My Journey Through the Danish Language and How It Changed Me Forever

dansk i graekenland

We sure did!

It’s Danish Constitution Day, and I thought it would be a good idea to write something of a different flavor in honor of this (quasi) national day.

I began studying Danish in 2013. Being a novice polyglot at the time, I turned to the Internet for advice and virtually none of it was encouraging and even less of it was encouraging about the prospects of a foreigner learning Danish. And even less of that for a foreigner whose native language was English.

Being honest: when I heard the Danish language for the first time, I was not too enchanted by it. I thought it would be something I would “pass” on, in favor of Swedish and Norwegian.

This was in addition to the fact that I was heavily intimidated by the prospect of the pronunciation of the language, in which, as I like to tell my friends and students, “half of the language is not pronounced”.

I’ll pass, I thought, although sometimes, even then, I was feeling masochistic and I would try watching some things in Danish on the Internet and see how little I would understand.

And then in encountering Danish people in my travels (and Danes travel a LOT!), somehow I was enchanted by the mentality, the accent, the culture, and a dozen other factors I still can’t articulate. (And “in my travels” I mean “on the plane on the way back from Sweden to the United States”).

I already had a significant amount of Norwegian under my belt, although I wasn’t fluent yet (that would come in due course, however). One reason this was important was that I didn’t really need to learn Danish from word lists and books the way that I had with Norwegian and Swedish previously.

(Note to those unaware: Danish and Norwegian are very, very close in their written forms, a handful of times I’ve speed-read a Facebook post and didn’t even know which of the two it was until I chanced upon one of the orthography differences. I’ll give you one such difference: the –tion at the ending of international words is kept in Danish but transformed to –sjon in Norwegian. This is also a sign that I may be speed reading too quickly.)

As a result of having my Norwegian experience, I could immerse myself in Danish freely, while keeping track of (1) differences I encountered in the writing systems, (2) differences I encountered in word choice (“måske” in Danish means “maybe”, but a Norwegian speaker would opt for “kanskje”) and (3) the way certain Norwegian words that I could recognize became changed when pronounced through Danish (pronouncing “v” as something like an English “u” sound is something that some Indo-European languages do, Ukrainian, Slovak and Latin as taught in some classics departments have something like this as well. Danish does this with regularity as well).

Thanks to me sight-reading food labels in Sweden (which are commonly translated into Finnish and / or Danish), I recognized a lot of words and orthography patterns before I even started.

Given how different the pronunciation was from any other language I had encountered, I thought that immersion was the only way to even get a decent Danish accent (and by “accent” I mean “ability to actually pronounce the words in a way that is even half-way normal for a native speaker of the language”). I was so right about that.

Now, let’s pivot back to the discouragement.

The idea that there were so many expatriates online that struggled, that said that Danes demanded that they spoke English instead, that they got told off by locals that there was “no point” to learning the language, and dozens of other horror stories.

(Granted, this happened only once or twice to me in Sweden, interestingly, and usually once I brought up the fact that I had to know the language for heritage reasons [reading the letters from my deceased family members] this usually made people [somewhat shamefully] retreat from the idea that Swedish was or is “useless”).

Thanks to these stories, I was under this impression that my pronunciation had to be nigh-perfect, otherwise I would get laughed at and made fun of.

Thanks to these stories, I also was feeling more masochistic, the idea that I should take on a hopeless project, and even if I didn’t succeed, write about it someday.

I just kept going. Kept imitating the people on the screen, kept looking at phrasebooks to get good pronunciation tips, kept reading and realizing that Danish wasn’t nearly as hard as the Internet (or I) had imagined it to be.

Sooner or later, the slurring and the glottal stop actually became normal for me.

In Greece as well as in Germany I encountered non-native speakers of Danish who picked it up from their friends or living in Danish-speaking areas. This was a huge boost to my confidence (although a lot of them said that they were in the minority but…yeah, people who pick up the local language in places that are not English-speaking countries tend to be the minority anyhow.)

And then, later on, I actually encountered native Danish speakers who were actually not only not making fun of me but actually conversing with me like a normal person! And actually complimenting my efforts! And only in this past year have I been told that my Danish was “fantastic” and “unbelievably impressive!” J

 

2015-07-06 11.22.31

A victory pose, if e’er there was.

