25 January 2009

How I learned Danish

[I decided to elevate this to a post, since it's not really a comment. Will do new topics in a post instead of a comment from now. Still learning.]

After studying Latin (why?) and German in high school, and continuing with German at Stanford, I went to the overseas campus in Beutelsbach near Stuttgart for 6 months. Coming home on a student ship (!) from Rotterdam I met a bunch of kids from San Francisco State College who'd been studying in Scandinavia. From what they told me about it, it was total immersion in the language, unlike my German experience where all the Americans lived together and had to leave on the weekend to go out and practice German in real life.

I went on the Scandinavian Seminar the next year, which was not really an "exchange" program, because nobody went the other direction. The group of about a hundred students spent a couple of weeks in intensive language training at Holbæk Højskole (featuring teachers such as poets Poul Borum and Inger Christensen -- I still recall them donning their leathers and setting off one evening on their motorcycle for Copenhagen to see the Stones -- and this was 1964) and then dispersed to live with families in the 4 Scandinavian countries, ostensibly for more language practice. Unfortunately I got sent to a farm in eastern Jutland (Hornsyld) that just wanted spare hands for the hay harvest. After a few weeks there learning the local dialect, which would come in handy later in Copenhagen, I was sent off to Krogerup Folk High School in Humlebæk to attend the most intellectual school in the whole system.

The experience of learning a language by total immersion is about as close as you can come to starting over at age 2. People treat you according to what you can say, not what you can understand (which is always much more). So for a couple of months I would go to the daily assembly and sing songs in Danish or Swedish that I barely understood, then listen to a lecture by some visiting bigwig that I understood even less. The sensation was of words literally flying "over my head." But like snowflakes they eventually started to stick, and soon I found myself dreaming in Danish -- and not understanding the words in the dream either! But my brain had duly recorded them and was playing them back.

Because I was the only one in the group who had studied German instead of languages like French or Spanish that were relatively useless in Scandinavia in those days, I picked it up faster, and in about 3 months I could pretty much figure out how to say anything in a roundabout way. My big breakthrough came when sitting around in someone's dorm room trying to tell "elephant jokes" (remember those, anyone?) in Danish. With the help of a few beers we were all cracking up at my wacky mistakes. [Hvorfor går elefanter med røde gummisko på? For at kunne skjule sig i kirsebærtræerne.]

By that time I was participating more in classes, doing book reports in Danish because my teacher in Danish class (poet Erik Knudsen) would assign me to read the English books. Always a translation nut, I started attempting to translate poems into and out of Danish. As Per Olov Enquist once wrote in Lewis resa, "Poetry differed from prose in that it had shorter sentences and was written by slackers." I recall Wallace Stevens being particularly hard, no slacker he.

And my film and Nordic literature teacher (the great Niels Jensen) was screening the best of European cinema for his class in many languages. We all trekked up to the local cinema in Espergærde one evening and had to sit through "Last Year at Marienbad" with actors that all looked like Giacometti sculptures because the theater didn't have the right lens.

Fortunately Krogerup is located right across the Sound from Helsingborg, Sweden, which was a favorite destination on Saturdays. I learned to understand spoken skånska, the southern Swedish dialect, fairly well. And then Niels Jensen started us reading books in Swedish!

[to be continued]


  1. I think it must have been fascinating to meet Poul Borum & Inger Christensen.
    I take it you know she died a few weeks ago?

  2. We used to have American exchange students at school, but everybody wanted to practise their English on them.

    I once worked on the ferry between Varberg and Grenå, and had some problems with the Jutland accent of most of the crew. Though I did get my mouth to obey me when reciting menus in Danish, or they didn't have a clue what I was going on about.

  3. Dorte, yes, I saw the news online at Politiken. We were planning to publish ALFABET in Susanna Nied's translation back in the early 90s, but Inger changed her mind when she had an offer from England. Don't know if the book ever came out. She was a very private person, though we did have tea once at her flat in Østerbro to discuss the ill-fated project. I remember the afternoon sun coming in the window and illuminating the huge balls of yellow amber on her necklace!

  4. The only way I learned Danish was by being a jerk about speaking English with fellow students. I said I'd be happy to as soon as I learned Danish well enough. Later we got an American teacher at the school to teach it, so I was off the hook. Tell me more about working on the ferry, I took it a few times.

  5. What? Like being locked in the walk-in fridge with a young man, who was just as furious as I was? Admiring the Danish cleaner for smuggling cigarettes out in her bra? People being generally too drunk to actually work? (Not me. I was always an angel.)

    Østerbro... You will have to mention places that I have weird memories of. My Mother and I and a friend once had to finish our very nice dinner in a fancy hotel there sitting on top of suitcases in reception. I give the place a little wave every time I pass it on the train.

  6. The American Embassy was a hotbed of activity in my day. Vietnam protests all the time, and some about Franco and other countries we may not have had any pull with anyway.

    Once I visited the Soviet Embassy (around the corner -- I'm sure they had plenty of shotgun mikes and electronic eavesdropping trained across the back yards), don't recall why, but they did serve me tea...

  7. Reg, I like your taste in music. Seeing the good soul names there like Sam Moore, I wonder have you listened to Eddie Hinton?

  8. Eddie I haven't heard, will have to check him out. From the AllMusic bio he sounds great! Thanks.