16 April, 2016

Language Goals

Image source: pixabay

Last week I finally started working towards a goal I've had for a few years: learning a new language! After a year or so of hemming and hawing and not being able to decide which language to start next (Russian? Chinese? Italian? Arabic?) I finally settled on the most unlikely of candidates: Danish.

You might be wondering, "Why Danish? Isn't that useless?" And you would have a point. With only around 5.5 million native speakers, Danish may not be the most useful language to know if you want to be able to communicate with a large number of people. From that perspective, better choices would be Mandarin Chinese (955 million native speakers), Hindi (310 million native speakers) or Portuguese (215 million native speakers).

However, there is a reason that I stumbled upon Danish. (Although, as someone who has often wanted to learn an uncommon language just to say I did, this choice wouldn't have been out of character for me even without a reason.) In the past few weeks I have, somewhat unintentionally, started listening to a fair amount of Danish music, a few of my favorite songs being "Gider Dig Ikke Mer'" by Rasmus Thude, "La' Mig Rulle Dig" by Pharfar and "Fugle" by Djämes Braun. So, as an English-speaking American who is used to being able to understand the lyrics of every song I hear, the most logical next step was naturally to learn Danish so I can understand these songs. Totally valid reason, right?

Since I clearly don't live in Denmark and don't know a single person who actually speaks Danish, my opportunities to practice the language, and especially to practice speaking, are minimal. So with Danish I'm not going for the goal of complete fluency that I had when learning German; instead I'm going for the less lofty goal of simply getting a feel for the grammar, the basic vocabulary, and, of course, being able to understand the Danish songs that I enjoy so much. Once I get there I'll be satisfied.

A logical reaction to hearing that I'm learning yet another language might be, "but isn't three languages enough?" The answer to that question, in my opinion, is no. However many languages I know, it will never be enough. Languages are the most fascinating thing in the world to me, and I will always be curious about languages that I don't yet understand. I'm that language nerd who once spent part of an evening reading the entire Wikipedia page on Icelandic grammar just because I felt like it, and who at this very moment has a tab open in Safari showing the Wikipedia page for Swahili. (Yes, I read about foreign language grammar in my spare time.)

When I was defining my goals for Danish and came to the realization that total fluency was not a realistic expectation, it got me thinking: since my more realistic goal of learning the basics of Danish will not take as much time or effort as learning the language fluently, what's stopping me from learning the basics of a bunch of different languages? Even after only practicing a few minutes a day for a week, I've already started being able to recognize Danish when I see it in day-to-day life. For example, I can now correctly identify Danish on multilingual product labels, something I wouldn't have been able to do a few weeks ago. I still can't correctly identify spoken Danish, at least not with any level of confidence, but I'm sure that will come with time.

I've realized that what I would love to be able to do is simply to be able to recognize and identify as many languages as possible. I think it would be awesome to be walking down the street, hear a random language being spoken and be able to say "that's Swedish" or "that's Urdu" and actually know what I'm talking about. Or see something written in a language I don't necessarily understand but still be able to tell by looking at it exactly which language it is. Even just understanding the grammar enough to tell which words are verbs, which are nouns and which are prepositions, even if I don't understand what the words mean, would be really exciting. I know I won't ever be able to come close to achieving that for most of the languages in the world, and there are many languages out there that I will never even come into contact with, but I would love to accumulate the basics of as many languages as possible.

And so I'm beginning with Danish. I think Danish is a good place to start because, given its similarities to both English and German, the learning process should go fairly quickly. This is very helpful, especially since I'm going entirely self-taught. I know that with my learning style I would benefit from a structured language class, but since the university doesn't offer Danish and paying for a class doesn't fit into my budget, I'll have to make do for now with Duolingo (which I highly recommend, by the way. It has improved so much since it first started and there are so many languages to choose from, including Klingon!)

What are your language goals? Anyone else out there randomly learning Danish like me? Let me know in the comments!

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