My Life Has Been Consumed

By Danish language lessons.

This week is my third week of lessons, and they are going well. But they’re 4 days a week for 3 hours a day, plus travel time to and from the school. (By bike. We’re trying to go native.) Plus homework, which can be a couple hours sometimes.

So some days, most days, it feels like all I’m doing is learning Danish. Or trying to at least.

For someone who never really thought she’d be in school again, this routine has taken some getting used to.

Some days I really love it. Being in a classroom is a very specific feeling, and there is a part of me that has missed it. (I miss my English Lit classes even more, but hopefully book club will soon fill that void!) Some days I come hope optimistic about my Danish speaking future.

Other days it feels like slogging through mud. I can’t seem to understand anything my teacher is saying. My three week old vocabulary seems pathetically small. And no matter what I do I can’t hear the difference between a, e, and æ. These days are made worse when I go out into the Danish speaking world and realize that even if I am starting to understand my teacher, I am no where near understanding the average Dane.

Also, let us remember that these things get more difficult as you get older. (I get to say that because I’m the third oldest person in my Danish class. They’re all babies at 20, 21 years old.)

These are the days when it feels a little hard to justify all this time spent on learning a language that I may never use again after just a few years. It’s important for fully participating in the local culture and in our experience here in Aarhus, but it’s also a lot of work.

I get very mad at these articles – like this one – about how to be a Successful Expat. The first suggestion in this article? Become Fluent. That’s it. Become fluent. They don’t even say “learn the language” but insist instead on fluency. As if it were that easy.

First, duh. Second, I do hope they realize that fluency takes many years. An example. When Brian and I were in Ebeltoft, we met a fellow expat originally from Italy who now owns a café. He came to Denmark knowing only Italian. Within 6 months, he had learned English. It took him 5 years to learn Danish.

Yes learning the language will greatly help the expat in making friends, building a network, and fitting into the day to day life of his or her adopted culture. But in the years it will take me to become fluent in Danish, I’d hate to think of myself as a failing expat.

I do want to learn Danish, and I am working hard at it. But I resent the implication that becoming fluent is easy. One does it while one prioritizes the many other demanding and immediate needs of the expat: finding housing, finding a job, building a network, going grocery shopping, etc. Cut an expat a break. It’s stressful enough changing countries and changing lives.

But today was a good day in Danish class. I understood most of what my teacher is saying, mostly because in the last two days we’ve moved on to actual phrases (like “I go shopping” – Jeg køber ind) and past tense (“I went shopping yesterday” – Jeg købte ind i går). So I will remember my successes and continue to slog through!


This is me in Danish class. It’s very humbling to realize that while I only speak English the rest of my classmates speak many many languages. Image by Markus Koljonen via http://blackswan.carbonmade.com/.

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13 thoughts on “My Life Has Been Consumed

    • Tak for opmuntring 🙂 And this is very true. Also, until I am fluent / can get by in a Danish conversation, everyone in Denmark speaks excellent English. I’m very much aware that we have it pretty easy as expats here in Aarhus.

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  1. After our conversation in the comments on my blog in August, I’ve been hoping you would post about your language classes after you started. I found myself nodding in empathetic understanding about so much of what you wrote! I found the InterNations article you linked to a little judgmental and annoying too.

    How many other immigrants are in your class? Do you like the teacher? If you are starting to understand what she/he’s saying, you’re doing great! (Have you started dreaming in Danish yet?)

    Lykke til med dansk! 😉

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    • Thanks Cindi! I think that my Danish skills are actually coming along fine, it just feels very slow from my point of view.

      We’re a class of about 20, but it fluctuates on any given day because there’s always some people who can’t come to class on a certain day. I’m the only American, and there’s only one other native English speaker from Canada. There’s a big group in the class from Romania for some reason. Otherwise, they’re from all over: Holland, Uganda, Ethiopia, Thailand.