What’s the big lesson of all of this? Apparently it was the Internet horror stories that emboldened me, rather than turned me away (as what also happened with my journey to Iceland in 2015).

The various people who would “hate” me for speaking their language I never ended up encountering. The people who would belittle my attempts I didn’t cross path with (okay, there was that one time, but it wasn’t a native speaker).

SIMPLY PUT: I IMAGINED IT.

However, the legends of “Danish being harder to learn than Chinese” did help me in one regard: they caused me to put a lot of ungodly time into exposing myself to the language, and, as I tell my students, the more you invest in a language, the sooner you can get fluent and feel a full member of the culture!

2014 was the year I had my first conversations in Danish, and I deem it no coincidence that having acquired Danish led me on a road to my polyglot awakening. Simply put, I put pessimism in its place, and my willpower and desire to succeed and turned it away.

Granted, I still have a while yet to go. Sometimes my mom encouraged me during my Myanmar trip to “practice with the Burmese people at the hotel” and sometimes I was too paralyzed with fear of judgment in order to do it. Sometimes I still have that paralysis in talking to native speakers of even my best languages, worried that somehow I’ll slip up for that my nervousness will get the better of me, or that I have to live up to a Michael Jordan-like reputation that I honestly don’t think I deserve.

But one day, I know, these fears will go the way of the ones that I had imagined along this journey I had described.

And this is Jared Gimbel, telling you that your fears, whatever they are, will disappear soon in due time.

I’m here to help.

jared gimbel pic

Don’t worry, be happy

Playing Favorites? (October 2014 Edition)

One fine evening in New York that probably wasn’t as cold as it is now, I was asked on not a few occasions if I had a favorite language.

As much as I love all of my commitments, the fact is that I cannot budget everything equally (and I think that almost no one can) and therefore I (and many other polyglots) do end up playing favorites by default.

Don’t believe me? Have a look at the tag categories above.

And should you have the good fortune to have read other blogs written by those who have learned multiple languages in adulthood, expect something similar: some languages are mentioned in their writing more than others, and it is clear that the levels are not all the same and that those that are the best are likely those that they put the most time into.

IMG_3129

A Restaurant in Hania’s Old Town

That being said, I believe that there are multiple ways to choose favorites, and while I have no favorite language overall, I can say that I play favorites in specific categories.

And should you want to ask me for more categories, nothing is stopping you.

For one, most people who are not polyglots usually judge a language just by virtue of its sound. And concerning my favorite language sound-wise, there is a very clear-winner:

norsk flagg

Norsk Bokmål, as spoken in Oslo in particular, has maintained an allure for me every since I first heard it in Stockholm. The fact that it is very closely related to English in many regards gave me further incentive to commit time to the project.

One thing I noted about Norwegian Language Learners is that they tend to hop right into native-level material (even if for kids) a lot earlier than learners of many of the common “high school” languages (Spanish and French being the best well-known).

About the sound: most people from the rest of Scandinavia note that Standard Norwegian has a unique rhythm that is reminiscent of a lilting song.

Many of my Swedish friends are very much enchanted by the language and call it “magnificient” and “wonderful” and many other varieties of praise-laden names.

I was also recently asked by someone if there are localizations of well-known animated classics into Norwegian. Yes. Very much so…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BIAibXgN2Lo

Then there is the system of a language, the way it works and the way words and sentences are formed. Again, a clear winner here:

kalaallit nunaat

When asked to describe how Kalaallisut (West Greenlandic) works, I will usually give people examples like these:

 

Sila = weather

Silarsuaq = world, the universe (literally: “big weather”)

Anori = wind

Anorersuaq = storm (“big wind”)

Nuna = land

Nunarsuaq = planet earth (“big land”)

Nunavissuaq = continent (land + place where something is found or done + big)

Illu = house

Illorsuaq = mansion (you get the idea)

Illoqarfik = city, village (house + have + place where something is found or done)

Pinnguaq = toy (something + little)

Pinnguarpoq = he/she/it plays (The dividing line between verbs and nouns in Greenlandic is so thin that some scholars argue that a division between them doesn’t exist)

 

Much like mathematics, virtually the entire language, minus loanwords (mostly from Danish) works in this fashion. There are suffixes that all have functions that you need to learn (not unlike mathematical signs).

