on learning a language

Danish is the first language I have truly attempted to conquer since I left school. I took German classes for seven years in school but most of that is now deeply buried somewhere in the dark recesses of my brain, so Germans should not attempt conversation with me. And French, well. I can speak the little you need to order a beer or dinner, direct someone in vaguely the right direction and figure out whether to pull or push a door.

With other languages, I never quite found the motivation to work hard at it. I’m actually quite good at picking up the grammar concepts (I got an A in the one beginner French class I took when I moved to Belgium!). And I guess I believe what Seth Godin wrote this week about skills: “People say that they are not gifted/talented/smart enough to play the trumpet/learn to code/write a book. That’s crazy. Sure, it may be that they don’t possess world-class talent, the sort of stuff that is one in a million. But too stupid to do something that millions and millions of people can do?” Forget the excuses, I could (re)learn French or German if I prioritised it.

But Danish? Here I have the best motivation in the world: not ever wanting my husband to be able to talk behind my back without me understanding. Just to be clear, I’m not imagining him saying malicious things. More likely he and any future kids would gang up on me with endless silly pranks. I’m not about to help them in the process if I can help it!

Also, of course, there’s the very important motivation of being able to communicate with his family and friends, and on some level I really believe that you really can’t fully know a person without being able to speak with them in their mother tongue. Speaking Danish with Rasmus makes our relationship stronger.

So how is it going? Pretty well I think. I’ve been learning just over two years, with just my wonderful teacher and Rasmus to practise on for the most part (besides a few skype calls with my mother in law here and there). I know it would have gone much faster if we’d been living in Denmark and I could practise everywhere I went, but this is where we are and this is what I had to work with, and I think I have effectively proved you don’t need to live in a country to learn a language well.

I can now have quite long one-on-one conversations with someone in Danish, or even in small groups I can keep up if they are actively including me (because usually that means they’re slowing down). In the large groups I get lost very quickly because, as happens in any language, the talking speeds up, people interrupt, talk on top of each other, change subject suddenly…

In those moments it is very very easy to feel discouraged. I focus on those periods of complete bafflement rather than the successful conversations. Maybe all this effort I have been putting in to learning my vocabulary and doing my homework each week, watching Matador with Rasmus on dvd with the Danish subtitles, buying Danish women’s magazines to give myself reading practise… maybe it hasn’t worked?

But that’s really rubbish. There are so many steps in language learning from the early wobbles with “jeg hedder Fiona” through “vil du have mere kaffe?” to full fluency. And those big group conversations? That will be the very last thing to come. And the strong island dialect they’re speaking? Uh huh, just admit defeat already and accept you might have some idea in twenty years time!

As in everything in life, positivity is crucial. Wobbly baby steps forward are still baby steps. And although I might sit through conversations now having no clue what is going on, in a few years time I’ll suddenly realise that I’ve been following along for half an hour and have a fair idea of what everyone said.

And in another few years, I’ll be the one interrupting.

I’d love to hear what your experiences have been of learning a language? So many people have it on their “life to do list” but have you ever started? Succeeded or failed horribly?! Let me know…