The road to Danish language mastery

Variation, challenges, and even failure are essential to learning Danish; and mistakes along the way are important guideposts on the road to success. Michael Burgess, an expat in Copenhagen, writes about the importance of challenges and failure, and non-linear paths to (Danish language) mastery.

I used to think that getting everything right from the start was the key to learning the Danish language (or anything). And I could point to my own experiences as proof.

But recent new insights have re-shaped my thinking on the matter, and now I realize that all of the mistakes and failures I had along the way were essential to my ultimate success. This is nothing less than a paradigm shift in the way I view the journey of learning Danish.

The old view: Don’t learn stuff you’ll have to unlearn

The scene: Pretty much every social gathering I’ve ever been to in Denmark.

The question: So, how did you learn Danish?

I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve answered this question in one form or another.

Until just recently, I offered some version of the same story: “Well, yeah, I was always good at language. And then I was lucky to get into a Danish language school where the focus was on making sure that you never made a mistake. So instead of learning a bunch of stuff I had to unlearn, I learned it correctly from the get-go.”

Revelation: Variation, challenges, and even failure are essential to learning

So what happened to my preaching the gospel of perfection? A big part of the explanation is a book I recently read called Range – Why generalists triumph in a specialized world, by David Epstein.

I’ll spare you the details (read it!), but one of the key takeaways is that early and intensive specialization is not the key to mastery. You significantly increase your chances of success in any learning task by engaging in a wide range of activities with obvious and less obvious relation to the given task, only later followed by focused specialization.

And this is especially true when it comes to learning the Danish language!

The children will show the way (laughing and pointing all the while)

If I had to guess now, the key reason that I got pretty darn good at Danish is less because I went to a school where we were never allowed to make a mistake, and more because I combined these Danish language lessons in the mornings with work at a fritidshjem (after school day-care center) in the afternoons, where I was trying to speak Danish and often failing miserably. These failures absolutely delighted all the kids, who relished the opportunity to point, laugh, and correct me – an adult who couldn’t even speak as well as little ol’ them!

And in the evenings and weekends, I often found myself at get-togethers/parties (I came to Denmark at the ripe young age of 23). Within an hour of sitting around a table and drinking beers, the conversation would inevitably shift from English to Danish. And there I was, like a novice surfer on the North Shore, just trying to keep my head above water as huge waves of Danish crashed in. Inevitably, I would drown within an hour and have to go home and sleep. I was completely and totally exhausted from my attempts to understand what I was hearing.

It would be about two or three years before I could both keep up and get a word in edgewise in these conversations – and probably about five or six years before I felt like my personality and genius humor were coming across in tiny glimpses.

Set yourself up for failure, build mountains out of molehills, and watch your Danish language grow

I hadn’t really realized it before, but these struggles and varied methods of learning and applying my Danish language were absolutely key. I know that not everybody has the time to go to school in the morning and only work 20 hours a week – I came before the 24-year-old rule, so I had a flexibility most newcomers today rarely would, and rent in Copenhagen back then was much, much cheaper.

Nonetheless, you will definitely be doing yourself some favors by seeking a variety of environments and methods for applying your Danish.

Another important takeaway I got from Range is that your retention of learning is almost inversely correlated with the speed you learned and the difficulty you encounter along the way. It may seem counterintuitive, but the longer it takes and the harder it is to learn something, the better you will remember it.

Be less kind – and master this wicked world

This is insanely relevant for any of you learning Danish, in terms of building vocabulary and conversational skills. If you are engaging in simple, scripted conversations, you might be able to work on your pronunciation. This is what Epstein calls a “kind” world – one that is entirely predictable and has a single, albeit confusing and challenging, set of rules.

In these predetermined exchanges, you are almost certainly not learning anything that will help you use your Danish in the “wicked” system of the real world. But if you are struggling to find the right words, making mistakes – even crazy ones – you are on the path to learning.

Dude! Whaaaaat?

Another fun finding in the science of learning is that the more confident you are about the correctness of a mistake, the better you will remember the actual correct thing when you are made aware of the error. I propose we call it the “Dude! Whaaaat? Phenomenon”.

So just be confident (irrationally confident even!), and you’re on the right path – as long as you make sure to fall flat on your face plenty often.

Pumping you up just to beat you down

One final pro tip:

As your Danish language improves and becomes functional in social situations, get ready for conversations with Danes about how you are really good at Danish and how did you get so good? For the sake of modesty, you might even point out that you’re far from perfect… at which point the Dane will absolutely and immediately back you up by saying, oh yeah, I know that, unintentionally giving you a feeling that he/she was really just blowing hot air up your nethermost orifice about your linguistic prowess.

Instead of getting offended about your imperfections, I say wear it like a badge of honor. You’re on the right track.

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