Greenland, Born and Raised, Part 1 — Language
Hi, my name is Nikolaj (pronounced Nee-co-lie), I’m 33 years old, and I’m from Greenland.
This is an article series of my experiences of being born and raised in Greenland. With a Greenlandic father and a Danish mother, and the many unique issues that shaped my upbringing.
You can read part 0 — a short history of Greenland — here.
This Part 1 is about the language barriers I experienced growing up in Nuuk, the capitol of Greenland.
I hope my ramblings might educate and entertain. Enjoy.
Born in Greenland, Speaking Danish
I was born in Nuuk, to a Greenlandic father and a Danish mother. That combo is not uncommon, although the reversal of the sexes (Danish father, Greenlandic mother) is probably the majority of how it goes — especially in Nuuk. I think it’s because in the 1960s there was a rush of Danish workers needed for building the modern Greenland. There’s still a huge demand for specialized workers in Greenland.
Nuuk has a population of around 17,000 people. While the next-largest city, Sisimiut, has a population of around 5500. Making Nuuk three times larger than anything else in Greenland.
It’s also important to understand the lack of infrastructure between cities in Greenland. There is simply none.
It’s all a huge coastline of Arctic wilderness between the cities. Like real wilderness. Serengeti go home stuff.
If you must get from one city to another it’s either by plane, boat, or helicopter. You can’t drive between them, only in the cities themselves. When you have to travel to/from Greenland you have to take a plane to/from Copenhagen in Denmark. Copenhagen being 4000km (2486 miles) away.
Although it’s possible to get to Reykjavik from Greenland, the trip from Iceland to Denmark is just as long and expensive — and usually involves an overnighter.
Growing up, kindergartens and schools were divided into Danish- and Greenlandic-speaking sections. When I was very little I spoke primally Greenlandic.
One day I came home from kindergarten and told my parents that the activities they had in the Danish-speaking section were much more interesting, and I would therefore speak Danish from that point on — and I haven’t spoken any kind of fluid Greenlandic since.
This meant we spoke Danish at home, with our friends and family, and when we were out about town. Which you could get away with in Nuuk, but not so much elsewhere on the coast in the other Greenlandic cities.
Later I went to school in a Danish-speaking grade and the school I went to had two Danish-speaking and one Greenlandic-speaking grade in my year. Usually there would only be one of each, for each year.
Approx. 90% of my classmates were also a mix of Danish and Greenlandic. I think a lot of them experienced the same issues I did. But most of them at least spoke both Danish and Greenlandic pretty much fluidly. I struggled a lot with Greenlandic in Elementary school.
In school we were a few students from both Danish-speaking grades that had a hard time with Greenlandic and we had our own small beginner-class. We’d be taken out of the class when we had Greenlandic (as a subject, like having English, or Geography), as our level was much below the rest of the class. I usually excelled in all other subjects — especially Danish and English (which we didn’t officially get until the 7th grade).
I remember we had a huge shift in teachers in our Greenlandic class, because no one had the necessary education to teach beginner-level Greenlandic. And there were no teaching materials for teaching at a “non-native” level. It was simply not an issue Greenland had thought about. Perhaps more accurately, not an issue Greenland’s Homerule thought would be important, because who in their right mind would need to learn Greenlandic?
All you need is Danish
I don’t think it was because of any malicious intention from the Homerule’s side, but more an unspoken understanding that if you spoke Danish you were gonna’ be fine.
At the time the “Gymnasie” (the school between Elementary and University — essentially High School) was taught exclusively in Danish. This was to better prepare you if you wanted a higher education. Because you had to go to Denmark to get a college degree. Therefore, speaking Danish was a good thing. In fact, my own father, who had taken his own education in Denmark, insisted I got a Danish name when I was born. You know, so I would have it easier.
I think it’s a rather unique situation to be in. I’ve tried to compare myself to other people of mixed ethnicities, but I’ve never encountered anyone who’s surroundings actively supporting you in not speaking the local language.
However, I don’t think the Powers That Be thought about the possible barriers such a view on (not) learning Greenlandic might erect. I might not have thought about the language barrier consciously, but I certainly felt it. It was a huge unspoken shame for me. I was always reminded everywhere I went that I didn’t speak my own language.
Except, I did. Because Danish was also my language but living in Greenland it felt weird not understanding half of the stuff. I think the shame manifested into some sort of mental blockade that made me resist the Greenlandic language. I didn’t want to feel my shame. Who does.
Where Danish was my mother tongue (something that came natural to me) and Greenlandic a shame I didn’t want to feel, English became something I had control over.
I’m told it all started at very young age (around the time I started in Elementary School) and my big brothers started playing computer games. The games were all in English and I saw how my brothers had a blast every time. So, I was there, begging them to do running translations so I could understand the fun.
One day they got tired of translating for me and said; “Just learn the damn language!”
And I’m told I did. The legends hold that a year later I was better at English than my big brothers.
English became a sort of neutral ground and a gateway to the rest of the world for me. My books, movies, computer games, the Internet, and my all-time favorite hobby; Roleplaying Games, were all in English. And much more interesting than my issues with Greenlandic.
Today I see I used English to rise above Danish/Greenland issues. Instead of being either I chose to join the international community — being wholly human instead of being defined as a mixed ethnicity.
I still can’t speak Greenlandic (although I understand the gist of a slow conversation), and I’ve studied English for so long I’m starting to struggle with the commas in Danish — which I think is hilarious.
Through my studies I learned that the brain not-only learns your mother-tongue as a child, but during your life the brain actively attempts to repress all other ways of speaking. That is freaky!
It’s not an excuse and I don’t think it explains my resistance of learning Greenlandic, but it does make you think. I’ve always had a flair for languages in general (I still remember how to say “Toilet, toilet! I have terrible diarrhea!” in Finnish), and I think I can thank my three-language upbringing for that.
So, I’ve chosen to see the positives in my experiences with languages, and I’ve come to accept and confront my shame about Greenlandic. I didn’t know it was shame at the time, but I know it now. It’s a part of who I am and I’m pretty darn all right — all things considered.
However, there was another big aspect to my struggles with my Danish and Greenlandic upbringing.
It had something to do with me not looking neither Danish nor Greenlandic. Something that was an issue in Greenland, yes, but it wasn’t until I moved to Denmark I understood just how big an issue.
But that’s for Part 2.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned!
Obligatory “help me keep the lights on” adverts (contain affiliate links):
I’ve always wanted to read this book. It’s about an African man who dreamt about going to Greenland and then did it — here.
This book looks like a pretty good introduction to Greenland — here.