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Why friends make all the difference on the path to fluency.

“Man, you are so weird.”

This was the rather dispiriting response from Kim, my new Danish flatmate, after telling him that I would be spending the coming year in Denmark trying to master his native tongue. Unfortunately, similar remarks (all in English) were common during the first few weeks of my Erasmus Study Abroad program in Århus.

Danes found it laughable that anyone would want to learn Danish, especially a native English-speaker like me. If a league table existed for the most popular Scandinavian language Danish would come bottom. Certainly it lacks the sexiness and sing-song qualities of Norwegian and Swedish, but is no means the ugly language that many make it out to be.

Looking back on it now I was fighting a losing battle, as most Danes speak English fluently, due to excellent schooling and a strict diet of American and British TV. If anything, they were learning from me, and saw my arrival as an excellent opportunity to keep their English fresh, the swines! This was not how I had imagined things going at all.

After two years of intensive university study my Danish should have been a hell of a lot better, but for some reason my grasp of it was still very basic. The prospect of living and studying in Denmark itself, therefore, was terrifying. Never mind the inevitable homesickness – how was I going to survive for a whole year with a toddler’s Danish?

“Ah, you’ll be fine. They all speak English over there, don’t they?” my friends would say.

“Yes, but that’s not the point!” I responded, shaking them in frustration.

What was the use of going abroad to learn a language and using English as a safety net? I had to master it for my university degree and I wanted to master it too. No matter how scared I was at the prospect of sounding stupid, I was determined to leave Denmark fluent.

You will understand then how frustrated I was during those opening weeks, with my aspirations slowly fading before my eyes. My insistence to speak only Danish with my flatmates had been a miserable failure and to make it worse my German friends (also fellow exchange students, who were all taking courses in English and had not planned to learn any Danish) were already fluent.

My courses at university were hardly inspiring either and left me feeling totally bewildered and dizzy, as I only concentrated on what was being said, rather than the context of the lessons. At that point it was very tempting to give in and merely revel in the careless joy of being an Erasmus student, but suddenly everything changed.

One night some friends and I found ourselves down at the student bar down by Århus harbour. We had heard there were some local bands playing and were keen to go along. The music was awful, the kind that focuses on making ears bleed rather than being entertaining, and I found myself retreating to the bar with a ringing head. While ordering a Tuborg I noticed a girl stood next to me, suffering like myself.

“De spiller alt for højt, hvad?” I shouted across to her.

She smiled and nodded, removing a finger from an ear to shake my hand and introduce herself. She was called Marie and agreed that the band in question would have us all deaf by the end of the night. After introducing myself and letting her hear that I wasn’t Danish, an amazing thing happened: breaking national law she did not immediately switch to English but carried on speaking in Danish, and even better, expressed no great surprise that a foreigner was speaking her language. I resisted the urge to hug her and weep tears of gratitude, and we continued our conversation long into the night.

Making my first Danish friend changed everything. Although I never said anything, Marie understood that I was not in Denmark just for the Erasmus parties and that I wanted to come away with something more lasting. Therefore, right from the beginning English was banned by an unspoken rule between us. Even if I was struggling to find a word or put a sentence together she refused to let me take the easy way out.

Instead she showed great patience and let me work it out for myself. The one time she did correct me caused her much hilarity. We were in a post office together one day and, unsure as to where the queue started, I asked a man

“Er du i koen?”

The man looked at me as with alarm and it turned out I had actually asked him whether he was “in the cow”, rather than the queue.

“‘Køen’, not ‘koen’, dear”, Marie sniggered in my ear.

One night a week Marie would invite me over for dinner in her cozy flat and we would talk about all sorts of things until the early hours. What was so refreshing about this was that it didn’t feel like some sort of pre-arranged language tuition session. It was something real. It was everyday life. Finally I had fit in.

The more time I spent with Marie the better my Danish became and the more my confidence grew. I realized that doing workbook exercises and learning grammar by heart can only teach you so much and that best way to learn is to get out and meet people and just talk, talk, talk.

For a few months I had been going to a language school in town and found myself in the advanced class, which was full of Lithuanian snobs who were already fluent but who only turned up to show off. Rather than listen to them titter at my mistakes I realized that spending time with a local was a far better and cheaper way to learn.

Now that things had finally got moving I slowly began to immerse myself in the language. University classes became easier to follow and I started reading a newspaper everyday, looking up words I did not know and writing them down on note cards.

Pretty soon I could read the whole paper without the help of a dictionary and words I had never noticed before started appearing everywhere. I also listened to the radio on and soon got hooked, so much so that one day I had a visit from a radio licensing officer who demanded payment for a license.

I got in a lot of trouble for that, but at least I got some practice out of the angry words exchanged! I was even dreaming in Danish at this point (always a good sign, I’m told) and on a few occasions responded to an English friend’s questions in Danish without realizing it.

As my confidence grew I found it easier to strike up conversations with people. I made another friend called Kristian at a party who shared a love of football and we would spend literally days watching every game on TV, chatting away happily and occasionally yelling at the referee with an array of eye-wateringly strong Danish expletives.