Greenlandic is also home to my favorite word in any language, “qaqqaqaqaaq” (there are lots of mountains).

When I described this language to my mother (who only speaks English), she told me that the language “sounds easy”.

There are only two real difficulties with Greenlandic: (1) relative lack of learning materials (especially if you don’t know Danish) and (2) the fact that it is very much different from any language that is commonly studied (i.e. don’t rely on any cognates whatsoever, unless you have studied other Inuit languages).

And here is the language as spoken by Paul Barbato, an American (watch the other videos in the channel for the backstory):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4cyMEOkhU4

Another important aspect is taste, and this time there is no clear winner, and I would tie Danish and Yiddish for first place:

Much like German and Dutch, Danish is also heavily insulted by many just by virtue of its sound. Drunk Norwegian is one of the tamer names I’ve heard, with the harshest being the unfortunate but memorable “Danish sounds like vomiting”.

Of the languages of Europe that are spoken by more than 1 million people, the two that are most closely related are Danish and (Standard) Norwegian. The written languages in particular are very close, but as one of my Swedish friends said, “I can read Danish, but when spoken, it sounds as strange to me as Chinese”.

As to Yiddish, it is probably the West Germanic Language that gets insulted the least but made fun of the most.

I have written on both of them here and here.

And now as to the languages that changed my life the most:

Two-way tie with two honorable mentioned: Greenlandic and Yiddish, and honorable mentions Finnish and Modern Hebrew.

Greenlandic enabled me to glimpse the culture of an island that everyone on the planet is familiar with but tend to not think of as a place where people live. The “push-pull” between the Inuit and Danish spheres of influence is a source of creative tension that powers the entire culture of the country. I myself am vegetarian and I dread the thought of seal meat. What I do not dread, however, is the world that opened up to me as a result of my venture and how it changed the way I see everything in the Americas in particular.

Yiddish is also a tension between many European elements and the cultures of the holy tongue (as far as Yiddish is concerned, this is a blend between Hebrew and Aramaic). It also enabled me to understand my culture in a way that most Jews today just cannot fathom, not just as texts or politics or prayers but as a way to taste life—a flavor concocted from too many lands to list.

As to Finnish, J.R.R. Tolkien taught himself the language and likened it to a wine cellar that few people venture into. The languages that he (make that “we”) created share influences from this language (What’s it with Finnish enthusiasts creating artificial languages? There must be something in it…as we would say, “katsokaa itse!” [see for yourself!]).

But most people associate Finnish with “being difficult” and little else.

And it is a shame…because Finnish has a tendency to be quite absurdly logical most of the time. I have never heard Hebrew described as an immensely hard language…

As for Modern Hebrew itself, it is a cultural salad, not unlike Yiddish, Dutch, and Estonian (and definitely many other languages about which I have scant knowledge).

Before Modern Hebrew, the language was merely something scriptural, something used for prayer.

After Modern Hebrew, it became the result of a grand experiment as to what would happen if you took a holy language and let it travel the world for a long time.

The result makes you think more about how a language can evolve, and where our languages are going and where they could go.

Quite a thought…

Why Danish isn’t as Hard as Google Search Results Make It Out to Be

dansk i graekenland

From the airport in Hania, Crete–a place that has a reputation for getting “planeloads of Danes” during the tourist season.

Hej allesammen!

If there is one language that has been accused of being both very easy and very difficult to learn, it would definitely be the Danish Language. I still have remember the first time I typed in some words into Google Translate and had them read aloud with that recognizable little button…

My mouth dropped, I lightly screamed, “WHAT?!!?”, and I muttered to myself in disbelief. “How does THAT come out to be…THAT?” I wondered…

Nearly a year and a half later after that incident, Danish pronunciation is not the least bit scary to me, after lots of cartoon-watching and media consumption (in fact, the only reason why I would consume media and watch cartoons is precisely for learning a new language—nothing more…)

[TANGENT]

Let’s get this out of the way right now: for media aimed at younger audiences, even in part, there will be dubs of them in the Nordic Languages, “All their media is in English, and that’s why they all learn to speak it excellently…”, you might have heard? No, not quite. Sorry. That would be the schooling systems you have in mind.

In my Stockholm hotel TV where my family was staying, there was definitely very little dubbed material (is that why people get this impression?), but the fact is, that you can find media in the “everyone from the countries where these languages are spoken speaks English” languages, and a lot of it!

