Sunday, 29 May 2011

Danish life: jeg kan forstå lidt dansk!

Jeg kan ikke tale dansk men nu jeg kan forstå lidt.

This week I started my Danish language classes and it was quite intense; each lesson lasts nearly three hours and with two evening lessons a week, its not for the faint hearted. But it has been incredibly enjoyable and I have learned lots. I feel a bit like Eliza Doolittle from My Fair Lady when the poor flower girl turned linguistic experiment is taken out in public for the first time under strict instructions to stick to the weather and her health: I can tell you in almost comprehensible Danish where I and the members of my family come from, what languages we speak, I can count to a hundred and spell my name. Ask me anything else and I'm stuck.

I deliberately chose this Danish course because it is aimed at students who already have some foreign language ability. I did study French, German and Latin at school and although I barely use any of what I learned, I figured that having some experience at language acquisition must help. And then I met the other fifteen members of my class...

For a start, only three of us have English as our mother tongue. This means that the great majority of the class are learning Danish in their second or third language. Maybe it is for this reason that the teacher announced on the first evening that going forward she would only be speaking Danish. This soon became a very frightening prospect but, on reflection, this approach is likely to be the most effective; if the learning process in our brains operates in a 'language' then how does a teacher set about to teach a foreign language to a room full of people all processing what they are learning differently? Some are 'thinking' in German, some in Italian, Hindi, Chinese. The only guaranteed common denominator between us is therefore Danish, the new language we are learning.

And so we are each coming into this exercise from different perspectives. For those with experience and knowledge of germanic languages, there are apparently many similarities with Danish grammar. One of our class is from Germany and he is picking up familiar quirks of sentence structure that are passing the rest of us by. For the student from France, the strange Danish numbers strike a cord. Unfortunately, having English as a mother tongue is considered a potential hindrance to learning Danish phonetics. One of the other Brits in the class apparently had to sit a spoken English test so that his pronunciation could be assessed.

What fun those phonetics are proving to be. To begin with the Danish alphabet has three extra letters: æ, ø and å. Then there are many letters with multiple pronunciations, can be silent or can sound like a different letter entirely. So far as I can tell there appears to be little correlation between how many of the words are written and how they are pronounced. Some words are practically swallowed whole; for example, the very useful word selvfølgelig which means 'of course', six of the twelve letters are silent so that all you hear is seføli (which also happens be the texting equivalent of the word - maybe I should just have signed up for a course on how to text in Danish instead!!).

If you also bear in mind that, like with many languages, there are differences between geographical dialects and between generations; apparently older people pronounce things differently to the young as the muscles in the mouth weaken with age, I wonder if I will ever be able to understand the man on the Copenhagen omnibus.

We have so far been encouraged to lytte og huske (listen (repeat) and remember). I fondly recall the hours spent in the language labs at school where the voices in the heavy and ill fitting headphones would instruct us to écoute et répète and here I am again, nearly 30 years later (dare I say it) trying to grasp how to intone and place emphasis in simple sentences; jeg kommer fra England men jeg er halvt englander og halvt egypter translates as 'I come from england but I am half english and half egyptian' (underlining shows the emphasis). At least this time around I can see the sense of learning how a language sounds and now that I am very slowly starting to develop an ear for the rhythm and lilt of Danish, it isn't quite as alien.

Of course, coming to a new language at an 'older' age is quite daunting. Unlike when I was at school, my days are no longer filled with learning and study (at least, not at a conscious level) but I must now have an overwhelming advantage given that I am actually living in the country whose language I am striving to master.

Without confirming my spot amongst the oldies, I would also like to note that the advances in modern technology since I was at school are a wonder and an asset too. I can download recordings of alphabet pronunciation and play them on my iPod at my leisure, I no longer have to rely on the old language lab. However, I might be seen looking slightly distracted whilst cycling around as I try to contort my mouth into the shapes of the words on street signs and bill board advertising.

Well, the first tentative steps have been fascinating but I'm not naive and I know that there is a hard slog ahead if I am ever to fulfil my dream of one day writing a whole blog post in Danish.

I have again taken the liberty of sharing pictures that are slightly tangential to the subject of the post. These photos were taken at the flea market in Kongens Nytorv this weekend. This has to be one of the markets more popular with tourists than with the locals given its location so close to Nyhavn but I passed through on Saturday and picked through some of the wares - the language might take a while but it hasn't taken long for me to acquire the Danish love of rummaging!!


  1. You rock it! (I know this is an older post) Keep on keeping on. Danish gets easier, especially once your mouth muscles have got used to it all.

    I found Copenhagencast podcasts very very useful in the initial stages, especially when I could not get to class.

  2. Adventuresandjapes - thank you for your encouraging words. Six weeks later, I am finding that I recognise more of what I am hearing and have found the Danes to be very patient with my (mis)pronunciation. I will definitely check out Copenhagencast - thank you.