“Hi, I’m Stephen, I’m from the United States, and I’m here to learn Danish.”
I expected this to sound normal in a country like Denmark, where they speak, well… Danish. Contrary to my presumption, my introduction followed a dozen peers who all stated their home country and proclaimed that they wanted to improve their English. As the sole native speaker in my group of international friends, I become the de facto corrector. (PSA: I’m always willing to proofread! I enjoy it.) Sometimes in classwork, sometimes in social conversations, people wanted to know where they could sound more natural in their writing and speech. They also wanted to know the English word for… everything, and there are a lot of English words that have slightly different meanings in different contexts. What makes people “tall” but objects “high”? And shouldn’t “son” and “sun” be pronounced differently? What about “none” and “nun”? “Run” and “ron”? I’m sorry! That’s hard to explain and even harder to understand.
Danish threw me off equally, because “mad” means food but sounds like “mel.” I can hear but not remember or pronounce the difference between “øl” *beer*, “ud” *outside*, and “uld” *wool*, and that matters when you’re at a bar. Listen on Google to hear for yourself. And imagine the joy on my friend’s father’s face when I thought we were saying skål jul (Cheers, Christmas?) and he was saying god jul (Merry Christmas).
“Hej, jeg hedder Stephen. Jeg komme fra USA, og jeg talle lidt dansk.”
I did learn Danish from an evening course and from living with a group of Danes, who became my friends and my coaches. In fact, I abandoned the course and kept the books, because I learned faster at home. Mette carefully mouthed each sound when teaching me new Danish words and when helping me read from children’s books. She was invested in my learning, and I realize now how valuable that was for me to grasp the basics of a rarely-spoken language in just four months.
From those early international friendships six years ago, I maintained a rule that I simply need to understand the meaning. That is the purpose of communication. I will correct you, but it’s not my first priority. If I hear a mistake that would sound awkward or might be laughed at in another context, I offer a simple correction. I will point out funny things about the English language, which give you an advantage in building your vocabulary and your lingual muscles. I pay extra attention to one of my co-workers, who’s a phenomenal writer but not a native English speaker, because I know his work depends on his language abilities.
It’s back to square one, “einz” as we say in Deutschland. “Hallo, ich heisse Stephen. Ich komme aus USA, und ich lerne Deutsch.”
That’s the new me. I’m learning German, and I’m doing okay. It’s been seven weeks, and I can count past ten… to one thousand, actually! I took five weeks of the A1 level in the course offered at my office, and now we’re on a break. I’m using Duolingo almost daily and picking up new vocabulary. I know, though, that I’m missing the speaking practice. And yet, again, I find myself with friends and co-workers who are willing to be coaches and correctors. During an English conversation, they point out the equivalent German word or phrase. In the middle of a workout led in German, they make sure I understood that ‘halbzeit’ means ‘halfway’. They send me corrections when I botch a German caption on an Instagram post. They tell me “no one spells tschüß with the ß anymore, just write tschüss.” When I recount my pride in asking for help in a pharmacy, they remind me to use “haben Sie” – the formal – instead of “hast du” – the informal you.
This is merely to say thank you, tusind tak, and now dankeschön for letting me correct you and for correcting me. I’m learning. Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch.
Bitte korrigieren Sie mich.