Not only that, but you can and will find people willing to speak to you in these languages and will actually be very pleased that you undertook the effort!

Wait, did I go off on a tangent? Yes I did…

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On one hand, a quick Google Search in regards to the Danish Language may tell you that you better give up now because all the expatriates struggle with the language, never learn it, always get answered in English, can’t even get the basic street names correctly, etc. etc.

On the other hand, while I don’t particularly trust the FSI’s rating of languages by difficulty (or any such ratings, actually), the fact that Danish is in the easiest category (along with Romanian, the other Scandinavian Languages and the Romance Languages—hey, FSI, possibly put Romansh in there, too?) is telling.

I came across this list back when Danish pronunciation mystified me, back when I thought, “I will never bother with torturing myself with this, I’ll stick to Swedish and Norwegian for the time being”, and I was perplexed. But interestingly, a part of me found it believable…maybe the pronunciation wasn’t so bad after all.

Okay, back up, for those of you wondering what exactly makes Danish so elusive in the eyes of foreigners, allow me to introduce you to the stød, the glottal stop. Mention this to someone who speaks the language, and he or she may make a motion of sticking his or her tongue out slightly and then withdrawing it—in so doing, this creates a certain creaky vibration of the throat. This is effectively what you need to master.

While it took me a number of weeks practicing to practice it, while walking on silent roads or in the shower, I actually encountered someone a few weeks ago (German/British), with no prior knowledge of Danish, who pronounced a perfect stød on his first try! Well, you really shouldn’t judge anyone from first tries, but the fact is: there is hope for you! Not also to mention that there are dialects of the language without it.

Without further ado, allow me to present this, a translation of a very popular Greenlandic song, “Sila Qaammarerpoq”, into Danish:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQwjuScey9s

That creaky voice sound that you can hear at multiple points in the song? Yep, that’s what scares away many prospective learners.

Not the only thing, however—the fact that Danish spelling is deemed a “poor indicator” of pronunciation means that even basic words, like “bedst” (best), “gade” (street), “overalt” (everywhere) and “eventyr” (fairy tale—you know, that’s what Hans Christian Andersen called his own creations…), become very intimidating.

But, in reality, these words are just as intimidating as their English counterparts would be for a foreigner!

Scratch that, the English words would actually be more intimidating!

I don’t see too many foreigners saying how the English language is extraordinarily difficult, and I think that Danish pronunciation and spelling is actually a lot more intuitive than that of English—although let’s be honest, this is not a very high standard.

In summary, Danish’s reputation as very hard can be ascribed to the following factors:

(1)    Stød—not impossible for a foreigner to learn. Obviously this requires some practice

(2)    The spelling-pronunciation disconnect. This, too, requires some practice.

 

And the best way to get this practice is by using the same method that most people who learn English to any degree use: media immersion.

This is effectively how I learned Danish, after learning Swedish and Norwegian to significant degrees. Thanks largely to the similarities between Norwegian Bokmål and Danish, the written language was a lot less scary, thanks largely to the fact that Norwegian is very straightforward in its spelling and pronunciation systems, more than both Swedish and Danish are.

I spent the least amount of time with Danish textbooks and learning materials—far fewer than I have with any other language. Because I spent most of my time with materials made for young native speakers of the language, my confidence skyrocketed and my progress was quick. This way, I turned the nightmarish aspects into a boon—I used it as a means to tell myself, “immersion is necessary to be good at this”. And so it was.

My vocabulary was almost entirely gained through immersion, and I even remember some from the food packaging labels from the time I lived in Stockholm, back when I thought, “if I even try to read this gosh-darned language aloud, I’m gonna make a fool of myself…”

But even if Danish is your first Scandinavian language, you have to realize that your journey is very much not impossible, contrary to what the Internet might say (and what doesn’t the Internet say?). You will be amazed with your progress and your journey, and so will you. And so will your friends….even the Danish-speaking ones…especially the Danish-speaking ones!

And actually, I’ll leave you with a secret: I know that there are many people who disagree with me, but I think that Danish sounds beautiful, especially when sung.

If you don’t believe me, watch Walt Disney’s films dubbed into the language. They’re all there!

This might also be roughly familiar to some to you:

Held og lykke!