After ~4 months of studying Danish, I’ve recently experienced some sort of breakthrough in my ability to understand the language in my daily life. Simple tasks like reading signs or responding to salespeople no longer seem out of my range of capabilities, which goes a long way towards making me feel less like an outsider here in Denmark. I think a big factor in my increased comfort with the language has been turning on Danish subtitles when I watch Netflix – although I’ve heard many stories of people learning English by watching American television, I was surprised to find how helpful this small change actually can be.
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.
One I first arrived in Brazil, I spoke, at best, 10 words of Portuguese. Sure, I spoke a bit of Spanish, but Portuguese, the language of Brazil, Portugal, and a sprinkling of African countries, is quite different from its next closest cousin.
One I first arrived in Brazil, I spoke, at best, 10 words of Portuguese.
Fast forward to today, May 12, and I am mostly fluent. I still struggle with complex grammar, masculine and feminine (why does this exist!), and some pronunciation. But the key is that I speak without needing to think beforehand; I can convey what I feel or want, and, best of all, I understand jokes and ‘girias’ (slang).
I chose not to pursue a degree in Spanish while at UVA because I had always planned on studying abroad and working on my language in a foreign country. This plan seemed like a good idea until soon before my departure I realized I was about to take a semester worth of Spanish business classes without having taken a Spanish class in 3 years.
Though I was a bit concerned, I was more excited than anything else. I was lucky to have had an amazing AP Spanish teacher in high school where I learned a lot from the majority of the class who were native speakers. It was a fun challenge to see how much I remembered and how quickly it would all come back to me.
In just one month in Spain, I have gone through orientation, met tons of new people (both American and Spanish), finished a two week intensive Spanish course, finalized my class schedule for the semester, and visited four different Spanish towns/cities. Yet, the lens that I viewed all of that through changed after reading an assigned article last week in one of my classes. The title of the piece is “The View from the Veranda.” The writing compares American study abroad students to colonial settlers. Years ago, settlers left their home countries to move to new colonial lands. They sought the adventure and excitement of travel and a new land. However, most only experienced colonial life through the view from their verandas: they engaged with the colonies enough to enjoy the excitement of something new, but they brought the amenities of their home countries and never immersed themselves into the native culture at a level that would be uncomfortable. Though I had never though of travel abroad in this sense, I see the truth in it. American students studying abroad expect the conveniences of home (internet, their own room, hot water, classes structured in American form, classes with the same dates as American semesters, etc.), even when it may not be the norm of the host culture. I definitely fall victim to many of these demands, as I don’t believe I could truly give up ties with my life back in the US. However, my goal is to strike a balance in which I leave my comfort zone on a daily basis. So far, I have accomplished this through my classes, my internship, and my travels.
Being abroad I have been exposed to various languages: Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Arabic, Hindi, German, Korean, etc. I was surprised to find how similar some languages are yet how different others are. For example, my roommate, who speaks Hindi, said she learned there are similarities between Arabic and Hindi once we traveled to Morocco (where people speak French and Arabic). Conversely, I did not expect Spanish and Portuguese to differ as drastically as they do. Based on my Spanish background reading Portuguese is much easier than listening to it, because the Portuguese speak in such a different accent than Spaniards do. Similarly, when I was in Morocco I met three girls from Brazil who said they have trouble understanding when South Americans speak Spanish, because Portuguese and Spanish are so different.
I woke up at eight today to catch the bus to my university at 9:30. I live in Madrid, but my university, Universidad Francisco de Vitoria, is fifteen minutes outside of the city, in a suburb. However, university buses run between the campus and the city, so commuting is not a big problem.
Two weeks ago I went on study tour to Western Denmark. I like that it was differentiated frequently as Western Denmark, because Copenhagen is about as far to the east as one can be in Denmark before swimming. The historical sites were visited were significant but not ostentatious. One, the Jelling stones had just received a UNESCO world heritage acceptance and was scheduled to expand its museum due to funding increases. There we learned the history of Gorm the Old and Harold Bluetooth. Yes, the same Bluetooth for which the wireless technology is named. As it happens, the inspirational carving for the wireless devices was a depiction of Jesus. The carving was commissioned by Harold Bluetooth to proclaim that the Danes were now Christian. This he had done in response to implied military threat from the kingdom of Prussia which had recently killed the royal family of another non-Christian nation. Denmark actually derives its name from Jelling. Translated literally it means ‘field of the Danes’ and was the place where Gorm made his home after convincing the other chiefs that he was in charge.
We also visited Nyborg slot (castle), and it was very cold. Normally closed in the winter, for good reason, we were given a special tour by the museum director. The Nyborg slot is hoping to gain UNESCO acceptance as a heritage site in the near future. The castle itself was one of many in the area that provided a strategic fortification around critical trade areas. It was the royal palace for a long period, but fell into disrepair when the monarchy left.
The academic visits on the study tour presented some interesting information. At Novozyme we were shown a graphical comparison of fossil fuel reserves compared to agricultural production potential. While most will know that OPEC dominates the fossil reserves (with some outlying supply in other nations), it was surprising to learn that the U.S. has dominance over agricultural production. Of course, this was in line with the business model at Novozyme where they develop enzymes that enable bio based products to mimic those of petroleum base. In light of this information it has been interesting to compare the energy policy of the EU with that of the States. Here they are pushing quite hard for renewable energy development as a security issue. Security used in a broad sense, both in terms of physical threat from disaster or terrorist action and economically from the cost of inputs from foreign nations. The EU has a large dependency on imported natural gas, most of which comes from Russia. So, the development of local and renewable energy systems gives a measure of economic and political independence from fossil fuel suppliers in addition to reducing green house gasses.
The topic of global warming, or climate change, is an interesting one here. In Virginia the Attorney General was or is in the process of aggressively attempting to prove some research that showed climate change correlation to be faulty. In Denmark, it is a known fact that humans are having an effect on the climate and the questions are ‘how much effect?’ and ‘what will it cost to change?’. Dong energy, a large Danish firm, though small by EU standards, has already purchased 500 3.6 megawatt wind turbines and has completed the largest windfarm in the world off the coast of Cumbria. A speaker from Dong informed our class that they are commissioning Siemens to produce some prototype 6 megawatt turbines in anticipation of future growth. Part of the renewable energy systems class has been devoted to understanding the myths behind wind power. For instance, many of the towers are not loud at all. During a visit to see some turbines on a windy day, the only kind during which they would make noise, it was impossible to hear them beyond 100 meters, and quite difficult even then. The other most common myth, about bird death, we were given statistics on. In Denmark approximately 30,000 birds are killed annually by windmills, in comparison to 5.5 million by cats. I quite love cats and hope that no legislation is passed against them, in Denmark or at home as I am quite certain my cats have been eating the neighbor’s birds.
On a more personal note, shopping has been an adventure. I’m realizing that not being able to read, or at least read very well, has been subtly defining my shopping patterns: find a familiar place with familiar things and only go there. Today I forced myself to branch out and head to the somewhat larger grocery store. I wasn’t able to find everything I needed. I’m not sure if this was because of an arbitrary time constraint or if they weren’t actually there. Maybe I just missed them. Either way coping with a language barrier has made me realize how it forces one away from integration into society. Denmark has reported issues with integrating immigrants into its culture, maybe it’s because it is difficult to gain functional proficiency with the language.