The joy, the methods, the frustration, the tools. Everything about tackling this Viking tongue is different to how I have absorbed languages in the past. English and French were assimilated as an infant by simple osmosis, unaware of becoming fluent in anything. Spanish, Japanese and German were learned in the class room under the guidance of a teacher where exams were the end goal and lessons followed a set pattern. Basic Korean was picked up from friends and colleagues and I went nowhere in Seoul without my little black book in which I scribbled every new thing I learned to refer to and remind myself of later.
And then I chose the hardest of them all: Danish. It might be classed in a similar family to English and share a lot of words with languages already familiar to English speakers, but learning this tricky tongue makes all the hanguls, katakanas and kanjis look like a nursery school assignment.
So why am I learning Danish? There are only 5 million odd who speak the language and of those 5 million, 4.9 million of them speak English. And all the films and TV dramas I work my way through come with subtitles.
I started to notice that my strict diet of exclusively Danish videos was bringing about a kind of osmosis, albeit a word here and a phrase there. And despite incredulity and surprise from Danes and Brits alike, I love how the language sounds: the vowels are flat, sentances mumbles and it has that Teutonic strength about it. Not a jot of the melody of the Latin languages most people get dizzy over.
Having such a passion for the Viking men folk helped a bit, of course. And while I began to expand my circle of friends in Copenhagen, the desire to really be part of Copenhagen life inspired me further. As I began to teach myself with the help of books, tapes, podcasts courtesy of the wonderful Louise Sands, friends, films, Google Translate, Facebook statuses (great for learning slang and colloquialism), Borgen, DR radio, flashcard apps and lots of talking to myself in parrot fashion during walks to work, I began to love the learning process. No exam to work for, no homework assignments, no teacher writing words on the board. Only satisfaction from seeing how I can now understand 50% of what is said every morning on P1 radio station, as opposed to 0.5% two months ago.
Then there is the satisfaction when I no longer need my friend as an interpreter when speaking to his 4 year old son. The satisfaction when I go into a shop and have a brief but pleasant back and forth with a shopkeeper without once reverting to English. And the satisfaction when another friend once told me my pronunciation was indistinguishable from that of a Dane.
I think to truly know a culture you have to learn and (at least partially) master the language. It puts you into the native’s mindset and breakdowns invisible barriers that spring up when they may revert to their mother tongue in your presence. It sends positive signals to them that you have more than superficial interest in their culture and country. And the Danes know how difficult the language they were bestowed with is and respect a non-Dane all the more for going to battle with it.
Danish is hard. I’ve made my point. But how so?
- Danish is like Chinese. It is possible to be fluent in the reading and writing, but that sure as hell doesn’t gurantee you will understand spoken Danish and much less speak Danish. How you think a word will sound from looking at the letters often bears no resemblance to how you think it should sound
- Like a lot of Oriental languages, if you do not intone a word correctly it won’t be understood. One very good point a friend made was that the Danes are not used to hearing Danish spoken incorrectly. Contrast this to London where we Brits have had to adjust our ears to understand the plethora of English “dialects” spoken by foreigners.
- Dansk is very idiomatic. In most cases, one cannot translate it word for word like one can do from English into Spanish, say. You are better off learning many set phrases rather than a long lists of words and some grammar rules. But here is where it gets interesting, as it is through these idioms that one learns so much about the Danish outlook and mentality, through how they chose to express things.
- The pronunciation. Open your mouth too wide to utter those vowels and you won’t be understood. Sounds emanate from further back in the mouth – one uses a whole new set of muscles and movements. I have noticed that if I mumble I am understood better. The change from English is stark like a runner trying to win the swimming relays.
- Few grammar rules. At first this seems like only a good thing…. But one needs to learn every word in the Danish language before knowing how to use it in each context. One cannot predict and guess, swapping one word for another to alter the meaning of a sentence. It really is a case by case language. And for a learner of said language this can get mighty overwhelming.
Not only is it hard but it is humiliating – English people are not used to having to speak anything but English, not used to being the “tourist” – but if I’m determined enough to speak Dansk to a cashier when sleep deprived and hungover, I’m hoping I have it in me to go the whole way and conquer the Vikings back.