Cultural Studies

Learning Danish

Bjørnen spiser æbler med anden. The bear eats apples with the duck. Manden løber langt væk, da han ser brødknive på bordet. The man runs far away when he sees bread knives on the table. Familien svømmer fra Danmark til Amerika. The family swims from Denmark to America.

Last summer, I started talking with a woman at church as we waited for class to begin. When she told me that her mom is from Norway and I said that my mom is from Denmark, we immediately had a connection. Children of Scandinavian parents aren’t raised quite the same as children of your average American parents, and we both understood that. I envied this woman because she grew up learning to speak Norwegian. My own parents wanted their children to be bilingual, but there aren’t many Danish speakers where we live. My oldest sister learned a little bit, but it soon gave way to English. The extent of our Danish was saying, “Tak for mad,” after meals and calling my mom’s parents “Mormor” and “Morfar.”

One thing this woman regretted was that she hadn’t learned to read or write Norwegian. She understood the language when spoken, but not on paper. I thought to myself, there has to be an app for that. I knew about Rosetta Stone and programs like that, but with all of the free apps you can get with a smartphone, I was sure I could find something that wouldn’t require any of our family’s precious financial resources. Enter Duolingo. My search when I got home led me to this app, which I vaguely remembered hearing about from one of my sisters. I decided that I was going to learn Danish no matter what it took. No more false starts—like I had had before with language-learning books and CDs.

I knew that I would have a better chance of succeeding if I had people to practice with. My parents intimidate me because they’re fluent and I’m afraid of making mistakes when I practice with them. But, when I asked my siblings, they weren’t interested. So I turned to my biggest supporter and best friend—the man I had learned to love basketball for. It took a little convincing, but Brett soon agreed to download the app and start learning, too. My advantage over Brett is that I grew up hearing Danish and know how it should sound. Still, he is dedicated to learning and we both hope to use it by going to Denmark with our children when they’re older.

This week I reached my 400th day of practicing with Duolingo. I’m still not very confident speaking in Danish with my parents or Mormor, but I’ve started writing messages to my mom in Danish whenever I can. Brett and I text each other in Danish, too. Sometimes we will try to translate simple sentences about our day. It’s exciting to realize that we understand more and more as we read different books and articles in Danish.

Of the many things I do each day, language-learning is one of the most fulfilling—not far behind reading to my children and having home-preschool with Wolfie. With our language club in the app, Brett and I also have the chance to interact with people all over the world to learn and practice. For me, studying Danish has become one of my favorite sources of connection—with my parents, my husband, and even random, supportive strangers I’ve never met in person. It’s a great way for me to see the best in people, and that brings me joy.

Originally Published September 2018

Published by Vibeke Hiatt

I am a wife, mother, and lifelong writer.

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