Language is Hard

As some of you may know I’m one of those filthy immigrants. Granted, I’m a colour-appropriate, religion- and child-free one, so that fact alone is generally not all that upsetting to my adopted countrymen.
However, I’ve lived on and off, mostly on, in this (very nice, I hurry to say) country for nearly a decade now and that, in combination with the fact that I’m having a really-really hard time with the language, is starting to get a little bit upsetting. And not just to my adopted countrymen.

So in a few days I’m going back to school. And on top of that I’ve begun translating the rules bits of the various tabletop games I play with the natives. A project I may never finish, because unholy crap translating stuff is really-really difficult. Especially since all the online dictionaries, even the pay-to-use ones, are pretty craptastic. I don’t quite know if it makes me want to howl with laughter or just howl, that Google translate seems to be about as good as it gets.

Anyway, besides bitching about my struggles to develop a working vocabulary that won’t make brain damaged 7 year olds point and laugh at me, learning how to spell & other related unnice things. I wanted to hear about the linguistic misadventures of you guys.

So come on. Share those embarrassing stories of how you felt compelled to explain to some distracted bookshop lady that the 10 children’s books you just bought were actually for you, and not some lucky child. Or how you ended up buying drinks all night because you just couldn’t get the difference between “on” and “in” through your thick skull. I’m sure some of you must have some :)

‘Filthy immigrant’ to where? 'Cause your written English seems better than mine.

Now, if you’d have written ‘mading ones’self to write’, you’d get some empathy.

Hehe, sorry. Dunno how I managed to omit that. To Denmark.

Unfortunately, as imperfect as my English is, my Danish is much, much worse. Broken syntax, horrid spelling, tiny active vocabulary, atrocious accent… Everything about my Danish is broken, basically.

Speaking of English, though. Probably the only reason my Danish still sucks all kinds of ass, is that almost everyone here speaks English as good or better than I do. So… Speaking English is very nearly always easier than my fumbling attempts at Danish.

I think just trying to translate the stuff I mentioned, I’ve probably learnt and used something like 50 new words. I suspect this project of mine was a very good idea. But man, progress is sooo slooow :p

  1. Translating newspaper and magazine article is a lot more effective at learning the language than translating gaming rules. If you have a native speaking friend, ask him or her to help you with the idioms you encounter.

  2. After you’ve translated whatever, take a day or two and memorize the words that are new to you. Memorize the spelling, even if you’re not planning on writing, because I found that memorizing the spelling is the key to memorizing the word. In an adult’s mind, the two are symbiotically connected.

  3. DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH, EVER!! If someone speaks English to you, reply in Danish–regardless. If they insist on chatting you up in English, claim to be Hungarian (when I was learning Chinese in China, I would say that I’m from Iceland – but I suspect that being from claiming to be from Iceland won’t work so well in Denmark).

  4. It’ll fucking wear you out for about six months. But after that, things will really start clicking.

Take a course. Seriously.

Ehm… Thanks very much for the advice & stuffs, but I really just wanted to hear your tales of language-induced fail, shame and woe and humiliation :D

  • As mentioned in the OP, I am taking Danish classes. Or will be, in a couple of days when they start. What I didn’t mention is that it’s not actually the first time, not even the first time I take Danish language classes, I’m afraid (though in my defence that was more than 10 years ago). So… I probably don’t need advice on how, I just need to kick the habit of speaking English with everyone.

Anyway, Tales of Woe. Gimme!


Doesn’t everyone from those Nordic countries essentially speak perfect English? I remember watching a discovery program when they interviewed some youths from one of those nations’ armed forces and they replied in perfect, accent free English. As an English teacher living in Japan, I’d really like to know what the secret is so that we can use it over here on our students who are among the worst ESL speakers in the world despite spending the most money of any country in Asia on learning English.

Yep, sounds like Danish to me!

We learn english from the second grade and no tv-shows are dubbed (except for the youngest children). Nothing more fancy than that. My 9-year old can speak rudimentary english now.

Pretty much, yeah. That’s what makes it so hard to learn Danish. Or… It’s more than half the reason at least. The other reason is Danish is insane. Much like English it’s fairly light in the rules department, but unlike English the rules make no sense at all, and some of them aren’t actually defined. Like the gender thing, you simply have to guess. And since you’re guessing you’re going to be wrong half the time.

Seriously, some Danish person explain to me how the hell I’m supposed to know whether it’s “manden” or “mandet” [Danish for Man]. In this case I know which one is correct, but not why. And I only fairly recently discovered that using the wrong suffix is (or at least can be) similar to “-alike” or “'ish”.

