clearskies, bluewater

Insights, reflections and creative imaginings for our awakening world

Slow but Real progress


As most of you who read this blog are aware, I am an American living in Denmark. According to many Danes, their language is in the top three most difficult languages in The WORLD to master. After being here for two and a half years or so, I can attest to the truth of this assertion: Danish is tough, no two ways about it. It is a paradoxical language, because of the fact that its history and the history of my beloved mother tongue, English, are so intertwined. A surprising number of words are the same, or nearly, in both languages. After a certain point, the written language does become nearly manageable to some degree. However, the huge challenge of Danish remains in the hearing, understanding, and of course, speaking of it.

A Danish friend of mine, a teacher and self-professed expert of Danish dialects, has informed me that there are over thirty subtleties in the way the vowels are pronounced in Danish, as opposed to English’s paltry 20 or so (according to my Oxford American English dictionary). And the Danes are famous for their constantly evolving ‘shorthand’ speak, where they simply cut out certain sounds and up to half of the word itself, I guess in a similar way to French. At any rate, a simple language to learn it is not.

For foreigners coming here, learning the language can be rather a nightmare, depending on who you are, how old, how clever at learning foreign languages you are, and how much you are willing to stretch your brain on a daily basis. My own experience over the course of the past 2 ½ years has been mixed: a real like-dislike, its-okay-to-it SUCKS rollercoaster ride. Nevertheless, whether I hate it or accept it, I am in it every day. Working with the students and teachers out at the country Steiner school, is basically immersion in a Danish language practicum. After half of this school year now, my progress is painfully slow, and yet. As they say in Denmark, ‘Det kommer,’ meaning, It is coming along.


I am still attending language school, and because I basically could not stand the teacher in the class I was put into in the autumn, I have now switched classes to a somewhat lower level class: it is not the high-speed train, but rather the local, with more opportunities to speak and hear Danish in a calm and understandable way. Tonight I went to my new class, with a very nice, gentle Danish lady teacher named Annette. Interestingly, instead of the high-speed class full of Russian and other slavic native speakers, this class contains a nice mix of men and women from places like Italy, Portugal, Lithuania, Afghanistan, Sudan, Poland, and a few other places. As usual, I am the sole person from west of the Atlantic but I don’t mind. The really heartening thing that I realized tonight was that I have, finally, definitively improved my Danish to the point where, in that class, at least, I am one of the better speakers. So I must admit to all of those patient friends, colleagues, teachers and my own beloved Danish husband, that yes it is true, being immersed in their language all the livelong day, painful as it sometimes REALLY is, is somehow transforming my brain to finally accept Danish into it more than before.

Having said that, it remains a fact that when among a group of Danish people who are speaking together at their normal rate of speed, I still only catch a percentage of what is being said: sometimes I get the gist and sometimes I am just plain lost. I also admit to having had a huge longing recently for Americans speaking American English at as ordinary a place as say, the grocery store or nearly anywhere, really. homesick-dollarvigilanteI had a sharp memory of being there last spring, just walking around, and how comfortable it was to simply be able to understand everything that people around me were saying, no matter how inane, it was a real joy to hear my own language spoken again. How many people throughout the world must have a similar experience to mine every day! How many walk through their days in a kind of foggy dream because they do not really understand too much of what is being spoken around them. When a person is living along in their native country, they simply cannot have a true understanding of what it is to be a foreigner there, how handicapped they are by the lack of a deep understanding of that land’s language which they take totally for granted. In Europe, and I would guess in many places around the world, it is common that many people from different countries are living amongst the natives– but in the States, ironically enough, awareness of the difficulties that foreigners have on a daily basis is sorely lacking.

Dear Readers, I am glad to be able to report my progress with Danish to you all tonight. Though I may end up living here for the rest of my life and never become truly fluent (a distinct possibility), I can see that I now have what could be called a ‘basic working knowledge’ of the language, enough to get around and more or less survive without relying too much on English anymore. Having said that, I am equally glad that so many Danes know English (for better or worse) so that I don’t have to give up my own language completely in order to live here.

