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. I 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.
- Find out: “What Are You Good at?” (aarhusblog.com)
- Untranslatable words (termcoord.wordpress.com)