Not every day was a good day for me in language terms. For some unknown reason I suffered from temporary Danish amnesia. One day I would be discussing the news with Marie and Kristian, and the next I couldn’t even understand the simplest questions put to me.

It was as if something in my brain had been temporarily unplugged and it used to get me really down. Infuriatingly on days like these my flatmate Kim would suddenly choose to speak to me in Danish, and when he perceived I hadn’t a clue what he’d said he would laugh in my face.

“Oh yeah? Well you’ve got a girl’s name!” I always wanted to shout at him.

Fortunately days like these were rare.

Leaving Denmark was incredibly difficult. By the end of the academic year it had started to feel like my home and I was on the very cusp of being fluent in the language. On the plane home I got talking to the two girls next to me. They had noticed my Roskilde Festival wrist band and we laughed about how muddy and fun it had been. Eventually one of them asked me why I was going to England and I replied:

“Jeg skal hjem” (I’m going home)

“What?!” one of them shrieked “We thought you were from Århus!”

If ever there was a time for a high five, that was it.

Language LearningNarrative


 

About The Author

Lawrence Edmonds

Lawrence Edmonds is based in London and has been keeping journals of his travels since the age of 16. A lover of the unloved and uncelebrated corners of the world, especially remote islands, he dreams one day of living in the cold north. He combines freelance Danish translation work with historical interpretation jobs at London museums, using any free time for travel writing and photography.

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  • http://www.sophiesworld.net Sophie

    Of course, now that you’re fluent in Danish, you also know Swedish and Norwegian. 3-for-1 :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Excellent story, thanks for sharing :)

    It’s amazing how common many Erasmus stories are – glad you got to speak Danish in the end!

  • http://www.ikindalikelanguages.com lyzazel

    Although I do not like the concept of nationalities very well, still, I’d like to apologize for the Lithuanian snobs you have encountered (I am one). I would have spoken to you in Danish too (had I spoken the language anyway which I do not).

    I am now in Greece, trying to learn Greek myself (before I did the same in Portugal) and I know how frustrating it can be to hear English back. Sometimes I wish nobody knew English…

  • Sophia

    Great story! Being a native English speaker, while a blessing at times, can be a curse when it comes to learning a foreign language. I agree 100% that the best way to learn is with a new friend, much more personalised and interesting than the classroom environment. You also are able to experience the culture first hand and in the end, not only have you language skills improved, you’ve made a friend. :)

  • http://newfromnoise.com Dan

    Great story, well written. I was intrigued throughout and loved reading your bio at the end that said you do Danish translation.

  • http://annemerritt.blogspot.com Anne M

    What a great story! I admire you so much for persevering with your language studies, even though you could have gotten around Denmark so easily in English. Now that you’ve left Denmark, do you get to practice speaking the language at all?

  • http://brittanyshoot.com b

    This is amazing to me. I’ve been in Copenhagen nearly two years and I can still barely do more than order food—and my partner is Danish!! Way to take it seriously. I’m impressed.

  • Kirsten

    What a nice story! I’m currently trying to learn Spanish (I traveled a few times in South and Central America and took a class in high school) and like to travel in order to progress my language skills a bit, but recently my only vacation time was a week and a half which I spent in an unexpectedly-touristy part of Mexico. EVERYONE spoke English and refused to speak Spanish to me which was so, so frustrating. The minute I struggled with my first Spanish word they’d switch languages! I feel your pain on that end but it’s always such a massive relief when you finally find someone willing to be patient with you and help you learn :)
    Danish is a big undertaking as you well know, so kudos on choosing a language out of interest instead of necessity!

  • Ian

    Det var da dejligt at høre at der er nogen som gider lære vores sprog!
    I was thrown into the danish school system at 14 with only a sketchy knowledge of Danish (Through my grandparents), so I wasn’t given much choice, it was either learn Danish (especially the spelling) or fail ninth grade. I did really well though :-)
    And I’m glad you managed to learn it, I meet many people who lived in Denmark, went to Copenhagen Business School or something and barely spoke the language at the end. Respect!
    Hilsen Ian

  • http://wanderer-hari.blogspot.com/ Hari Dasgupta

    Lawrence – A very good story , very well-written. You proved once again that persistence is the mother of success. Leaving it for even for a day takes the clock back. I have recently started writing and I only hope that I continue with it. You are the latest example I would be following. My wife and I spent about a month in Europe. We were in Copenhagen for a night. You can go thru my blog in these columns written a few days back – Koparkhairane, India to Kobenhavn. After reading your story I am going to write about how I quit smoking after being a chain smoker for almost 20 years. Thanks for sharing your story. Will be going thru your other posts as well.

  • Lawrence E

    Thank you for you for your very kind comments, everyone. I have been trying to reply to them but for some reason nothing happens when I click on the “Reply” icon.

