Today I sat for my Danish level 1 exam. It wasn’t exceptionally hard – we had to pick a book, or a topic to present, and we were given photos to ask questions about. In short, our abilities to read and understand basic Danish; and to construct basic sentences and questions at the snap of the finger (sort of).
Rødgrød med fløde
This is the tongue twister that almost every single foreigner coming to Denmark are challenged with. It literally translats to “red berries with cream”. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Don’t be fooled – it’s a bastard when it comes to pronunciation. To get it correct, it took me two days to get it half right – and another month or so to really master how to roll your tongue when you hit the silent ‘d’.
And here is me trying to pronounce it correctly – nothing groundbreaking, but it’s not easy either.
I was teased in the floor kitchen about how I couldn’t get it right. I’m not complaining – actually I find it a really good motivator to learn Danish and pronounce it properly, too. After that very night I told myself – I will learn Danish, and prove it to them that I can comprehend and speak basic Danish before I leave.
“Jeg hedder Terry.”
I signed up for Danish class that is to be conducted at Lærdansk, a language school located in town and it also helps with the integration of new immigrants into the local society by giving Danish lessons. As the status of a freshly-arrived foreigner, I had the privilege to take the lessons for free, so I thought why not just give it a try?
In the end, I have to admit it turned out to be more than just a try.
We had our first lesson on the 7th of February, which was about two months ago. Our teacher, Helle, came in, introduced herself in Danish. Of course none of us had any clue about what she was blabbering the moment she stepped into the class, except for a few German girls since their language is derived from the same roots as the Danish language.
Jeg hedder Helle. Hvad hedder du? She went through every single person in the class, making sure that we understood what she said. Immediately it became obvious that she isn’t going to budge – she isn’t going to speak English very often and we have to be really quick learners.
Danish isn’t an easy language – a quick search on Google reveals that it is one of the harder languages to learn. Just like how I find Mandarin very easy to learn, the Danes don’t find Danish challenging at all. Their tongue and lips seemed to move synchronously, churning out vowels that I have never ever heard before in my entire life. They have a few phonetic rules, like the silent ‘d’ in the case of ‘hedder’ (it’s pronounced as ‘heller’).
She scribbled on the blackboard, the screeching noise of the chalk sliced through the air. We’re petrified, horrified and stupefied – what’s going to happen? What should we do? Or more importantly, what on earth is going on?
My name is Helle. What is your name? She wrote in big, white letters on the board.
With her hands up in the air as if she’s conducting a choir, we all repeated after each sentence she said. She started to walk down the tables. She stopped in front of my seat. Beaming a big smile, she asked, Hvad hedder du? I replied, Jeg hedder Terry.
The learning curve
Staring to learn Danish isn’t easy – in the first few weeks we learned how to pronounce the vowels unique to the language properly. Vowels like “æ”, “å” and “ø” are totally unheard of, at least for me. To further complicate the issue, “e” and “i” sound almost identical to each other, too.
And then things got more interesting. With Helle cementing proper basics of Danish phonetics for us, we start to pick up new words by situation-based scenarios. For example, we would learn how to ask someone about his/her day, and then learn how to construct simple questions of such while addressing the subjective, objective and possessive pronouns at the same time.
I’m not even at the good part yet – for the second person pronoun, the Danish language has distinct words for describing singular and plural entities. For example, if I’m talking to you (you as a single person), I would ask “Hvad hedder du?“. If I’m asking for the names of multiple people I’m talking to at the same instance (you as a group of people, e.g. the whole class), I would say “Hvad hedder I?“.
Along the way people came and left – but there were more people leaving than people joining the group. It’s sad to see that my classmates lose interest in Danish because it’s too hard, or they realized it’s a commitment too huge to make. Our class size quickly dwindled from a strong 18 to only around 6 left – then the language school decided to combine our class with another to conserve teaching resources. We made new friends again, but the trend continued – up till the last day of school, only six of us showed up.
The final lesson
On Monday we had our last lesson for Level 1 Danish. The day silently arrived, and lesson proceeded as usual. However, we were all quite sure that this will be the last time we’ll be seeing Helle, since most of us don’t have the intention to continue to Level 2 because of our short duration of stay here.