      We have two teachers, one who does Mon/Tues and one who does Wed/Thus. They’re both really nice and enthusiastic. I think we lucked out with them. I especially like the method of the Wed/Thurs teacher. She’s always giving us extra vocabulary and starts every class off with some chatting in Danish.

      I’ve not started dreaming in Danish yet 😉 I hear that’s the tipping point in learning a foreign language. I do go to bed with certain phrases stuck in my head, like music.

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  2. Allison, check out pimsleur as a method for learning a language. I have been learning different languages in many different ways throughout many years and when I came across pimsleur a few months ago to learn Hindi, I was completely amazed and excited. At first, they teach you solely with audio. No writing, no grammar, no spelling, simply how to speak and understand the language (just like we did as babies!), this helps in getting the pronunciation perfectly, instead of us trying to interpret what we read, and it is only 30 min daily lessons. Anyway, check it out and see how it sounds to you. 🙂

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    • Thanks Mani! I tried Babbel before starting these classes, and it was OK but not my favorite. I haven’t heard of Pimsleur, though. I’ll definitely give it a try. Thanks for the tip!

      How’s your Hindi coming along?

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  3. I can’t hear the difference between the vowels and I’ve been here years. I’ve given up on that as a goal. I listen for context and my pronunciation is hit-and-miss, instead.
    Also, I couldn’t produce oral Danish until my tongue and jaw had adjusted to the specific sounds necessary. It’s like going to the gym.
    As for receptive Danish, you just have to expose yourself to Danish in media you enjoy. If it’s boring or stressful or irritating stuff (eg homework, letters from the authorities, Jyllands Posten), your brain will actively prevent acquisition. I read magazines about stuff I like (for example, science) and watched shows in Danish. Hey, do you have Netflix by any chance? They have a few Danish shows, a bunch of stand up and sometimes, if you are very very lucky, there are subtitles. Subtitles in Danish are great for decoding the vowels and working out words with silent letters!
    See if you can acquire a Danish pre-schooler somehow. They are great language teachers and have enough flexibility to bend their ear to your accent. I struck lucky, my friend from language class had a bilingual three year old who taught me EVERYTHING I know.

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    • Thanks for the tips! I’ll try to check out more Danish pop culture and see if I can’t start to speed up my acquisition. I don’t know if I’m quite far enough along yet to fully dispense with English subtitles (we only just started learning phrases like “at købe ind”), but I do plan to try when I feel like I have enough basic Danish to make a go of it.

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      • See if you can watch something with Danish subtitles where it’s really obvious what’s going on. Kids’ shows and films are good but I’m sure there is content for adults which doesn’t really require verbal communication but still has it. You’ll pick up stuff from context and your brain will reward you with a mother lode of dopamine. Like an extraordinary amount.

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      • Sounds good! I also mean to go to the library and check out some children’s books. This won’t help with my pronunciation, but it’s supposed to be very useful when you’re learning a new language to help pick up new vocabulary.

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  4. I have learnt dansk on and off for a few years. It is difficult. Listening to the internet radio has helped, and kids dvd if you have not got a preschooler. Still shocked at how little I know. Every few weeks, I try to post about learning danish with some words to extend my basic vocabulary with some native examples. I think the pimsleur method sounds quite useful for danish. Lykke til

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  5. Pingback: Onward and Upward | Our House in Aarhus

  6. As a kid, I was 13, we moved to Darmstadt Germany. My father was working for the US Air Force and refused to learn German…”Why, we won the War. Let them learn English.” We lived in a small village with no Americans near us and I became friends with Axel Becker. He spoke no English. Over the summer we learned to speak an English German stew that became our own language. Five years later, back in the US, I took German in School. It was impossible. My German is the German of Axel Becker and it isn’t like the German they teach. Find a friend and learn to speak the local language….You will never forget. Ich kann immer noch nicht sagen all die lustigen deutschen Namen. Aber ich kann um Bier und kaufen Sie sich eine Fahrkarte für den Zug.

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