Saturday, 24 July 2010

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Make an effort to learn your spouse’s language


If you ask me what the MOST challenging aspect of a cross-cultural marriage is, I will tell you straight away without any doubt that it is learning the language, if you are married with someone whose country language is not English. Learning a foreign language… it is easier said than done, especially if you only start to learn it late in adulthood.

When I was naively in love, that was no problem at all. It appealed to me a lot to learn a new foreign language. The first Danish sentence I learned was “maden smager godt”. It means the food tastes good in Danish, to please my then future-in-laws :-). I would practise and practise to perfect the pronounciation every night before I go to bed. And in my dreams, I was still happily reciting “en, to, tre, fire, fem, seks, syv, otto, ni, ti”. It means one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten in Danish.

The novelty wears off when you are forced to immerse yourself in a totally Danish environment in the everyday life in Denmark and faced reality. It was hard for me to get around without a certain level of Danish – which means a mastery of 20,000 words, according to the Danish language experts. I could not understand the conversations at dinner table or the speeches the Danes make on special occasions like birthdays and weddings. And the Danes are the world's number one in speech-making. Their weddings are FULL of speeches literally. I dreaded to attend such parties and weddings. They were oh so boring to me. I knew I had no right to be angry, but I couldn't help but got very angry with the Danes for speaking Danish in the gatherings I was at. I would get into a fight with my Significant Other after a dinner we threw at home or when we got home from a dinner party at his friends’ place. I had stormed off in the middle of a party because I simply had enough. My poor Significant Other had to run out after me. I had dozed off many times sitting at the dinner table… with 6 other pairs of eyes around the table looking at me. When funny speeches were made at Danish wedding and everyone was laughing, I would pretend to laugh along and then feel so dumb afterwards, since I had no clue what the joke was about. So the next time when there was a funny speech in the wedding, I decided to be true to myself and just presented a stone and expressionless face. But then I also felt very dumb for looking stone and expressionless, and being the odd one out. Lunch time at the Danish workplace was the most dreadful time of the day, as I will be in sitting in the workplace canteen table surrounded by Danes with their Danish conversations, which again made me feel totally out-of-place. It was like being sentenced to a Danish wedding for 45 minutes everyday!!!

However, instead of desiring even more to learn the Danish language, my proud and rebellious nature unfortunately took over and I went on an about-turn and refused to learn Danish. My Significant Other and I contemplated to pack our bags and leave Denmark altogether for good, as it was just not working out in Denmark. Ahh…. all these “wonderful” cross-cultural experiences… I didn’t factor them in when we were naively in love!

But no matter how TOUGH the going is, learn you MUST your spouse language. You don’t have to aim to reach to the sophisticated level of Danish like Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish fairy-tale writer, but bite your teeth you MUST, and by hook or by crook learn the language just to the level where you can understand most of the conversations, even if you cannot really speak it.

It helped me a lot that to that God put many nice and exceptional Danes into in my life along the way. I think of the generosity of the Danish state, which allowed me to study for my master degree totally for free, which I am truly grateful for. I think of my excellent and understanding Danish manager in Hempel Denmark, Louise Krüger Kofoed, when I started my first job in Denmark. I think of each and every member of my Significant Other's wonderful family who treat me extremely well. And I think of my mother-in-law, Birgitte, who now at the age of 68 years old, is learning Chinese – hey, yes, learning Chinese, my mother tongue :-) So, in 2004, I took an about turn again and return back to my Danish language course.

Afterall, what is love, if it is easy?

Once I managed to understand at least most of the conversations, then I really began to truly understand not with head knowledge, but with heart knowledge, why the Danes like to speak Danish among themselves, even though there could be a single non-Danish speaker among them. It makes them feel close and intimate together. It feels strange for them to use English with one another, even though there could be a non-Danish speaker in their midst. The colour and richness of their conversations are lost in another language other than Danish. They are most fluent in their mother tongue. The non-Danish speakers like me in their midst put them in a difficult dilemma.

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