Polyglots and Tongues Tied in Knots

As Heather and I have ventured further down the Danish rabbit hole — that is to say, into the linguistic shadows of this lovely Scandinavian tongue — the language seems to become ever more absurd. On first look, Danish is just another Scandinavian language, meaning a Germanic language with funny letters that lacks the familiar Latin roots, grammar, and pronunciation that make learning Spanish, French, or Italian so easy. Danish uses vowels even more than English, with at least three ways of saying ø and several variations on both the “u” and “i” depending on where you are in a word.

As much as Danish is enhanced by its glut of vowels, it also carries surprises in consonants. Namely, that most of them are not pronounced. As an example, our Danish instructor taught us the word for “of course,” as in “I am an American, so I speak American, of course!” The Danish word is selvfølgelig. Ignoring the terrifying, centrally placed ø, the word doesn’t seem so bad. And yet the technical pronunciation is /sɛlˈfœlːg(ə)liː/, which sounds something like “cefuhli,” and thereby ignores all of the letters in the written word. There are also helpful constructions like “Det er et ord” (translation: that is a word), which is pronounced like “deet or,” collapsing the first three words and ignoring the final letter in the phrase.

The challenges we face in learning the language are, however, perpetually undermined by the realization that everyone from Denmark (with a few exceptions) speaks English fluently. And, as we all know, English is an impossible and nonsensical language that we’ve forced upon the world due to our global cultural, economic, political, and militaristic hegemony, etc. etc. But I feel even worse about my struggles to learn Danish when I meet people living in Denmark who come from non-English speaking countries, like my German colleagues or the Spanish and Chinese students in our language class. All of them speak English as a second (or in some case third language, as several of the Spaniards speak Catalan as first language), which they are using to learn Danish. To put it in perspective, it would be like me taking a class on Chinese where the instructor only speaks Chinese and Spanish.

The multilingual capacity of so many of the people we have met here in Aarhus does not, of course, suggest that everyone in Europe is magically a polyglot. Many of the people in my department, especially the non-academic staff speak English only passingly, and the other students in our Danish course (save perhaps those from Germany) are struggling just as much with the language as we are. But being surrounded by people from so many different places who have all come to Denmark for different reasons and yet find English as a common means of communication is impressive and, indeed, makes for an easy excuse not to put in serious effort to learn Danish. But meeting so many people with so much linguistic expertise also serves as a reminder to how inward-looking American society is; few of us have competence in a second language and many of us struggle just to master English alone.

English is definitely a key to the world, which has made our transition to life in Denmark relatively painless. Even though we get English for free, I still feel that there’s a lot of value in experiencing Europe in its multitude of languages, not just falling back on the convenience of our native language. This continent is defined by its languages, and the borders that enclose, exclude, and unite different languages and the speakers thereof. As much as I struggle with Danish, I know that learning it is a small price to pay for experiencing this place more authentically coeval with experiencing it in English. Just as I have to toggle my keyboard at work between the American Qwerty and Danish Qwerty in order to be able to read and write in these two languages, seeing Denmark both with English and with Danish seems like a valuable — if only occasional — necessity. Living in Denmark in English is only one side of a multifaceted cultural experience, so I will — despite all the challenges — continue to læere dansk, selvfølgelig!


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