Learning something new is about relinquishing power — and that’s why it’s so hard to do in your 30s…
There are few things less excoriating in your 30s, than learning something completely new. Over three decades of mastering the basics, and — if you’re lucky — some of the advanced stuff, means that starting again can leave even the best of us totally undone.
After a disastrous beginner’s ski trip a few years ago, I thought I’d had my fill of being the novice. But last Summer, I moved to Denmark. A country where, it turns out, people speak Danish. Despite the absence of heights and extreme weather events, the prospect of learning this new language was on a par with the first time I strapped on my skis — that is to say, disorientating, panic-inducing, and likely to result in a broken neck. Ok, so maybe that last part is a tad melodramatic. But the point is, the catalogue of errors that is my history of learning languages would make even the best teachers weep. A polyglot I am not.
If you’re a Nordic thriller fan, you will have heard a lot of Danish from the likes of The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge. Even without the box-set immersion, there’s something inherently familiar about it — a sort of bastard lovechild of German and English, with a topnote of Celtic thrown in. If I’ve had a few drinks I can be readily persuaded that everyone is actually speaking with a really thick Geordie accent.
But here’s the thing about Danish — even the Danes concede it’s one of the hardest languages to learn. In technical speak, according to Wikipedia, Danish is differentiated because of a “suprasegmental feature known as stød to distinguish certain words”, and “it also features extensive lenition of plosives.” Right. Absolutely. Or, in terms I can understand, it sounds like people are speaking with a hot potato at the back of their mouths. Half swallowed, strangled words, lost consonants… It is a language that suffers from what some refer to as ‘irritable vowel syndrome’, or what I like to call ‘the cruel work of Satan.’
Despite — or perhaps because of — this, Denmark is so keen for its new arrivals to learn the language that they provide free Danish lessons for up to five years. It’s an offer I finally took up six months ago, after a Summer spent cycling around the city, stuffing my face with kanelsnegle, and making a silent prayer every night that I would emerge from a short concussion fluent in Danish. “It’s totally possible,” I would bleat to my partner, “just like that housewife from Wales who woke up one day speaking perfect French despite the fact she’d never left Llandudno.” I am yet to experience this transformative knock to the head.
Should you ever be compelled to walk into a Danish language classroom, know this: whatever fine skills you have acquired in life will count for absolutely nothing. Got a PhD in nuclear physics? A slew of bestsellers to your name? Are you the CEO of a major business? Bully for you. After your first Danish lesson you won’t even be able to say what your name is. The Danish for ‘I am called…’ is just one indistinguishable vowel sound away from ‘I hate…’ which means that I spent three hours on day one repeatedly telling everyone that I hated myself. And after a while, you really start to believe it.
A few months in to this unforgiving experience, I offloaded to a new friend over coffee about how crushingly hard it was to learn Danish. She said something that really hit home: “Learning a new language means you have to relinquish some power.” Turns out, I’m not very good at doing that. My entire career — a decade as a writer and communications consultant — has been about wrestling control over the only language I do have. I define success in the nuanced turn of phrase, the deft use of compelling narration, the vivid ways in which stories take us to a certain time and place. How we communicate is the purest expression of self, and I am all at sea without it.
Danish 101, then, is my deep water. Every Monday evening I quell the rising panic that people won’t understand what I’m desperately trying to say. Our teacher frequently leads us through a chorus of vowel sounds, wrapping our tiny minds — and our increasingly knotted tongues — around the twenty ways one can pronounce the letter O, or that funny looking A with a blob over it, as I fight back a strangled scream. People with impressive jobs and a string of degrees struggle to tell their classmates what they ate for lunch or where they live. I speak Danish like I have experienced a major trauma from which I am only slowly recovering. I live in a house. I have a cat. I like chocolate cake.
There’s an easy way out, of course. Most Danes, particularly in Copenhagen where I live, speak excellent English. International businesses based here use English as the working language, and people from all over the world convene in bars and restaurants which reflect their global cuisines and cultural references. This might sound insane, but learning Danish in Copenhagen is actually quite hard to do.
Which begs the question — and one I ask myself every single day — why bother? Maybe it’s because I’m desperately stubborn, a trait which has seen me endure many a hateful new pursuit until I’m weeping with pain or frustration (or both, on skis). But there’s something about Danish that cuts me to my core. It would be so easy to give it up, and yet…
Then it clicked. I want to know who I am, in Danish. It’s not often you get the chance to walk in the shoes of another life, but by learning a new language you get to create yourself in ways you have never previously expressed. I will have thoughts and feelings in Danish that have no direct translation. For someone who works in communications, that thought is completely intoxicating.
So here’s to being a beginner all over again. Here’s to relinquishing some of my power, as I lurch through random silent letters, inverted clauses, and more irregularities than the current state of UK politics.
It’s going to be a bumpy ride, but I’m bloody excited to find out who I’ll be at the bottom of the slope.