Learning Danish: Breaking through the expat echo chamber

I joined the gym this week. Somehow I’ve been roped into taking part in the Nordic Race - a Scandinavian 'Tough Mudder' - in a few months time, and so I thought it was probably about time that I dragged my reluctant arse to the gym. 

So far I’ve done two classes, and, aside from feeling utterly glorious after each one (and immediately checking for emerging abs…) I’ve been struck by something else, something a little less positive. Though I managed to get through two 60 minute classes of Harlem shakes and dead lifts (not at the same time, thankfully), I spent most of that time passing desperate glances at the person in front of me to figure out what I was supposed to be doing. 

You see, the gym classes are (unsurprisingly) all in Danish and, much as I like to think I’m progressing with the ol' Dansk, I’m still a long way from being able to make heads or tails of a Body Pump class in anything other than English.

It’s a strange feeling, to be at the back of a class and have an energetic Danish lady shout indecipherable words at you whilst you’re trying to not look like a twat with free weights in your hands. Mostly, it’s fairly embarrassing to always be a couple of steps behind everyone else, but more than that, if you dwell on it for a second too long, it’s also really isolating. 

See that’s the thing about being a foreigner in a place you call home, it’s the little stuff that gets you. One minute you’re having fun doing chest presses to Biggie Smalls, the next you’re feeling a little bit alone. 

In and amongst the lactic burn, I started to reflect on how alienating it can feel to not understand the language around you. From idle chit-chat on the streets, to conversations between colleagues at work, right down to the Body Pump class at the gym, I can pass large swathes of my day and genuinely not have clue what’s going on around me. I’m getting better every day, but it’s seriously frustrating.

Since being in Denmark I’ve felt a bit like I’ve been living in my own little echo chamber. I can hear sounds around me, but I usually don’t know what they mean. I spent time in France and the UK over Christmas and it was so nice just being able to understand the background noise around me.

From eavesdropping on the teenage girls gossiping about their night out, to the old lady chatting to her dog, or being able to respond to the stranger on the street who offered to take a photo of me and my boyf after seeing us struggle with a selfie - those tiny little moments, they were overwhelmingly wonderful.

People often think that moving to Scandinavia is a doddle in language terms. And it’s true, you could feasibly live in Denmark without ever having to learn a word of Danish. In the cities at least, Danes speak such phenomenal English that you could reasonably live here a lifetime without ever troubling yourself to learn the language. But my experience from the short time I’ve been here is that the key to truly feeling at home here (or anywhere), is breaking through your echo chamber.

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love learning languages. The problem is - and this is coming from someone who studied Russian... - learning Danish is a bitch. It's all glottal stops and - wait for it... - ungendered grammatical genders. It's a minefield. And that's before you've even started to get your head around the pronunciation. 

Two nights a week, tired and demotivated after work, off I trundle to my Danish class. I study until 9:30 and then cycle back home as quickly as possible so that I can cram in an hour of something fun before I head off to bed. It’s exhausting, and it eats up a lot of my social life, but - that gym class today was the kick up the bum that I needed to remind myself why I’m putting myself through it.

So far I’ve passed my first Danish test and have just begun the second module. My mission for 2017 is to get as close to confidence when speaking Danish as I possibly can.  By this time next year, I want to know my Danish rip curls from my squats when I step into the gym, and I’m determined to make it happen 💪 .

Soon I'll write a post on my tips for learning Danish, but for now I'll leave you with this famous sketch made by a Norwegian TV show that pokes fun out of Danes for having such crazy pronunciation that they can't even understand each other - wish me held og lykke (good luck)...!