The first surprise for me, as an American new to Denmark, was how good most Danes were at speaking English. The second surprise was that, as a consequence, there were not many language schools around. This meant I had to start up English classes as a freelancer. I quickly realized that most adults were satisfied with their English and had been learning it all their life since the first grade. I think some of them were even tired of it.
High school students
I began tutoring elementary and high school students in English. Most of the young people who came to me had fallen behind in school or lacked confidence in their English skills. Some students had changed schools and missed out on learning certain things. Some mentioned having been ill or running into family situations that had distracted them; others struggled with dyslexia. One common problem was that their teachers had tended to run the class at the pace of the faster students, and so they had fallen behind.
I tutored adults who had to use English for work or travel purposes and they were simply lacking confidence. Although there are not many language schools per se here, what is popular in Denmark are what are called “aften skole.” This translates to “evening school,” but these are actually day and evening and classes where people, often retirees, come to do anything from pilates to language to cooking. Most of these students want to brush up on their English and feel more confident when using English for travel. It took some time, but I did find a niche.
Danes are fairly casual with their teachers. It’s always on a first-name basis. They even call their professors by their first names.
“Hygge” in the classroom
One thing that makes Danes unique is how they maintain the concept of “hygge” or coziness in class – creating a warm atmosphere. Many Danes have gone to elementary school with the same classmates and teachers members year after year. They like to meet new people, but they have to warm up. This is different from Americans who can be very friendly with strangers.
However, Danes love getting together and socializing. This makes conversation class fun because if we have a topic and conversation questions, they are very happy to sit in groups or pairs and talk. I have found Danish students to be exceptionally good at not interrupting one another during conversation. When working in pairs or groups, they allow the other person to finish rather than jump in.
Threats to the “hygge” can be a problem though. If a person enters the class and is domineering or overpowering, it upsets the hygge. When we get a new student, I sometimes worry about their fitting in with the group. If Danes feel uncomfortable with someone or something, they tend to get quiet rather than voice the problem. As a teacher, I can feel when they are uncomfortable becausethey clam up. They rarely complain. So, Danes like coziness and familiarity with their environment; they also like predictability. Being on time is expected in this culture, which means they are always on time for class, unless they run into something unpredicted, and they tend to plan things way ahead of time.
On the other hand, Danes get bored with Denmark and travel frequently throughout the year to experience something different or enjoy better weather. This is when many of them use English. Denmark does not have any big rivers, it has no stellar beaches, and there are no mountains. Danes never know if they are going to have good beach days in the summer or get snow in the winter, so they often travel to southern Europe or places on the Mediterranean to get sun, or they take ski holidays to be in the mountains.
Being an American
People are happy to meet an American. There are probably many more people from the UK in Denmark than from the US, so being an American here has been an advantage. Somehow, they seem to like my American accent.
Many of my students have been to the US, but it is not a typical destination. Young Danes tend to think of America as New York or Hollywood, and they watch lots of American films and series. America is an interesting and exciting place. It is also a shocking place with regard to guns and school shootings: guns are not allowed here unless one is a cop, a solider, or has a hunting license. When they meet Americans in Denmark, it can be somewhat exotic. I have found the same thing when someone from another country joins our class. Danish students are curious about them and ask a lot of questions about their country and customs. We have had people from Iran, Germany, and Argentina enter our class and the students were curious and welcoming.
I think that no matter where you go, if you dig deep enough, you will find that there is always a niche for teaching English. Even when a lot of people in a population seem to be good at the language, you will find those who are not so good and they may even feel a bit embarrassed about it. Just be a good detective and find out where they are hiding.
Jude Pedersen received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the most prestigious academic honor society in the US. Upon graduating, she headed to Japan, where she lived and taught English for three years. Jude has been working as an English teacher as well as proofreader and editor for over twenty years. In 2010, she moved to Denmark, where she and her husband provide tutoring and language services. Since 2015, she has been co-teaching academic English to PhD students at the Clinical Institute at the University of Southern Denmark. Jude loves to run and she sings in a band.