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Can you learn Danish by osmosis?

By Emma Thomas

image caption"Self-pluck" strawberries, a book shop and boat tours

Something all foreign correspondents know about is trying to pick up the local language. Though they may sometimes specialise in one region, generally the job involves moving to a new country every three or four years.

When I moved to Copenhagen a year ago, I was already grappling with learning Romanian, a not uncomplicated language and my future husband's native tongue.

Danish would be my third foreign language and I decided to give myself a break and see how much I could pick up in a year without taking any classes or reading any grammar books - just using a simple process of osmosis, the way we all used to hope that by leaving our textbooks under our pillows at night we could absorb their contents effortlessly.

The first thing I noticed was the frequency with which the Danes use the word "men" meaning "but". It seemed to pop up in every other sentence… suggesting the Danes could be a rather negative bunch. Though "careful" might be a better way of putting it, since this is actually a very can-do society.

There were also the visual cues that I would see on my cycle route into the city.

I began noticing a decided preponderance of signs displaying "klinik for fodterapi" - foot clinics. Perhaps this nurturing of their feet was the reason the Danes are so contented as a nation, I thought.

And since bikes can easily be put on trains here, I started slowly deciphering the regular train announcements: "Her can du skifter til linie F"… "Skifter" must mean "change", I concluded.

Some of them came with handy English translations, the only challenge being to separate: "Holoymedeenting, o husk o taten mil no duske e" into words that might correspond to "Please keep an eye on your belongings and remember to take them with you when you leave the train."

Then there were the comedy words: "boghandel", "baadfart" and "slut spurt" for example - the first time I saw that splashed across a shop window I got a bit of a shock. (It means "final sprint" and is used to indicate that a sale is coming to an end.)

I was amused the day I discovered that the word for "girl" was "pige", "girlish" being "pigelig"… Then there was the sign proudly displaying the words, "kvalitet byggeri" - in actual fact meaning "quality construction".

The thing about Danish for an English-speaker is that a lot of our words have a common root, but while you begin to be able to decipher the written language a bit, the pronunciation bears no relation to the spelling.

This can result in misunderstandings - trying to explain that you visited the picturesque hamlet of Brede will meet with blank incomprehension if you pronounce it "breed", the true version ending in a kind of vocal splodge, something like "breagh".

And just as the phonetics are a law unto themselves, so the word order also seems curiously antiquated.

On roadworks you will see "Her arbejder vi" or "Here work we". One imagines a sort of helmeted and bearded Viking chain gang, all swinging their axes in unison.

The literal translation of Danish sentence structure can result in charming English translations, such as this example from a recent trip to a museum: "Malergaarden is located on 18 arches of land by Lammefjorden. From the parking ground one crosses Mollerenden, a small canal providing water to the mill, and passes a small, almost forest. The present entrance to Malergaarden is through the coach house. Introduction and lecture room is located in the adjoining cow house. Toilets are placed in the stable."

It is easy to find this kind of stiff language amusing, until you realise your feeble attempts are going to sound equally comical to Danish ears.

I sit on the train in my little bubble of incomprehension, hearing the by now familiar "ul", "tog" and "rod" sounds, feeling quietly content that my osmosis system must be working, because my ear is learning the sounds before I learn the grammar.

And I start cobbling together simple little sentences in shops.

On a good day I get a tolerant smile and a reply in Danish with helpful hand gestures. On a regular one, the assistant switches immediately to English.

This is why only 20% of English speakers moving to Denmark ever learn Danish. The Danes are just so good at our language and so apologetic about their own - "Only five million of us, why would you want to learn?"

But this self-deprecation only makes me keener to start attending some language classes, for no, I am not yet fluent.

And when the doctor asks me, as she did a couple of months ago, "So you speak English?" Or rather, "So you don't understand Danish?" I firmly answer, "No, not yet," and find myself even more determined to master this curious Scandinavian tongue.

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