 120 different countries, distributed across 100 teachers. However, the Danish educational method does not seem to be working for everyone; despite the latest evaluation showing an 87% satisfaction rate among students, there appears to be some common problems that a lot of students go through in the course of their language education in Aarhus.

I am going to start this piece with a personal anecdote. When I first moved to Denmark, I was living and taking my Master’s in Aalborg, where I started learning Danish; I finished Module 1 and then I was forced to stop since I was moving to Beijing the following semester as part of my University education. Skip one year ahead (give or take) without practicing Danish and I am back to Denmark, working for a Danish NGO and with time on my hands to dedicate myself to learning Danish again, which I had heard was a fundamental piece in the integration process. I applied for LærDansk Aarhus and stated, very clearly, that despite finishing Module 1 my knowledge of Danish was practically non-existent, since I had been living abroad and, as we all know, a foreign language kind of dies on you if you forget to water it every other day. As such, I kindly asked to be put in Module 1 again; however, in a mess of confused staff members and study coordinators, the process was delayed for over a month, during which I was put in 2 or 3 different classes, all in levels I simply could not follow. I did not give up and took it to the appropriate study coordinator; my meeting was a nightmare: despite repeatedly telling her that I did not speak Danish, she refused to talk to me in English and, after some insistence, the first words I was capable of understanding came out of her mouth – “You know you’re just wasting Danish taxpayers’ money, right?”.

It wasn’t a nice thing to hear but at least I was finally put in an appropriate class and could finally re-start learning Danish. The problem here is that my story is not the only story of miscommunication and inappropriate behaviour on part of the staff. E., another student, was taken out of her class without anyone telling her what was happening; when she asked if it was an exam, they said that it wasn’t and then proceeded to taking her to an examination room, where she was forced to undertake a Module exam, despite stating several times that she wasn’t feeling well, wasn’t ready, and that no one had told her about this exam. Miscommunication between teachers, staff members and students, seems to be a recurrent problem. According to Kirstine Alexandersen, the school’s Head of Development, these kinds of problems are bound to happen given that LærDansk hosts students from so many cultures and nationalities, and thus, with different educational backgrounds that can be incompatible with Danish didaktik. The school’s method consists in mixing people from different backgrounds and teaching Danish in Danish, as to not exclude any students who, for example, don’t have knowledge of English language. However nice it sounds in theory, in practice it means that a lot of the students feel like there is a top-down approach to their education, since if we see the classroom as a locus of power where orders, counselling, and conversation are always carried out in Danish, Danish teachers and staff members are obviously in a much higher position particularly considering that they are also the ones producing the social norms one should live by. For a practical example, if you are missing classes or if you have an exam, all the instructions – recently done via sms, email, and talks – are given in Danish and, if you fail to comply, consequences will arise. If you do not understand what is written or if you did not know that you needed to attend a certain number of classes, tough luck.

LærDansk is a private company under the wing of Dansk Flytninghælp, that competes with other language schools in the area for governmental funds. As such, all the schools present language packages to the municipality every 4 years who, considering the price and quality of said packages, chooses a school to offer the language services to foreigners. The content of the courses, however, is dictated by national government laws, who decide what each module should consist of, and which should always include three components –  language, culture, and society – around which the material is constructed. This can perhaps explain the slightly xenophobic tones in both the classroom books, and the recommended reading material, where Danish culture, values, and norms, are constantly presented as a uniform set to which all Danes live by, and to which every foreigner should conform. As a practical example, one of the books recommended for my level included a story of a Danish teenage girl who, by falling in love with a “dark” – as I was constantly reminded in the book – Turkish boy, creates conflict in her family; luckily, the conflict is resolved when the girl’s father discovers with great surprise that the boy, despite being Muslim, has no problem eating pork. During my talk with Kirstine, she revealed herself quite aware of these problems, and stated that it is not the school intention to reinforce stereotypes, wanting, instead, to create a pleasant intercultural environment for every student. Regarding the books, she told me that the book offer in this area is very narrow, meaning that a lot of the books in the library are quite outdated but hard to replace, and that the school is actually in the process of getting new material; however, she also mentioned that this kind of book mixing love stories with culture-clashes are actually the most popular genre among students.

Another issue that the school seems to be struggling with is the treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers, which make up around 10% of the school’s student population. According to Kirstine, teachers have been receiving special training from the Danish Refugee Council regarding how to deal with people traumatized by past-experiences outside of the country. However, the efficacy of the training has yet to prove itself; M, a student from Syria, when asked why he came to Denmark explained ‘I came because I had to, to start a new life’ and the teacher, unhappy with the answer, proceeded to point out to the whole class that he was refugee, insisting on the word and asking M. for more details, even though the student was clearly uncomfortable. Seemingly innocent questions such as “How did you come to Denmark?” or “When are you thinking of coming back?” can trigger traumatizing past-experiences, and teachers should be aware of this; immigration and refugee seeking have been a hot topic in Denmark for quite a while now, so ignorance or unawareness seem a poor argument in this case. However tempting it may be to let good intentions lead the way in sharing pre-Denmark episodes, one’s curiosity – particularly the teachers’, given their position of power – should never overrule respect for people’s right to privacy, which is actually one of the most prevalent social norms in the country.

Danish privacy and secrecy, were explained to me by Kirstine as a socially-constructed value related to the country’s size and history. According to V., a foreign anthropologist who has been studying at the school: “Danish society is so impenetrable and unwelcoming that I doubt my knowing the language would help me to integrate much”. He also complained about the low pace of the teaching, and about the large groups in the classroom, a problem recognized by the Head of Development, and explained due to decreasing funds and a focus on the students with special needs (for example, people who can’t read or write in any language) – in order for these classes to be smaller, other groups need to be made bigger.

In the last years, LærDansk has been opening up to a lot of student initiatives, and the school seems to be genuinely interested in receiving feedback. Programs like the TalDansk Café, where students can practice their Danish skills with local volunteers, country-specific study groups, and student-organized practices, are good example of this; besides, Kirstine informed me that the school carries evaluations twice a year, one of which is conducted by an external consultancy company, as to avoid biases. These questionnaires evaluate physical surroundings, the ‘feeling’ of the school, and in-class procedures, such as teaching, curriculum, and material, and according to the Head of Development, the school is “happy and overwhelmed by the positive feedback”; regarding the criticism, the school states that complaints are individually reviewed and evaluated and, when possible, changes are made. Kirstine pointed out that problems arise each year in understanding the actual content and the purpose of the evaluation. However, something that does not seem to be taken into consideration is that some students might not feel comfortable providing negative reviews and/or are they not used to undertaking this kind of questionnaires – both of which may lead to skewed results

As one of the first points of contact that immigrants have with Danish culture and society, and with such a diverse student population, LærDansk could cultivate values such as pluralism and tolerance, instead on focusing on a homogeneous process of integration based on an overly simplified binary ‘us vs. them’ paradigm.  Although the school seems invested in improving to fit its students’ needs, LærDansk’s perhaps unintentional top-down approach to teaching foreigners is symptomatic of a much larger problem in Denmark, such as the increasing legitimacy of xenophobic rhetoric, stricter views on immigration and bipolarization of complex integration topics, as well as the recent northern European revival of nationalism which carries cultural imperialism in its wake.

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