Here’s a joke to start us off:
What do you call a person that speaks two languages?
What do you call a person that speaks three languages?
What do you call a person that speaks one language?
Like most Americans, my first exposure to a foreign language was in high school–a couple of years of Spanish, consisting mainly of worksheets and a piñata or two.
In college I decided I might actually like to learn to speak Spanish, so I started over with Spanish 101, completed a semester in Mexico at the Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara, and then continued taking Spanish courses up through 300 level Literature. I would say that at my prime I was certainly conversational, if not fluent.
Likewise my husband took a few courses of Spanish in high school (Spanish is a popular second language for Americans what with all the nearby Spanish-speaking countries, as well as the influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants). Later on John served as a missionary in El Salvador for two years, so he is fluent in Spanish.
And as it happens, it is Spanish that brought John and I together: We met at a Spanish language film that we were both attending for extra credit while at university.
With a love of Spanish in common, John and I had grand plans for raising a bilingual family. Sadly, grand plans
almost never don’t always pan out. Our first child ended up having a language delay (in English), so we decided we’d better just focus on the English with him. By the time he was speaking well, we had a second child and I was now too tired for grand plans and had basically given up on the idea of cute bilingual children (Well they would still always be cute, just not speaking two languages…).
Which brings us to….our move to Denmark. John and I had always wanted to experience living abroad, and we kinda assumed it would be somewhere Spanish-speaking.
But when the opportunity finally arose–the country was Denmark.
And the language was Danish.
I feel that Danish is a difficult language for several reasons. First of all, sounds of letters do not behave as they do in English. In order to learn Danish, one must clear one’s mind of all preconceived notions of how letters should sound, or words should be spelled.
There are a ton of extra vowel sounds, including some extra letters to attempt to represent said additional sounds. Here they are in all their foreign-looking glory:
And here’s a nice (evidently Danish) man with a Scandinavian-looking haircut who can teach us about them:
Last summer, a few weeks before we were to depart for Denmark, John invited a few visiting Danish work colleagues over to our house for a barbecue. Hearing that we were moving to Denmark soon, they were eager to challenge us with a Danish tongue twister: “rødgrød med fløde.” Meaning “red porridge with cream,” the combination “ød” sound does not occur in English, and is notoriously difficult to pronounce. (I was to learn later that this is standard treatment for newcomers to the Danish language because Danes find it unceasingly hilarious hearing foreigners make a fool of themselves butchering the Danish language).
John and I each made a few concerted efforts to correctly pronounce “rødgrød med fløde.” Each time, our efforts were met with laughs and shaking heads. At this point I decided that rather than attempt the impossible, I should just go for the laughs. I gathered myself and pronounced the words in the silliest, most guttural, most throat-contorting, most swedish-chef-sounding manner that I could. Expecting guffawing laughs, I was surprised to be met with silence. The two Danes just looked at each other.
Then a look of shock crossed both their faces. “That was actually quite good.”
Our other guest nodded in agreement, still looking surprised.
In addition to having way too many vowels, Danish also has several different dialects, or accents. As a beginner, even if you understand Danish in one part of the country, you might have a difficult time understanding it in another part. For example, in our corner of rural Denmark, many people speak a dialect known as “Jysk.”
The thing that’s currently causing me the most difficulty is that Danes tend to speak fast and slur words together. This is why, even though I might be able to understand or read the words separately, it may still be difficult for me to understand sentences as they are spoken.
Fortunately for us, most Danes speak very good English.
Danish kids’ exposure to English as a second language starts early. My daughter’s first grade class has begun learning English this year, starting with the basics. They like to practice with me: When I arrive at the school I am often greeted with a chorus of, “Good morning!”s.
Sometimes followed by a, “What is your name?”
I find it super cute.
However (and I think this part is important) Danish kids’ exposure to English begins much before the age of 7 or 8 when their formal language training begins. Many, if not most, of the songs on the radio here are in English. Much of the packaging at stores is in English. Many young children watch movies and television shows in English. So probably from infancy, these kids are being exposed to the second language. And it shows.
By third grade, where my son Jeffrey is, they can say and understand quite a bit in English.
When the school here in Denmark learned that our children would be enrolling, one of the teachers told the students they could say, “Hi” to the American kids, because “Hi” sounds the same in Danish and English (although in Danish it is spelled, “Hej”…of course).
One of the third graders replied to the teacher, “Oh no, we will say, ‘Hello, and how are you doing today?'”
By junior high, the Danish kids are conversational in English, and by high school, fluent. The classes they take in school teach them a lot, but I have been told that they owe much of their vocabulary and fluency to another source: American movies and television. (This explains their extensive knowledge [and prolific use] of American swear words). Since Denmark is a tiny country with a language spoken by only a few million people, it is not surprising that there are not too many movies produced in the Danish language. From a young age, Danes are used to watching movies and television in English with Danish subtitles.
Three years ago, the Danes were rated the world’s best non-native English speakers by the English Proficiency Index (EPI) from global language training company Education First. Recently, they have been knocked to #3 (behind the Netherlands and Sweden).
