Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Learning is hard.

March 11 marked another year for the Gerhardts here on the Jutland peninsula.  And the next couple months are promising some changes for us (more on that in a future post, I promise!), but before those changes start coming full swing, there's one more blog post I wanted to write about life here in North Denmark...learning Danish.

Just a few extra letters.
When you think about language learning, there are a few common perceptions:
(1)  It's harder to learn a language as an adult than
as a kid...I definitely think this is true (unless you're one of those people who just seem to have a brain for picking up languages).  I know a few bilingual 6 year olds who perpetually amaze me.  They always know to speak to me in English, and instantly switch back to speaking Danish when speaking with a Dane.
(2)  It's easier to learn a language when actually living in a place that uses that language...This is also completely true, at least in my case.  I took Spanish for how many years in elementary and middle and high school?  I don't exactly remember, but it was certainly more than 2.  I've now lived in Denmark for 2 years, and my level of Danish is much higher than my level of Spanish ever was.  (But an unfortunate side note is that I now seem to have forgotten most Spanish because Danish has taken up residence as the primary non-English language in my brain.)

So with all that talk, the question you're probably asking is...well, Alana, do you speak Danish now???

Haha...well...sometimes yes...but a lot of times no...I guess it depends on the context...ugh why can't I learn faster?!?!  That pretty much sums up my attitude on a daily basis.  I'm proud to say that, yes, I can talk about some topics in Danish.  But speaking a language usually means that you also have to be able to listen and understand that language when someone else speaks it.  I think this is one of my bigger challenges in learning this language.  If someone speaks clearly and slowly, I might be ok.  But when one Dane is speaking to another at normal speed....oh that's hard.  And it's all my brain can handle to just try to understand let alone actually participating in the conversation.  I would sum it up by saying that I'm definitely learning, but those bilingual 6 year olds still beat me.

A notoriously difficult phrase for native English speakers.
See the full comic (and lots more Scandinavian humor) here.
Funnily enough, one of the reasons that I haven't learned Danish as fast as I would have liked is that Danes are so good at speaking English!  Thus, in many situations, it's simply easier for both me and them to just speak English.  It's much faster and far less awkward.  And certainly, in my work context, it is much more productive and efficient to speak English.  My co-workers have been very gracious to let me try to speak Danish at lunchtime and in social contexts.  But in a meeting where we're trying to get actual work done is not really the time nor the place for me to practice my Danish skills (especially when my co-workers are just as competent in English as they are in Danish).

In an effort to combat this English-speaking tendency, one of our Danish friends has started hosting dansk aftensmad (Danish dinner).  She invites us and a few of our other friends who are learning Danish to her home, she cooks Danish food, and we only speak Danish the whole evening (mostly).  I think it's as difficult for her as it is for us, but she patiently listens to our awkward speech and graciously corrects us when necessary.  And it's really given me more confidence to try to speak Danish other places and not limit myself so much on what topics I think that I can handle.

Learning to count in Danish is more difficult
than I would have expected.
And the confidence to simply try is hugely important.  As soon as I open my mouth, it's obvious that I'm not a native Danish speaker.  I've made enough mistakes to know that just saying words is a potentially embarrassing moment.  But there doesn't seem to be another way to really become comfortable and natural than by actually practicing.

So why learn a language that's only spoken in one country by just 5.5 million people who also speak English quite well?  For one, language is a large part of culture, and I've learned a lot about Danes and Denmark by learning some Danish.  And also, Danes seem to appreciate it.  They may not always understand what I'm trying to pronounce (this happens almost daily), but I think they like that I've made an effort.  And selfishly, being able to speak some Danish makes me feel less out of place and less stupid while interacting with people here.

Just because a word looks the same doesn't mean it is the same.
(This one just never stops being funny.)
When we first arrived in Aalborg, Danish was nothing more than gibberish and our entire life was this strange new thing.  Bus stop advertisements, street signs, and the instructions on the washing machine were un-readable to my brain.  Renting an apartment was different; I was eating fish (?!?!); no one went out to eat but bars stayed open all night; and why don't they sell black beans at the grocery store???  While the shortage of black beans in this country remains a challenge to me, I'm grateful to say that life in general seems significantly less uncomfortable now than it did 2 years ago, and being able to say things like Jeg vil gerne fem øl til mine venner certainly help with that.

Sometimes even Danes have difficulty understanding each other.

1 comment:

  1. Funny post, Alana :-)
    I had the same experience when I moved to Sweden and learned Swedes. I can reassure you that your Spanish will come back to you when you need it again. It may take a few hours or days but it will come back :-)
    I love the cute cartoon of Scandinavia And The World. There is so much halerious truth in it.
    You are doing great at Danish and I also think that we appreciate that you wanted to learn our language. It takes you from a spectator to a participant position ;-)
    Det bar' dejlig!