Danish is hard to speak, and the Danes know it. Structurally, the syntax is easy enough to decode, and verb conjugations are easy (nonexistent.) The pronunciation, however, is enough to tie the tongues of even the most motivated Americans.
Almost every young Danish person speaks fairly fluent English, because they are taught it in school from a young age. As such, cashiers in shops and bus drivers are quickly able to switch into English when they see that I have a problem and am not understanding their directions in Danish. The downside of this comfort is that I rarely hear Danish being spoken to me, so it can be extremely hard to get an ear for how street names or simple phrases should be pronounced. I have taken to mumbling to myself on the bus, repeating the announcements of each stop in an effort to internalize some of these pronunciations.
I have become very aware of the gymnastics the tongue and mouth have to do to pronounce particular sounds in any language, and how that muscle memory truly takes years to build up. Speaking a language is not just a cognitive test of remembering vocabulary and syntax, it is also a physical battle to muscle your mouth into making the shapes that don’t come easily to a non-native speaker. I am worried that when I leave Denmark, I will very quickly lose the minimal language skills I have gained because I wont be keeping up my mouth’s muscle memory. (Say that 3 times fast.)
A few days ago, my Danish Language & Culture class took a trip to meet some Danish ‘highschoolers’, to learn about their experience growing up in Copenhagen and moving through the Danish school system. I was struck by how interested the students were in helping us try to learn the ‘hardest words for Americans to pronounce’. I was even more surprised at the utter disconnect in our plans for the summer – when my American classmate and I tried to explain the pressure and stress of finding a suitably impressive internship for the summer, our Danish friends were shocked that we would choose to do anything other than relax or work for a few dollars on the side, perhaps at a grocery store. Seeing other teenagers who weren’t having existential crises at the prospect of a job search really made me question how healthy it is that American students seem to be competing in cutthroat recruiting earlier and earlier in their lives. It also made me understand why Americans often have a hard time checking their ambition and drive for ‘climbing the ladder’ when they emigrate to Denmark. Seeing the stark contrasts between our cultures makes it easier to see which areas we could improve in.