“Danish isn’t a language, it’s a throat disease.”
I, like many Americans, have very little understanding of what it means to learn another language. Many of us study one in high school or college and its becoming sort of a running joke in American society how quickly we discard that information. I took years of Spanish and remember almost nothing. Ditto with the Latin class I took or the Japanese I studied in college. We like to throw around terms like “fluent” and “native-level” with a wild sort of abandon, confident in the knowledge that the odds are low that someone will challenge you on it.
So it is humbling to move somewhere where literally every single person speaks 2 or more languages. As I struggle and mostly fail my way through learning Danish I am constantly humbled as every single customer service representative I encounter will sigh and switch over to pretty good English. It makes your struggle feel both pointless and especially embarrassing. This clearly stoned 7-11 clerk switched to English without much of a hit but I struggle to get out even simple sentences.
It doesn’t help when people who have done it before give sort of vague, almost religious instruction. “It’s important not to just memorize, but to understand the words”, my Danish teacher told me. Well-meaning as she was when she said it, this means nothing to me. It seems some people have a flow with foreign language where they just sort of grasp the rules and go from there. For me it feels exactly the same as when someone asks me about baseball. I understand enough of the words to generally get what they want but lack all the required surrounding information. Much the same way I must shrug and say “sorry I don’t really follow baseball” with sports in the US, here I find myself sort of shrugging and smiling in what I now recognize as the “nervous immigrant” smile.
It’s a pathetic act. You understand enough of the sentence to grasp that the person is talking to you (you might think this is obvious but it will not be at first). They want something from you, usually a verbal response. However while you might understand some of it you have dropped too low in the confidence score to respond. A good example of this was at dinner last weekend. My wife and her friends were discussing medicine and I decided I was confident enough to wade in. They were discussing medicine, specifically the lack of painkillers provided to women in labor. Not normally a topic I would jump into and start claiming knowledge of, as I know very little about the medical policy of birth in Denmark. Or really anything about childbirth at all. It hasn’t come up in my 100 level language class.
So instead you smile and try to gamble. Usually no is the right answer just because you probably don’t want anything else. But part of my struggle in Denmark is a normal interaction is not one round. When you buy something in the US the cashier says some variation on “thanks have a good day”, you say something like “you too” or “thank you” and generally the interaction is complete. Here you may go through several rounds. “Have a good evening!” “You too!” “Thank you” “Thank you so much!”. It’s a strange dance for Americans used to treating the service industry like they are invisible and even stranger when you don’t know a lot of the language and assume the transaction was over.
In social situations its even more difficult. Some things are easy. Do you want to eat this, can I get you a beer, how is your dog are all simple. Explaining where I am from and what languages I speak is also pretty trivial. After that though it feels like one of those old dance-dance-revolution games. You know you are going to fall behind at some point but you aren’t sure when and once you fall off, it’s real hard to get back on the conversation train. Part of it is that Danes like to ask a lot of follow-up questions. It shows they’re nice people but makes me long for Americans just talking forever about themselves. I sometimes wonder how many immigrants in the US are trapped in conversations they don’t understand in grocery stores all over that country, just nodding in panic as the words they don’t understand flow like water over them. “So I told her, if you move my trailer I’m going to call the sheriff. Anyway you are a great listener! I am sorry for talking your ear off.”
There also isn’t a good way to ask someone to slow down when they are speaking that doesn’t come off as weird. People are fine doing it if you ask, but in normal basic phrases I’m just sorta going off muscle memory. They assume I am just capable of speaking at that level all the time, which makes sense but of course isn’t true. So you then need to ask someone to slow down which is tricky because if you ask and still don’t understand you have to do the switch to English which always makes me feel incredibly guilty. Not only did I fail but now I’m shifting the conversational burden to you. It’s like someone offering to help you hold a box and you drop it in their hands and walk away. Sometimes you don’t have a choice but it isn’t a great feeling.
However the worst part for me is being the oldest person in my language class. When you take a night class with working adults there is generally an understanding we’re not going to judge each other too harshly. Typically speaking if things have gone perfectly in your life, you aren’t in a classroom at 8 PM on a Tuesday. Taking it with college-age students is worse because it’s all still an adventure to them, where I am just desperate to look less stupid every day. “I like to go to comedy shows just to pick up slang in my off-time!” one 21 year old told me during my last class. She went on to explain it was important to “make the time” to explore the new culture. I wondered if my hell would be just interacting with 21 year old me.
Really it would be a fitting hell. No fire or brimstone, just you forced to be friends with 21 year old me. I would need to endure the lectures and the confidence born of nothing but just being alive. Listen to the debates between peers on topics they knew nothing about and forced to ensure watching us get drunk or stoned and talk. Listening to these young hopeful adults talking about the big dreams for the rest of their lives makes you want to just leave. Not because its wrong to dream or anything but just the sheer earnest nature of it. They want to tour the world, sleep with strangers and try new things. I wanted to be able to drop things off at the dry-cleaners. They’re hard to reconcile in a group setting dynamic.
Danish itself doesn’t do the learner a lot of favors. Danish children take a long time to start speaking and I’m starting to understand why. Many letters in the middle of words are silent for seemingly no reason, meaning before you know a word you kind of need to hear someone else say it a few times. It makes “sounding out” words impossible and definitely increases the gap between reading and speaking. While English has a legion of problems, the ability to sound out words is something I just sort of took for granted in my previous life. I always like to imagine Danish kids struggling to grasp such a throaty language. Just toddlers grunting in living rooms around this country.
Then again I’ve learned a lot from children books. It turns out they’re actually the only place I’m exposed to very useful words like “roof”, “farmer”, “dirt”, “grape”, etc. My friend has a daughter who is three that I regularly ask vocabulary questions of. I find that asking a small child is less degrading, as I can pretend that I am quizzing the child when in fact I don’t know the word and know children lack the social nuance to call me on my language failings. “Yes, ask your dad what eggplant is called and let’s pretend you were just curious” I think as she runs over to find her “far”. Her parents think I’m being nice by watching learning cartoons with the kids but really I need them more than they do. I considered taking notes during paw patrol, which is a new low in my life so far.
Among the immigrant community the general opinion on whether one actually needs to learn Danish is quite mixed. Some assert its completely required and provide examples of how its rude to move to another country and then basically demand they speak your language. This argument has legs with me, because it does seem odd to again force them to carry the weight of the language burden. On the other hand Danes don’t seem to expect you to ever learn their language, which creates an odd dynamic where you are falling to meet expectations. You’ll also encounter a lot of people who have lived here for literal decades who do not speak Danish. It’s an odd thing to ponder, just completely giving up on the native tongue of the country you are going to die in.