When Anka whipped out her camera, Helle was surprised. Why are we taking a group photo? She asked. We told her our intention to discontinue with the lesson. We were really lucky to have Helle as our teacher, but because of the extra commitment and time required for the second level and of the fact that most of us will leave Denmark in July, there’s simply no reason for us to continue taking the course after the Level 1 exams.
Her eyes went a little red, a sense of sadnesses flooded her face. I could see it. The girls were a little sad too, and the guys (actually it’s just David and I) were quiet.
We know we’ll miss her.
After two months, or almost 40 hours of lesson, we were finally ready for our exam. Helle taught a lot more than what we needed to prepare for the exam – nonetheless, I’m very grateful for that because at least now I could engage is (really) basic conversation with Danes, much to their amusement (and surprise). That ain’t too bad, I think!
Today I sat for my exam – it only lasted a good 5 minutes, a lot shorter than I expected. I picked a card and was told that I had to present a book (damn, I was nailing for the “introduce yourself” option because it’s easier). My heart started racing and suddenly I couldn’t think of any Danish word to say.
Undskyld, jeg er meget nervøs, I confessed. (“Sorry, I’m very nervous”)
Ja, det kan jeg forstå, the female examiner replied, with a calm smile on her face. (“Yes, I can understand that”) However, it isn’t helping much that the other examiner, who is responsible for grading me, is furiously scribbling away on her notepad. Blimey! Thank goodness I came back to my sense quickly, regained my composure and starting talking slowly and awkwardly in Danish. She asked me a few questions, I didn’t understand them all, but I gave her a few answers that made her nod in agreement. Whew.
And then she gave me a photo – it was a man and a woman in a science lab. Shit, a science lab?! All the while Helle had been training us with family photos, so we can ask regular questions like “how many kids will they have?”, “how old are they?” and stuff like that. In the science lab… what questions could I possibly ask? So I awkwardly tried to ask the name, age, marital status, place of residence of the two scientists. Well, at least I asked some questions!
After my exam on my way back to the dorm, I knew that I could probably pass the exam. The problem is that while I could read and speak some Danish, I couldn’t understand much – most probably because I’m not trained well at listening, and also because the Danes speak really fast (and they eat up some words in the process, too).
1. The numbers
Now this comes the best part. The Danes have a really interesting way of getting their numbers expressed – instead of adopting the decimal system (base 10), the current numeral system is a vestigial form of the vigesimal system (base 20). This manifests itself between the numerals 40 and 90. For example:
- Fifty (50) is known as “halvtreds” – short for halvtredje-sinds-tyve meaning “half third times twenty”, implying two twenties plus half of the third twenty (20 + 20 + 10)
- Sixty (60) is known as “treds” – short for tre-sinds-tyve meaning “third times twenty”, implying three twenties (20 + 20 + 20)
More interestingly, the order of the numbers are reversed from 20 onwards:
- Twenty one (21) is known as “enogtyve” – meaning “one (en) and (og) twenty (tyve)”, implying 1 + 20
- Fifty nine (59) is known as “nioghalvtreds” – meaning “nine (ni) and (og) fifty (halvtreds)”, implying 9 + 50
This makes it exceptionally hard when you listen to people talk about numbers, especially phone numbers, since the Danish convention of pronouncing their eight-digit numbers is to pair up the odd and even numbers. For example, 12 34 98 76 will be “tolv fireogtredive niogfjerds syvogtreds” (literally meaning “twelve four-and-thirty eight-and-ninety six-and-seventy”).
2. “Synes” vs “Tror“
Helle took a long time to teach us to distinguish between “synes” and “tror” – in English there’s no distinction between the meanings entailed by the two words, and we use “think/feel” for that.
- “synes” is mostly used in a situation when it is a personal opinion (debatable)or when there is a personal experience:
- Personal opinion, debatable: Jeg synes min aftensmad er meget lækker. (“I think my dinner is very delicious”)
- With personal experience: Jeg synes København er stor. (“I think Copenhagen is huge” – it is impied that I have been there before).
- “tror” is mostly used when it’s a fact, when there is a personal experience:
- Fact: Jeg tror fem minus to er tre. (“I think five minus two is three”)
- Without any personal experience: Jeg tror Bornholm er smuk. (“I think Bornholm is beautiful” – it is impied that I have not travelled there before).