Although I spend my working days teaching the delights of English, I often find myself referring to Danish in order to explain the quirks of the English language.
At school, I learnt Latin and French; at university, Old and Middle English. Along the way, to a greater or lesser extent, I have picked-up bits of Hindi, Hebrew, Danish, Swedish, Spanish and Italian. So, why is Danish – my Viking touchstone – so important?
Well, I think that Danish should be taught in England as a mandatory foreign language not just for historical and etymological reasons, but because it is so useful, and simple.
Unlike most languages we learn, Danish doesn’t have a difficult grammatical structure, there are no case-endings or weird irregularities, and many of the words are pretty familiar to a native English speaker. Almost all our vocabulary for the home, the family, farming or fishing, for example, has Danish roots and most are actually the same word, albeit pronounced slightly differently.
Which brings us to the one slightly difficult bit of this proposition: the pronunciation of Danish.
Danes will themselves admit that Danish is not so much a language as a throat sickness. For those of us raised on and accustomed to English, the articulation of Danish – which is further back in the throat – can sound a little akin to gargling.
This is often highlighted by the danes themselves, when they invite visitors to pronounce the name of a delicious redcurrant dessert, served with cream ‘Rødgrød med fløde‘, which is, of course, nearly unpronounceable for ordinary mortals.
Once this skill is mastered, however, the language is simple, clear and a delight to use.
Now, let’s be honest, there is no answer known to man that will persuade a truculent teenager of the utility of learning another language, but for calmer heads, the human and financial advantages are clear.
So, at a time when they might be learning Chinese, Arabic or Russian (1.6 billion speakers worldwide), why am I suggesting that we should encourage our children to learn Danish (estimated speakers 6 million)?
We will not gain a vast Viking export market, that’s certain. But, do we only learn languages in order to boost foreign trade? Surely not? One of the most important roles for language learning is to enhance friendship between nations and for us to expand our capacity to think and imagine in ways that are not possible within the confines of our own language. This is something we need to do.
We have so much to learn from the humanitarian and democratic societies that lies across the North Sea. Whether we are talking about Denmark, Norway or Sweden, these are countries that have been wise about their economies when we have been merely greedy, and have invested sensibly for their futures in their people and their skills. Shouldn’t we be learning more from them?
Apart from French, which is unsuccessfully drummed into most of us from an early age, Denmark is not only geographically close to us, it is our nearest linguistic neighbour. But French is – like English – a confoundedly complex and irregular language to learn.
As Britons, we have been dreadful at teaching foreign languages. So bad, in fact, that we have the worst record among the developed world, even when we have tried to teach children European languages which use the same alphabet, like French, German and Spanish.
How do we think we will do when we try to introduce the xenophobic and lazy linguists in our schools to Mandarin, Russian and Arabic?
Viking for Progress
There is another way. By learning Danish as a first foreign language, British school children could choose to learn the more complex languages of our other neighbours having already succeeded in speaking a recognised European tongue.
The acquisition of Danish as a progressor language would give our students increased confidence, creativity and international employability.
Most importantly, improved linguistic confidence, nationally, would encourage the learning of other more complex languages, such as Dutch, French, Italian or German. After all, it is much easier to learn third and fourth languages once you have confidence in a language other than your own.
If we want to encourage language learning and be seen as a country that actually bothers about the rest of the world, perhaps we ought to start by teaching languages that our students will actually use and enjoy.
After all, within us all, there is a Viking waiting to come out!
HELLO English will be very happy to help you or any others who may be interested to discover their inner Viking. Others may find our excellent English teaching and successful courses to their advantage. Please do not hesitate to contact us through this blog or through the http://www.hello-english.com website.