No-one automatically becomes amazing at speaking a second language overnight. Learning Danish has been a slow process of baby steps from the moment a friend first taught me to say “Jeg taler ikke dansk”.
For the first couple of years after I met my husband, that one Danish phrase was pretty much all I said to strangers whenever we were in Denmark. It became a reflex action for me when the lady at the shop counter said something unintelligible to me (usually it was something about whether I wanted a bag or not) or when someone in the street stopped me to ask for directions. Every time I was faced with Danish that I didn’t immediately recognise, I panicked and reached for my catch-all phrase: “Jeg taler ikke dansk”.
While still using that phrase on a regular basis, I gradually started adding words to my vocabulary. It was very slow, and the words I learned were generally dictated by need: it’s important to me to be polite, so I prioritised learning greetings and how to say thank you, as well as how to express ‘please’ without being able to say ‘please’. I learned the names of various breakfast and lunch items quickly, in order not to go hungry at the dining table, and how to say “Må jeg bede om…”, thus combining politeness and asking for food.
So without really noticing, I gradually built up a toolbox of words and phrases that allowed me to at least get by with family and friends. But those unexpected interactions still triggered my old “Jeg taler ikke dansk” response, even though it wasn’t strictly true anymore. But I did start to feel more like a fraud every time I said those words. Was I just being lazy?
I think it was probably a year before we moved to Denmark when I finally made the transition to “Jeg taler kun lidt dansk”, and that felt like a big achievement for me. Instead of cutting off a Danish conversation right at the start, I was opening myself up for at least a simple chat. People wouldn’t feel that they had to switch into English, and that’s when I really started learning.
Now if someone asks me whether I speak Danish, I rather proudly say “Ja, det gøre jeg” and enjoy a conversation with a Dane, even though I still make lots of mistakes and have slightly wonky vowel pronunciation. It’s not perfect, but it still feels like a breakthrough.
When was the last time you made a Danish breakthrough, and how did it make you feel?