The next time you are out and about somewhere, and you notice a foreign person in the que or on the bus or walking down the street near you, have some compassion for them. Chances are good that they are a very long way from home, not only in their physical surround, but also in their heart and mind, and yes, in their way of expressing themselves. Chances are, most of them are intelligent, sensitive human beings just like you are, only they have no real opportunity of expressing themselves well in English. Smiles are a sure bet to brighten someone’s day who might not have much chance to speak in words with you. Give a smile, a hand, a gesture of friendship if you can: take it from me, it means a lot.


Author: SingingBones

When we sing over the bones, we are calling the wild nature, the instinctive soul back, singing it alive again. To live with our wildness intact, is the greatest gift a woman can give herself. "It is the holy poetry and singing we are after." C.P. Estes

10 thoughts on “Slow but Real progress

  1. Dear SingingBones, I appreciate this blog. I lived in a country for two years where most people did not speak English. I felt like a young child in my ability to express myself. The nuances of feeling and meaning that I know as an adult I could not communicate. I felt isolated. Since that time I have felt great compassion for the millions of people all over the world who live in a place where their native tongue is hardly spoken. I remember what a thrill it was to arrive in an airport in the United States and hear my beloved American English spoken over the public address system. Funny that such banal English could make my bones sing. Diane


    • Thanks for your sweet comment, dear friend. Compassion is something you have in abundance…. missing you and your oh-so-American English tonight up here where the temperature has dropped to Wisconsin winter levels… hugs, Leigh


  2. SB…I loved this post! I can only imagine how hard this has been for you…everytime I am in a foreign country I fee that “wish I could speak this language” feeling……and compassion does come forth from me……I am in the UK as we speak and it is sort of like English (smile)…….


  3. Hi. Nice post. During my working life, I worked hard to master the French language, since I live and work in a bilingual province. I would say I almost made it. I can speak enough to get myself in trouble and I understand, as long as the other person speaks slowly. I am very proud that I watched the first season of the TV program LOST in French before I knew it was available in English. LOST turned out to be my favorite program of all time, good in any language!!! Jane


    • Hi Jane, thanks for your nice comment and story. I applaud you for learning French and for being able to watch a television series in French and understand it all! If I ever get to that point, of being able to watch a modern Danish film and actually understand it, I will know that I truly understand this language! that goal seems far away, if even possible, but perhaps one day…. cheers for reading! blessings, SB


  4. Such a lovely post. All my life I have been drawn towards those with strong accents, especially if they appear to need assistance. I raised my sons to respect those for whom English is a second-language because being able to understand and speak two languages (if not more) is more than we have. So yes, this is an excellent reminder for those to whom it doesn’t come ‘naturally’ to offer extra patience, a smile, see if you can help in any way. All the very best to you! ~Gina


    • Thanks for your nice comment, Gina and welcome to my blog! It is a shame that Americans don’t have more awareness of the importance of multiple languages, and the irony of it being a land made up of immigrants where everybody is raised on English is rather outrageous. Cheers for reading! Leigh


  5. To me, you are making huge strides! –as I have never been able to learn another language.

    I have a friend who lives in Norway and it is funny–she says the Norwegians pride themselves on having the most difficult language in the world to learn! I have also heard that said about Finnish. And a friend who lives in Korea says that after 14 years, with a Korean wife and dual-language children, he still speaks “baby Korean.”

    I am always awed by non-native English speakers who live here in the USA and get by quite well. English isn’t so easy to learn, either…with my “ESL” students, I make sure to let them know that their ability to write in English–however poorly they perceive their writing to be–is a significant achievement.

    Thanks for the reminder to be patient with learners at all stages! And to be patient with ourselves, too. Be patient with yourself!


    • Thanks for the nice comments, Ann. Yes, Norwegian and Danish are cousin languages, from what I have heard they can understand each other… (also because Denmark ruled Norway at one point in history) but I have heard that Danish is more difficult because Norwegians pronounce most of the letters, whereas Danish has a lot that is not pronounced, or at least quite differently than what we are used to.
      I agree about English also being not the easiest to learn, as the Danes enjoy pointing out to me… funny how things change depending on from what perspective one looks at them!


  6. There is nothing like submersion to get you to learn another culture and language. I’m sure there are so many things you miss from home. But what a wonderful experience to learn a new world.


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