Copenhagen 2012: Language Barrier

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I’m going to explain to you what Danish sounds like to virgin ears. As an example, I will use the ticket inspector on the Metro in the morning, who chatted me up genially as I dug in my bag:
“Luhl muæhl veul øl. Hahaha!”
Of course, that’s not what she actually said, because those are not real words. Except the last one, which might mean beer. Anyway, I’m pretty sure that didn’t come out of her mouth, I’m just using a bad example here.
Since I have no idea what she actually said, I just smiled and blinked and showed her my pass in the hopes that she would understand that I was not a homeless deaf person riding the bus for warmth, but in fact a hopeless American student. 

And the irony is that while my Danish vocabulary is limited to “hello,” “goodbye,” “thanks” and “beer,” I have yet to meet a Dane who can’t hold a balanced conversation with me in English.  Sometimes I can’t even tell that they have accents.
It makes me feel terrible.
I know it shouldn’t. Everyone I’ve met—I’m talking everyone here, like the woman who checks me out when I buy notebooks and the person at the train station 7-11—is more than happy to use English. I think my guilt is related to the fact that where I come from, the attitude is very, “speak to me in English or get out.” We like to think that speaking the native language is a prerequisite for entering a country.
I’m not about to wax political here, but I will never again take part in a language-related immigration debate. If the Metro-announcer-lady didn’t use English, I’d be accidentally taking the train all the way to Sweden every day.
And as a show of good will, I am taking a Danish language class. As of today, I can convincingly ask someone where they “come from” and what their name is and possibly how old they are. I can generally pronounce the extra vowels and I’ve been reading street signs like it’s my job. Words aren’t pronounced how we think they’d be because so many letters make different sounds.
To solve the pronunciation problem, I’ve been practicing on my own. When I walk around Copenhagen before and after class, I repeat the street names and shop names and signs to myself. Out loud.
In fact, sometimes I say them a little louder than intended. This has resulted in some uncomfortable scenarios where I, say, unintentionally shout a street name at the roasted almond vendor.
Or accidentally blurt out “unskyld!” when the attractive Danish man in the middle of the square tries to sell me a cell phone plan because I’m trying to make “unskyld” the sixth phrase I learn and this means I’ve been repeating it over and over in my head for the last five minutes.
All things considered, I think the Danish is coming along. As long as I tone down the unsolicited exclamations, I think that, by May, I might even be able to tell that ticket inspector lady that I’m not crazy. Just a little foreign and confused.
Photo: at

Claire Wiseman

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