Feeling Like a Failure in Learning Danish

A double bind we foreigners are put into early on is this:-

  1.  “Danish is the hardest language. Say a tongue twister so I can laugh at you.”
  2. “Speak Danish fluently, imperialist scum. Never mind you have no vocabulary. Just speak it 24/7 and you’ll get it.”

Add to that the four reactions we might receive if we have a go at speaking Danish.

  1. “Ahahahahaha!”
  2. “WHAT DID YOU SAY?!?!?”
  3. “GOOD DOGGY! Look at the foreigner, she thinks she’s people.”
  4. “Oh ok, I’m now communicating with you.”

Given that only reaction #4 is what we were actually going for, there is quite a lot of negative feedback. The other three reactions are ‘micro-aggressions’. As in little kicks in the shin to keep us in our place. Sure, #3 might be said by a kindly person, trying to encourage us but patronisation and condescension necessarily requires that you feel superior to another. Patting a foreign on the head for asking you to pass the salt is a way to keep them under. It’s all ego. Contrast with: a few minutes into the conversation “Wow, your Danish is pretty awesome. Let’s continue talking about the thing we were talking about in Danish!” Can’t fault that. Can’t fault that at all.

If you get a #2, you just repeat but louder and with a bit more umph. Chances are, you put the emphasis on the wrong syllable. Sounding pissed off usually puts it on the right one. Don’t worry, no one gives a toss.

Truth is. Danish is not the hardest language for English speakers. It has very similar grammar (and is at least understandable if you use English grammar), the vocab sets overlap, the sounds aren’t that crazy. At least it isn’t tonal.

What might trip you up is where the emphasis/stress goes and the way the vowels are distinct to Danish speakers but much-of-a-muchness to English speakers. It’s like the four candles sketch on ‘The Two Ronnies’ all day long.

But, and this may come as a surprise to the willing student of Danish: Fuck ’em.

Say ‘Kusse’ when you meant ‘Kysse’, say ‘Boller’ when you meant ‘Bøller’ or indeed ‘Balder’. It is funny so laugh along with them when they are laughing at you. It’s like the policeman in ‘Allo Allo’. Get zen. If the laughter is good natured say ‘Hvad sagde jeg?’ If the laughter is not good natured say ‘At least I am trying,’ in the language of your choice. If you speak anything other than English and Danish, this works especially well.

What about feeling inadequate about your written work or your vocabulary?

Learning a language takes a lot of time. You have a top speed of acquisition based on things like how many languages you already speak, what the languages you speak are like, how young you are, how musical you are, how many words you know and so on. You cannot alter your top speed.

You can work at your top speed by exposing yourself to Danish as much as possible. But. You will inhibit your top speed by thinking ‘Argh! I can’t do this!’ or ‘Why am I so bad at this?’ or ‘I should do this better!’

If you find yourself having an unhelpful thought, acknowledge it and then side-step it. So what if another immigrant got fluent before you and she arrived around about the same time as you? So what if your friend’s step mum speaks Danish all day and that’s why she’s so good now? Just breathe. Breathe, damn you!

Feeling feelings of inadequacy will get you precisely nowhere. If you feel reasonably happy about learning Danish, you will absorb it whatever conscious effort you put in. Your brain will do a lot of this on automatic. However, if you build up an association between guilt or self-loathing and learning Danish; your brain will avoid learning anything even with conscious effort.

Find things on Danish tv and youtube that please and delight you. I like Jonatan Spang, for example.

He speaks quite clearly and he is adorable.
I like to write things that I would have liked to have written in English (rather than the uninspiring crap we usually have to write for class).
I like to read things I would have liked to have read in English (magazines are especially good because they are long form but not looooog form).

You will get there. I promise. But just forget about being fluent or perfect or amazing. For now. Baby steps right now and before you know it, you won’t even be able to switch off your ears on public transport and be absorbed in your own thoughts.

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