I’m half convinced it’s not a language at all. It’s some twisted trap wrought by the Old Ones, meant to drive man insane.

And it really-really doesn’t help that Danes don’t actually speak Danish. They speak some insane verbal shorthand version.


Uhm… Anyway, I don’t know why Danes are so good at English, but I guess a couple of the reasons are that they start learning it very early in School. 3rd grade or so, I think. And Denmark is a tiny little country that (thankfully) doesn’t dub its media. So I guess they start needing English not too long after they begin to need a language.

I’ve never been to Japan, but I’ve spend a fair bit of time around Southern Asia, and people over there really don’t need a foreign language the way people here do. My guess is that’s the reason. Which, I guess, is the same reason I’m having trouble learning Danish. It’s really surprisingly difficult to learn and I don’t really need it all that badly, despite living here permanently. Hell, most of the natives speak better English than I do, and I was actually born in England. I just haven’t lived there since I was a young teenager.

EDIT: Even earlier than I thought, I see.

You should try Hungary. The language is bizarre and totally unrelated to anything (they say everything backwards like Yoda). Nobody speaks English (it has the fewest foreign language speakers in the EU - worse even than the UK). And so few people speak Hungarian there’s a really low incentive to learn it unless you plan to live there forever. I lived there nearly four years and barely got beyond the basics (and swearing).

Kuss! Beszélj angolul bazdmeg!

If Budapest is anything like I remember it being from a three-day visit in 2002, I think there are a lot of worst places to live there forever.

And from the three days I was there, I saw a lot of reasons to learn Hungarian. Couldn’t walk down the street without seeing at least a couple.

Jeg tror sådan set bare at du skal stoppe med at tale engelsk med folk i Danmark. Jeg har to amerikanske venner, der har boet her i 10-15 år, og de begyndte ikke at lære det, før de rent faktisk forsøgte at bruge det i dagligdagen.

Du bliver nok også nødt til at klø på med undervisningen.

edit: here’s something to cheer you up. :)

To reconnect (get it?) with the original topic, here’s a list of just some of my experiences learning the language in China:

  1. Asking for women meat (nu rou) when I meant (or think I meant) beef (niu rou).
  2. Asking for a foreskin (bao-pi) when I really meant wallet (pi-bao).
  3. Having the following phone conversation at a major securities lawfirm:

Other party [in Chinese]: [something] [something] [something] Jin Xu (Jin Xu was a colleague).
Me [in Chinese]: Jin Xu bu zai [lit. Jin Xu is not here]
Other party [in Chinese]: [something] [something] [something] Jin Xu!!!
Me [in Chinese]: Duibuqi, Jin Xu jin tian bu zai! [lit. I’m sorry, but Jin Xu is not in the office today]
Other party [still in Chinese]: [something] [something] [something] [something] Jin Xu! [something] Jin Xu!!!
Me: Jin Xu jintian bu zai. Qing mingtian zai gei ta da dianhua!! [Jin Xu is not here today. Please call her tomorrow.]
Other party [now in English]: Is this Du Ming [my Chinese name]?
Me [surprised that I’m so famous]: Why yes, this is Du Ming!
Other party [still in English]: Du Ming, this is Jin Xu!

@mdowdle: Great stories. Moar plz!

That’s basically what happens when I try to speak Danish, or whenever I try to understand what people from outside Copenhagen is saying.

Men du har ret. Jeg lære(r?) det aldrig hvis jeg ikke begynder at tale det. Jeg kan kun håbe jeg ikke driver mine kolleger skøre imorgen :s

I’m trying to learn Japanese for two years now as a hobby.

I swear this language was developed as a joke on us foreigners. Especially their insane writing system (but to be fair, it comes partially from the Chinese and the Chinese part is the insane one).

Japanese has dozens of counter systems for different things. I’ve used the wrong one for the wrong thing many times. Also mispronounced words are other words…accept the hilarity!

Don’t beat yourself up Disconnected. You have done a wonderful job of learning the language. I’m a big time conservative on most things, but I am not for nailing our borders shut. I totally understand someone wanting to have a better life for their family. But if you come here, at least make an attempt to learn the native language please? If I moved to Norway, I would expect to have to learn at least some basic Norwegian phrases to get by on a day to day basis.

I’m pretty good at both languages, but I’m of the opinion that we need to have a single universal language - RIGHT NOW!

As long as we get that, I don’t care what it is.

Also, danish IS a very, very hard language to learn - and it sounds awful.