    In response to your question, Anne, sadly I don’t get too many opportunities to speak Danish back in the UK, no. I am actually currently living nextdoor to two Danes and in the beginning I thought it would be great and that we would talk all the time, but sadly I rarely see them. It is fun though to hear Danish people in and around London, on the tube or the bus (they are everywhere!) and know what they are saying.
    The translation work I do keeps it all fresh though. It would be really sad to not use it and for it to fade away. It’s all about practise.

    Hari, I look forward to reading your smoking story. Your blog is really enthralling, thanks for sharing it.

  • http://www.wanderer-Hari.blogspot.com hari Dasgupta

    Lawrence

    I have submitted my smoking story. If it is accepted – it’ll be publised. If it is rejected I’ll publish it myself. So just give me a few more days before I share it with you.

    You are welcome to visit my blog
    http://wanderer-hari.blogspot.com/
    Thanks for acknowledging our comments.

  • Stephanie

    Great story, when I was in Copenhagen ever so briefly I found Danish incomprehensible! Excellent tips for anyone trying to pick up a language too.

  • Kieran

    It really is the best feeling when a native speaker picks you as a native too. I’ve had that happen with German, and I felt so chuffed.
    Then again I learned in Austria, so I also felt I was a dialect traitor. Though I tell you, it’s hard to keep up anything but High German when living in New Zealand.

  • Guest

    You should try speakdanish.dk

  • Valera

    Im so happy I found this ! You have no idea ! I just arrived in Copenhagen 2 weeks ago and I feel lost , confused and a little lonely. I had doubts on my decision but this gives me hope .

    Thank You 

  • Random-dane

    As a dane, I’m always glad to hear about someone, who has spend time learning our language – but yes, truly, we do find it laughable. I think we also don’t understand, why people even want to see Denmark. But I’m glad you enjoyed your stay! :D

    Som en dansker, bliver jeg altid glad, når jeg hører om nogen, der har brugt tud på at lære vores sprog – men ja, sandt nok, vi finder det grinagtigt. I tror også, vi heller ikke fortsår, hvorfor folk overhovedet har lyst til at se Danmark, men jeg er glad for du nød dit ophold! :D

  • http://twitter.com/coldlikedeath Anna Sirén

    I am an ERASMUS student too, in Poland, and fluency in the language? Pffft. But this gives me hope!

  • Ina

    Being a girl from Lithuania, i really enjoyed the remark about Lithuanian snobs :))) Really a great article, I’m starting my danish course tomorrow and i was very discouraged by few people’s comments that is impossible to ever speak danish as native speakers do. If you proved them wrong, maybe i’ll be able to do the same :)

  • Hlassen

    Til lykke med, hvad der tydeligvis er rigtigt godt dansk! Det passer selvfølgelig ikke, at folk aldrig rigtig kan lære sproget ‘perfekt’ – jeg har faktisk mødt mange efterhånden. Det er bare ikke alle der har talentet (og det er ikke noget, der specielt handler om dansk). De fleste kan lære korrekt grammatik, opbygge et udmærket ordforråd, og også opnå en nogenlunde overbevisende udtale hvis de følger et sprogkursus. Men som du så levende illustrerer det, er det bare ikke sådan man lærer alle de meget små nuancer, der udgør den egentlige forskel mellem indlært og levet sprog. Det gælder i høj grad også engelsk. Det pænt flydende engelsk, som mange danskere jo taler er faktisk kun sjældent helt oppe at ringe. Men det skal man ikke sige til nogen – så bliver de bare kede af det!

  • Tan Yoeng Leh

    This is just cute! You have a 2nd home now XD.

  • Jess

    Ahhhh, I am Australian turning 18 and about to move to Denmark next year and my biggest problem is the language. Its so hard when they only talk english to you and every time you try to say anything in danish they laugh. I felt it was impossible for me to get the accent right with my australian accent but you just made my day… THANKYOUUU

  • Candy

    I LOVED this story!
    Ever since I started listening to Volbeat (rock/metal band from Denmark) I fell in love and decided I should learn Danish. My native language is Spanish, but since I’m fluent in English, it makes more sense to study from English since they are more similar. As I also know a bit of German, it gets even easier. I started listening to this other band from Denmark, Magtens Korridorer, and learned the songs. What I’ve been doing so far is read the lyrics and also the lame translation I get from Google Translator. I’m getting more and more used to the words, and now that I know the meaning of some of them, if I read a sentence, I can almost understand it entirely. It’s so amazing!!
    This is how I learned English, by the way. My point is that if you can’t go to the country and learn the way you did (which is the best way), music and movies are the second best option. I would like to be fluent in Danish before I go, so I won’t feel like it was wasted time. It’s my dream country, I’m absolutely obsessed.
    The accent is very difficult but I’m good imitating sounds, so everyday I try to watch a Danish person speak on Youtube or something and then repeat some words out loud. I’m getting used to the hardness of the pronunciation, which is also similar to German, but I’m so excited that I wish I could get it quicker. I wanna speak like a native NOW.

    xx

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