“Could you just repeat the words for ‘watch’ and ‘week’ in Danish?” says one of the students.
“Ur and uge,” replies their teacher Anette Jensen, trying to make the slight difference in pronunciation as clear as possible.
The students laugh at this peculiar language, and try to imitate the way their teacher pronounces the words.
“Mission Impossible,” whispers 27-year-old Iliona Pappa from Greece with a smile as she jots the words down in her exercise book.
She and 12 other students are doing their utmost to learn Danish by attending one of Aarhus University’s free Danish classes for international researchers and their spouses.
Each year a considerable number of new researchers come to Aarhus to work, and the university’s aim is that at least 200 of its tenured researchers and teachers should come from outside Denmark by the end of 2009. In addition to this figure, even more researchers visit Aarhus for one or two semesters.
Things need to change
But even though the number of academics visiting or working at Aarhus University has been growing steadily for a number of years, the university actually has very few centrally organised activities for international researchers and their spouses – apart from Iliona Pappa’s Danish classes and the social activities of the International Club.
At the moment the various departments involved are expected to help with practical details such as residence permits, accommodation, and an introduction to the complexities of Danish society.
Kristian Thorn, recently appointed as the administrative manager of central international activities, believes that things need to change.
“Our faculties and departments are doing a very good job, but if we shared our collective expertise we’d be able to improve the service offered to people arriving in Denmark. We need a reception system to help them manage all the practical details that can sometimes derail both our researchers and their families. We already do a lot, but I believe we need to organise the same kind of welcome for everyone – the kind of welcoming system that a number of universities outside Denmark have already put in place,” he explains.
The problems can be solved
Annette Skovsted Hansen is an associate professor at the Section for Asian Studies at the Faculty of the Humanities. Her husband is American, she has several colleagues from abroad, and she was one of the co-signatories of an article in CAMPUS last autumn (“Improve the situation for international staff”), suggesting that the university should set up a central unit to cater for the needs of its international researchers.
“We’re talking about help for absolutely basic things. For instance advice about how Danish society works, and help and support to find your feet. The kind of problems that a central unit providing assistance can solve,” she explains.
Philipp Schröder comes from Germany, and is a professor at the Department of Economics, Aarhus School of Business. His research career has brought him to Danish universities on a number of occasions. He says that help in the early days is important, but that the university should also help to ensure more long-term integration in Danish society – at least if the university wants to keep hold of its international researchers.
He praises the existing language courses offered by the university, but believes that they should be combined with more practical support and more opportunities to meet the Danes.
“It’s easy to live in an international bubble at Aarhus University, mixing with international colleagues, going to international events and speaking English at work. But if you really want to feel at home here you need to learn the language and get to know the Danes. Otherwise it’s only a question of time before you feel like going home again,” explains Philipp Schröder.
Iliona Pappa from the Danish language course came from Greece to Aarhus University in August last year to specialise in odontology at Aarhus University. She has chosen to learn Danish so she can speak to her patients – and get to know her Danish colleagues better.
“Lots of my colleagues have children, and in Denmark the family is given a high priority. People spend a lot of time with their families. So if I want to get to know the Danes I have to learn the language so I can communicate with the whole family when I visit them,” she says.
Help is on the way
Exchange scholars, post-doc scholars and students on Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programmes can already find the kind of centrally organised help that international researchers need.
The International Secretariat has been helping ordinary students for many years, and a help desk for PhD and post-doc scholars was launched in August last year.
A new partnership between the municipality, the local business community and the university is also working to help the spouses of employees from abroad in particular to find their feet in the Danish labour market. The goal of the International Community, as this partnership is called, is not to find people jobs but to help them to write CVs, to contact job banks, and to understand the culture of the Danish labour market.
Annette Skovsted Hansen has also noticed that the help provided for international staff and their spouses is growing slowly.
“I hope there are signs of a more positive development in this area. Internationalisation has become so widespread and the international labour force has become so important – perhaps that’s why people are becoming more aware of the problems of international researchers,” she says.
The new manager for international activities, Kristian Thorn, has only had the job since 1 March this year – only about three weeks – so he is not yet ready to say exactly how the help given to international researchers will be improved in future.
But he is certain that things need to change.
“I’m very keen to make rapid progress in this area. Internationalisation is an important area of focus for the university, and it’s no good recruiting people from abroad if we then fail to help their families to find their feet in Denmark. I think we need a more holistic view of the way we receive and integrate researchers from other countries,” he explains.
Integration takes years
Both Iliona Pappa and Philipp Schröder agree that they need help to understand Danish, Denmark and the Danes. So far Iliona Pappa has made a start on the language, but the language alone sometimes seems like an insurmountable barrier.
“I think the hardest thing is that the Danish you hear doesn’t seem to match the Danish you read. The pronunciation is really difficult,” she says, as she and the rest of her language class practise pronouncing the nine Danish vowels correctly.
Philipp Schröder has a Danish wife, he speaks perfect Danish with very little accent, and he feels at home in Aarhus. But it has taken him almost ten years to achieve this.
“Speaking as a researcher from abroad, I can say that it takes you a long time to feel at home in a new country and a new culture. Denmark is a very homogeneous society, and it’s difficult to find your feet not only during the first few months but actually during the first few years. I’ve lost some really excellent colleagues – they gave up and went home because they never settled down here. And that’s a great loss for the university,” he explains.
But Philipp Schröder underlines that even he has a few limits as far as full integration into Denmark is concerned.
“I still support the German football team; and even though plenty of language courses and plenty of hard work mean that I can now actually say øllebrød correctly (øllebrød is rye bread boiled with beer, red.), I still wouldn’t dream of serving it for my friends! But in all other respects I like living in Denmark,” he smiles.