As my brother once said before I left for Denmark, “I heard Danish is hard, but bear claws are soft.”
My limited knowledge of the language stems mostly from Duolingo during my commute to co-op, but I didn’t know how true my sibling’s sassy joke was until I arrived in Denmark. It’s not learning the words or sentence structure that’s difficult, because Danish grammar is pretty similar, if not easier to that in English (far fewer verb conjugations – wooh!). It’s relatively easy to grocery shop (although not without challenges) with a limited knowledge of the language, because not only are some (very few) labels in English or peppered with English words, but also because many Danish words look or sound so similar to their English counterparts.
It’s because of this convenient truth that I can sometimes decipher parts of what my friends or people around me are saying in Danish, and I can chime in (and humorously catch them off-guard) during their conversations, in English of course. This same truth has also helped me succumb to laziness at times; Instead of pulling out my phone to translate exactly what I am about to buy, I just wing it and hope for the best. That once cost me about an hour of running back and forth from the grocery store, Netto, for cake ingredients. I bought buttermilk instead of skim milk and brownie and cake mix instead of having two boxes of the latter.
Taking Danish classes twice a week helped quite a bit (while I stuck with it), and so did learning from my Danish kitchen mates, classmates and anyone else happy enough to teach me (which was really most Danes because they’re all so sweet). Fortunately, most Danes know at least enough English for conversation (most are amazing at it), but they are touched and excited when you try to speak Danish with them (and, you know, don’t expect them to speak your foreign language in their homeland with you all the time *cough cough* like most Americans *cough cough*). Whew, pardon me.
Back to my previous point about learning the language: the greatest struggle for many non-native Danish speakers is pronunciation. Some letters in the Danish alphabet don’t exist in the English one, and many that are common between both don’t even remotely make the same sounds in Danish that they do in English. We native English speakers are among those who have it the worst. We grow up without the vital knowledge of sounding angry with every breath like Germans. We also haven’t been properly taught to swallow our own tongues when we speak, or as the Danes say, having the “potato in your throat.” As a result, some words and phrases are linguistically “off-limits” for a longer period of time than one would hope. The accent is also hard to grasp: I heard of an American who had lived in Denmark for 15 years and you can still hear her American origins in her accent.
Regardless, there have been many an interesting moment surrounding my or other exchange students’ inability to pronounce Danish words. One of my favorites was when my Danish kitchen mate, Klause, and I went to Netto for Danish candy. When we stood in line for the cash register, I saw a newspaper (in Danish, of course), and knew every word in the main headline except one: the Danish word for “ruined.” Klause told me the word the first time, and we proceeded to debate in line about how I was messing up (or perfecting) the pronunciation of this blasted word. Meanwhile, the cashier and customers in line around us laughed as we bickered like an old married couple.
However, as I am in love with this country and find the language beautiful (albeit a pain in the throat to speak…har har har), I will eventually learn Danish and become fluent…but fluency in Spanish and Hindi are probably going to happen first, if we’re being realistic.
Somewhere in this post, I am going to leave you with a powerful, yet incredibly accurate meme about the struggles of speaking Danish. Enjoy.