Faced with the realization that I’d be staying in Denmark longer than I originally intended, I knew it was time to try and fully embrace the language I’d been half-heartedly hugging for over a year. It was time to learn the Danish.
Most Danes and expats tend to give the following advice to those moving to the country: there is no sense learning Danish unless you’re going to stay in Denmark for at least 5 years. This is absolutely terrible advice. Not only has learning some basics helped me in my day-to-day operations (ie. getting coffee, politely refusing a receipt, pointing at bread), more importantly it’s been a way to get even closer to a culture that tends to politely keep its distance.
Reading Danish is one thing. When it comes to that alone, I feel like a bonafide polyglot. Listening to Danish is really hard, but once you learn basic vocabulary like verbs, nouns, and numbers, you can pick up a fair amount during even casual eavesdropping. But speaking Danish is something entirely different. Speaking Danish makes you feel, for lack of a more refined term, like a total spazz.
Basically, nothing sounds like what it looks like. See a ‘g’ or ‘t’ at the end of a word? Just ignore them. That d? That’s a ‘soft d’, which sounds kind of like a ‘d’, an ‘l’, and a ‘th’ got together, paralyzed your tongue, and then used it as a breakdancing mat.
Here’s a great example of a small phrase the Danes say to make foreigners feel silly: Rødgrød med fløde. Forget the direct translation–red porridge with cream–which is a real thing people eat here. Trying to pronounce this ridiculous (but delicious) dish is like someone taking your language confidence, crushing it up into a tiny ball, and shoving it directly back down your throat. It’s fitting because that’s what you actually sound like – like someone crammed a ball into your mouth and then made you talk. It’s humbling.
All these ‘complaints’ aside, learning Danish is really fun. The Danes have some wonderful words and phrases that can’t be directly translated into English. Hearing them used and knowing what they actually mean only bring me closer to understanding this country and its lovely, mumbly-mouthed people. And sometimes I’ll get the rhythm and pronunciation JUST right and totally nail it. It doesn’t happen too often, but when it does the bright eyes and encouraging smiles from my Danish coworkers only make me want to keep on trying.