In fact, many Danes’ English is so good that tourists and immigrants attempting to learn Danish find themselves in this situation:
Interesting to note is that the Danes learn “British English” in the schools here. It makes sense since the U.K. is much closer than is the U.S. I have to laugh, though, because my kids have been informed that they speak “American,” not English. (Danes think of “English” as being what is spoken in Britain, not in the U.S.). I have never considered myself a speaker of “American,” but I guess I am. It is fun listening to the Danes speak with kind of a hybrid Danish/British accent. Occasionally I run into someone that has spent a considerable amount of time in the U.S. (usually as an exchange student–the Danes are big on exchange student-ing) and I can always recognize the American-ness of their accent.
Not only do most Danes speak English, but most speak conversational German, can get by in Swedish and Norwegian (mostly due to the similarity of these tongues to Danish), and may learn an additional language–like Spanish or French–“just for fun.”
And then there’s us Americans.
Unless we are purposefully looking for the exposure, chances are we come across very little foreign language–not on packaging, not on the radio, not on TV.
The thing is, the U.S. is a huge country. You have to travel pretty far to find a place that speaks another language (Mexico being the closest). It’s not like Europe where you drive a couple hours and bam they’re speaking a completely different language.
Generally American high school kids get two years of a language–typically Spanish, German, or French. Some may continue on in college or university.
And so there we were, ready to move to a foreign country, with absolutely no knowledge of the language. What were we to do? Like so many other points in our lives, the answer lay in Amazon.com. We headed to our friend Amazon and purchased the all audio Pimsleur language course, completing some of it last summer during our cross-country road trip to see family in Mississippi. I think it worked out well starting with all audio in Danish. If you try to start off reading it, not only will your mind be blown, but your pronunciation will be horrible.
When we arrived, John and I spoke no Danish beyond the rote phrases that we had memorized from Pimsleur. Things like, “I would like something to eat.” and “Where is Western Bridge Street?” and most importantly, “I speak very little Danish. I speak English.” We used that awkward last one quite a bit during our first trip here. 🙂
John is working for Vestas–It is a multinational company and the official language is English, so it works in his favor that the official memos and meetings are in English. However, most of the general chatting is in Danish, so he still wants to learn.
The Danish government would like all immigrants to integrate and assimilate, and part of this is learning the local language, so Danish classes are offered free of charge to all immigrants.
John is taking the first round of Danish courses, and I will probably start this fall.
Although I have yet to attend any formal lanugage classes, I have nevertheless continued my studies at home, using Pimsleur, Duolingo, television and talking to random Danish children at my kids’ school.
(Duolingo is a free website or app that offers many languages and I would recommend if you’re wishing to learn a new language, or simply brush up on your skills.)
John and I often watch one television show at night after the kids go to bed. We have the subtitles set to Danish and make a point to read them–this has really helped with our ability to read Danish.
In spite of all our efforts, we continue to struggle. We can read simple things fairly well. If people speak slowly to us, in a context that we understand and expect, we can understand pretty well. Beyond that, it is all gibberish–and we have been here nearly nine months now. At least we’re not alone. I have spoken with numerous expats that have been here for much longer than we have and are still not comfortable with the language.
I will say it is frustrating. However, I must remind myself that we arrived speaking no Danish beyond a couple lines we had memorized. We could read literally nothing. What is important is the trajectory, and it is most certainly going upward. How steep this trajectory will continue upward–that is up to us and our level of dedication :).
And how are our kids doing? When we first arrived, everyone kept telling me that young children are basically language sponges that will learn a new language with virtually no effort (or at least that’s how people made it sound).
The truth is it has not been without difficulty for the little language sponges either.
My nine-year-old reads and writes Danish okay, but seems to have a mental block against actually speaking it. He feels awkward and is stubborn and has been refusing to really give it a try. He’s able to get away with it because his friends are already speaking a little English. It’s kind of impossible to tell how much he is actually understanding.
My five-year-old speaks only a little Danish. I had thought she would learn the fastest of all of us, but she has been struggling a bit with some anxiety going to her new school, so the teachers have been speaking to her mostly in English. Also, I think a lot of it has to do with personality: she, like my nine-year-old, is stubborn and doesn’t want to try out the new words that feel strange in her mouth and that require an effort for no purpose that she can really understand. I have discovered that she understands more than she lets on.
My seven-year-old is putting the rest of us to shame. I am told she speaks with almost no accent. She understands her friends and they understand her. She reads Danish at or above grade level and is learning the vocabulary as she goes along.
As mentioned above, I like to practice my Danish on the kids at Jeffrey and Arabelle’s school. They don’t seem to mind too much :). It is funny, though, because oftentimes when I think I’m speaking perfectly good, clear Danish, they just look back at me, confused. Usually then I say, “Arabelle, tell them what I said.” Arabelle proceeds to say exactly what I did, and the kids are like, “Oh, of course,” nodding their heads in understanding.
So, while probably only my seven-year-old is “fluent” in Danish as of this moment, we have all learned a lot in the past nine months, and I’m proud of that.
John and I both enjoy the process of learning a new language, and there is a certain satisfaction that comes with each validation of progress, no matter how small: finally being able to understand the cashier at checkout when she tells us our total, for the first time being able to read a sign that we have passed every day, suddenly understanding an ad on the radio. And we’re not giving up yet.
In the meantime, I’ll remain grateful for the Danes’ excellent English skills.