“Winging it” sounds the same in any language

Yes, I know he's not Danish. He's also not really speaking Swedish. That's not the point.
Yes, I know he’s not Danish. He’s also not really speaking Swedish. That’s not the point. Art by Max Geiger.

In Danish, the phrase “Good morning, how did you sleep,” looks like this:

God morgen, hvordan har du sover?

It sounds like:

G’morn, vordenardusowah?

As in any language, in Danish, phonetics often have little to do with how words look on paper. While this particular phrase (which Jack needs to learn, along with a short introduction speech by the end of the month), may not be too difficult, there are sounds in that language that don’t even exist in English. Not to mention letters, like: æ, ø, and å.

But when I reminded him last week about putting together his speech, he was unconcerned. He said he’d just use the handy, new Danish dictionary he got for Christmas, and whip out a few phrases.

Oh, honey. Please (er, ahem: vær så venlig).

For those new here: in August, our oldest kid will be heading to Denmark for a year, through the Rotary Youth Exchange program, with which we’ve been involved since he was little. Even if you’re not new here, you may not know Denmark is a new addition to our district’s program. We’ve no history with them, and no inbound exchange students with whom to practice language.

Honestly, for this upcoming speech, Jack could just channel the Swedish Chef and we’d be none the wiser.

I know the temptation to think you can wing it in situations like these. I also know how it feels to touch down in a new country, full of confidence, having practiced your guts out for months … and then develop a sudden apprehension about even opening your mouth because you might come across like a toddler.

In 2005, I had the opportunity for a month-long trip to Argentina, through an exchange program for adults. I traveled with a small group, gave about a dozen formal presentations in Spanish about my home, my profession, and my family. I lived with hosts in their homes for three to four days at a time. There were some who spoke English, and many, many more who spoke every language, it seemed, but English.

After being accepted to the program in November, I studied Spanish every day, took lessons twice a week, and gave up all recreational reading in favor of translating short stories. I watched telenovelas and Spanish Sesame Street. It was nose to the grindstone for the better part of five months, until we left for our trip on April 1.

I’d muddled through four semesters of Spanish in college (plus a summer session on Don Quixote), but almost nothing had stuck. Now, I was doing vocabulary drills and conjugating verbs until they were swimming in my head. I had a little inkling that none of it was enough. The details of the ultra-slow, sexy telenovela speeches eluded me, Big Bird was incomprehensible.

Just to be safe, I picked up a pocket-Spanish dictionary. I practiced flipping through the pages. I could look stuff up like a ninja.

How bad could it be? Surely I was gaining ground I didn’t even realize. My brain would click in, once I was immersed. I wouldn’t be fluent, per se, but capable enough.

As soon as I disembarked in an overcrowded Buenos Aires airport, I knew exactly how bad it could be. Our group sat down with a welcoming committee for introductions and an overview of the coming weeks. I couldn’t pick out one word.

I was toast.

Other members of our group were all nodding intently. Good. They got it. I’d ask them later.

Much later, as it turned out. Immediately after our meeting, we were all packed into cars and whisked to separate host family homes to rest until regrouping the next day.

Most of my host family wasn’t home, I was greeted by their grandmother; a diminutive, chatty woman who gave me a tour of the house. She spoke slowly (also loudly and on tip-toe, pulling on my arm so I’d bend toward her). I understood about one word in three, but she didn’t pause much for me to respond. I did a lot of nodding and smiling.

There was a small team cleaning the house. As we moved through our tour, we occasionally stepped over cleaning materials.

My guide showed my room and the bathroom, indicating (I think), I could shower if I wanted to after my long flight.

“Is it ready?” I asked, worried that I’d be in the way of the cleaning woman. Esta limpia?

The woman looked at me and then poked her head in the bathroom.

“Parece que si.” It would appear so.

Belatedly, I realized the word I’d wanted was lista, not limpia. I had just asked if the bathroom was clean. Gah.

Much later on when I still hadn’t made much progress in my language, I was trying to describe to the locals how Mike was set to run a half marathon that weekend. It was a big one, with a 2,070-foot elevation gain over the first 8 miles. The weather was going to be hot for that time of year and I was worried about him.

“He’s going to be running a rather important race,” I told people. In Spanish. They nodded, looking concerned.

Later I realized I had mixed up the word for race – carrera – with correo.

I’d been telling people my husband was running an important post office.

Stand back people, he’s got mail.

It’s not easy to explain to people who haven’t had the experience what it means to be totally in the dark all the time about what others are saying. How even having a few key phrases down is still not going to get you very far. How for the average kindergartener, fluency means 10 to 15 thousand words, so if you’re really, really determined you might make it halfway to kindergartener by August.

It’s especially difficult to convince a sixteen year-old, who will probably still be woefully underprepared no matter how much time he puts into studying actual Danish (and not just looking up words in a dictionary).

And maybe it’s okay for him to learn all this on his own. He’ll be gone for nearly a full year. There’ll be a few hard lessons for him in that time. It’s probably too late for me to go full-helicopter on him.

In the meantime, Jack and I have a daily commute together and a set of instructional CDs. I’ll find some online resources, and maybe there’s a Danish-speaking social group somewhere locally (haven’t found one yet – Boise peeps: ideas are welcome).

He can practice flipping through the dictionary on his own time.


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  1. Winging it is just not in my DNA. Several years ago we were taking a trip to the Azores (islands in the atlantic owned by Portugal) and I spent six months studying Portuguese using a computer program. While I was far from fluent, I could tell \”open\” from \”closed\”, ask directions (and understand the response) and order bread and french fries for my then 5 year old daughter. Definitely worth it.

    For the record, bread and french fries are pretty much all I remember of Portuguese today.

    1. It\’s a good start, and especially nice to be able to ask directions. And I feel the same way as you. In fact, I think I\’ve been studying Danish more than my son.

  2. That is going to be such a neat experience for your son! I think that\’s so cool you got to go to Argentina for a while too. I don\’t think I\’d do too well conversing in another language. I took Sign Language in college and Spanish in Junior High, but I doubt I could communicate in either language. My husband is fluent in Spanish and we have some friends who speak Spanish; when they come around….I\’m totally in the dark! Gah!

  3. Its very disconcerting to not speak the language. I was in France this summer, thinking my high-school French classes would suffice. Guess what? Non. Should\’ve studied up before. Oh well, thank God so much of the world speaks English. Your son will have an incredible experience in Denmark. He\’ll pick up a lot of the language just being there, which is probably the best way to learn.

    1. Isn\’t that sad, those high school classes don\’t come in handy? I have been studying Spanish ever since that trip (on and off) and thought I was surely getting better until a recent(ish) trip to Guatemala. Not so much. Dangit.

  4. I find this riveting. You are an outgoing bunch: one is running the post office, the other expects nothing but the sparkliest of bathroom 🙂
    I always look forward to hearing the developments.