You have something in your ear, I fear

Your mistakes in Danish are intolerable to Danish ears, even if their hearts are as open as a spigot of Christmas beer on J-day.

I’ve been living here for many many years, but it still doesn’t take more than a slight look of confusion on the face of a Dane before I switch over to English rather than trying to take the Danish-paved path to two-way communication. Is that because I’m lazy? Because I’m afraid to appear less intelligent than I want to? Or because experience has taught me that once your conversation has stumbled on the way to the ears of a Dane – no matter how nice and willing that Dane may be – your chances of easily and smoothly getting them to understand you are doomed.

Now, I know my Danish isn’t perfect – and not to brag, but just to establish the reasonability of my angle in this blog post, my Danish is pretty darn good – but:

What the hell is wrong with Danish people’s ears?!?

What the hell is wrong with Danish people’s ears?!?

Why does even the slightest misstep in pronunciation elicit an expression that makes you wonder if an alien just body-snatched you and started speaking in never-before-heard frequencies and in hitherto unknown phonetics?

You’re gonna love the answer (I did anyway):

It’s called linguistic intolerance.

No, it’s not the kind of intentional intolerance that lives in symbiosis with outrage. This is something different. You can’t blame a baby for not knowing how to ride a bike. And similarly, you can’t blame a Dane for not knowing how to listen flexibly and interpreting slight (or severe) phonetic inaccuracies.

When I first happened upon this phenomenon, I immediately thought of all the different accents I could understand back in the States, and my initial response was that Danes are just stubborn. But it goes deeper than that.

Listening flexibly is a skill that can be practiced and honed. But it helps if there’s also a cultural tradition (driven by historic necessity) of doing this type of listening. Unfortunately, that tradition doesn’t exist (yet) in Denmark.

How to combat linguistic intolerance

For me, one of my biggest milestones – something that took much more than a year of practice – was being able to ask for røde pebre (red peppers) at the outdoor vegetable market where Torvehallerne now stands. Those gritty women shouting all day long about their vegetables for sale turned into a suspended animation, blank slate of confusion whenever I tried asking for those red devils – that is, until the day my tongue and throat did the right things and I got my peppers with no problem.

This linguistic intolerance can really crush your hopes of not only learning, but actually using Danish in everyday life. But it’s not just you!

I wouldn’t be surprised if Danes are already less afflicted by linguistic intolerance than when I was learning Danish about twenty years ago, but I know from my conversations with expats that it’s still a very real thing.

We can do our part to combat linguistic intolerance – not by merely perfecting our Danish – but also by encouraging Danes to listen with greater mental agility. For example, if you have to switch over to English to say a word, don’t stay in English, but go back and say the word again in Danish.

Encourage them to practice listening to imperfect Danish because you’re working your butt off to perfect it.

Another part of the problem might be that Danish has so many darn vowel sounds – around 20 if memory serves. That’s more than English, and way more than that paragon of minimalist linguistic beauty, Spanish. So if you hit a wrong note, the range of intuitive adjustments available to the listener is much wider. I don’t have any actual proof of this theory, but perhaps it will fit just as nicely into your pocket philosophy as it did in mine.

In any case, long story short, don’t be surprised, discouraged, angry, defeatist, etc. when a Dane goes limp like somebody just turned off their brain switch because you mispronounced  bjergene (the mountains – and yes, I am totally speaking from experience here).

Help them help you. For all of our sakes.

Michael Lee Burgess, American expat living in Denmark since 1998, occasionally writes down the thoughts about the Danish language that he frequently thinks hey-I-should-write-that-down. In other news, he’s a freelance translator from Danish to English and a general language nerd. www.michaelburgess.dk

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