By Lauren Hollman
As some of you already know, I’ve spent the last semester in the small country of Denmark, a country committed to bicycling and indulging in something called hygge. Hygge is a special word that directly translates to “cozy,” but the Danes say that it does not do the word justice, because hygge is something that describes comfortable conviviality with feelings of wellness and contentment. This was one of the many fantastic words I learned here during my stay in Denmark.
I’ve always known a bit of Danish because of friends and family here, but I’ve never taken it seriously. However, after feeling more Danish myself, I decided to learn this language solely through self-taught methods. No Danish school and no online classes (who has time for that when you’re travelling anyway?). Yes, it seemed like a bold and stupid idea, but let me tell you that we, as humans, are way more capable of doing things than we give ourselves credit for.
So! How does one begin this type of task? The most important thing you can do is to download a free app called Duolingo. Duolingo is accessible and designed specifically for self-teaching. Its focus is to remind you a few times a day to practice the language you’re learning for timeframes as little as 5 minutes. These exercises include word games, saying phrases out loud, and writing sentences. This app will give you enough of the basics to remember the simple things, so when you read an excerpt in that language, you should be able to understand what it’s about. After that, Duolingo will continue to add to your developing vocabulary and train you in the proper formatting of sentences. I still use this app today after such a long time with it. Duolingo starts you off slow, and eventually evolves you into a sharp learner. I’m not kidding when I say this app has changed my life.
After you’ve mastered the basics, the second thing you should do is go out and attempt to talk to people in that language! Living in Denmark for several months gave me opportunities that I realize some of you may not have, but this is why finding people with the same language goals as you is so important. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does make progress. When I started learning Danish, my roommate and I spoke what we now call “danglish” (half English, half Danish), because he was fluent in both English and Danish and I was learning. After a month of danglish, I would go out and speak very foreigner Danish with other Danes. Many times I was discouraged when Danes would say something to me in English after I had introduced the conversation in Danish, but I now know that this was a very normal thing, because frankly, I was bad. Nonetheless, the important thing is that you are observing how they talk and learning from their behaviour.
After some time with Duolingo and practicing with others, you should be able to understand enough to benefit from some of the perks of learning a new language! Watch movies in that language, listen to music, read magazines, and if you’re me, change your Facebook language into the one you’re learning. What especially helped my confidence grow was understanding what I was reading or watching in Danish and, even if it was less than half, I could still make out what they were discussing. Trust me, it feels good when you can start doing the conventional things.
After a few months of these daily rituals–practicing Duolingo every day, speaking at a beginner level with a buddy, watching films and attending events–the hard work will begin to pay off. What contributed most to my success were the opportunities I had to practice writing and speaking Danish. When we had friends over, I demanded we speak in Danish, not English. When my roommate had Danish homework, I asked if I could help write for him. I chose to read my daily news in Danish, not English. Take every opportunity you have to exercise your new skill and you will get better. Remember, practice does not equal perfect, but it does equal progress.
It’s true that starting a new language by yourself is a daunting task. Where do you start? Who would want to learn this with you? In my experience, you should always start with Duolingo. Second, find someone you feel comfortable around to practice with. Third, start integrating the language into your life (changing your Facebook into that language and watching films), and if you ever have a chance go to the country the language originates from, do it. Trying out my new skills with native speakers broke my initial confidence, but it also built it back up even higher. I was able to learn Danish under 6 months because I routinely did these things and, even though it took daily practice, the benefits that arose from my hard work were truly rewarding. I write and speak in Danish here in Denmark with friends and family, and for Christmas I had as many Danish novels bought for me as I’ve had English books given to me in past holidays. After awhile, the language will start feeling like a normal part of your life.
There is a saying out there that children learn faster than adults do in languages, and while this can be true, as an adult learning a new language, I’ve enjoyed it much more than I did learning French as a child in Canada. As a child I wanted French class to end the minute it started, and even today, numbers and words I’ve memorized in French have little emotional meaning to me. Taking on the challenge of learning something you’ve always wanted to learn as an adult–and succeeding in it without the means of a classroom–brings emotional euphoria that can be best described as hygge.