Mord or mor? Why it’s so hard to learn Danish

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The single letter ‘d’ separating mord (murder) from mor (mom) can literally be fatal. But linguist Ocke Bohn can’t hear the difference – and he’s not the only one. Because Danish, the language of a thousand vowels and swallowed consonants, can be devilishly difficult to learn unless you learn it from your mor.

2019.05.23 | Lene Ravn

Even though linguist Ocke Bohn wasn’t hit by major culture shock when he moved from Northern Germany to Denmark, there are still differences: “I don’t understand Danish alcohol culture. At my first parent-teacher meeting at my children’s school, I saw a vending machine with beer in the teacher’s lounge, for example. That would have been completely unheard of in Germany.”

Myth or fact?

Is Icelandic really the most difficult language in the world to learn? 

No. What languages are difficult to learn depends on your linguistic baggage.

Is there such a thing as an ear for languages? 

Yes. Some people have an easier time learning new languages than others, but research hasn’t uncovered the causes. It my have something to do with your musical abilities, but the jury is still out.

Is there a maximum for how many languages you can learn?

No. In fact, it’s easier to learn a new language when you already know several, but research still can’t tell us why.

What language is the most difficult to learn for a Dane?

Arabic can be very difficult for Danes. Aside from having three vowel sounds while Danish has 24, the only words that look familiar are kaffe (coffee), algebra and admiral. The rest have to be learned from scratch. It can also be hard for Danes to learn Chinese. And similarly, Chinese and Arab-speaking people will have trouble learning Danish.

Can you forget a language? 

No. You can forget what some words mean, but you will never forget the sounds of the language. We know this from studies of Korean children adopted by American parents at the age of one. They could still recognize the sounds of the Korean language much later in life. This means they would have an easier time becoming fluent in Korean than their American-born friends.

Can unborn children hear that you’re talking to them? 

Yes. The unborn child is listening in for the last three months of pregnancy. Studies also show that infants prefer listening to their mother’s voice over running water, music or other sounds. And if it’s not the mother’s voice, then they prefer someone who speaks a language with the same rhythms as the mother’s, because that’s what the child is used to.

The answers to these questions were provided by Bohn and rephrased by the journalist.

Ocke Bohn is German and has lived in Denmark for 23 years. But he still can’t hear the difference between the football clubs OB and ÅBhun (she) and hund (dog), or mor (mom) and mord (murder). And he doesn’t believe he ever will. 

The linguist gets by on context clues:

“So if you’re talking about your family, you probably mean mor. And if you’re talking about something horrible, it’s probably mord”, Bohn says.

Bohn will probably always have to rely on guesswork to distinguish murders from mothers because we humans learn when it’s important to distinguish between vowel sounds in early childhood. And as a German-speaking child, Bohn learned that there’s no significant difference between the vowel sounds in OB and ÅB

Something the football fans in his neighborhood don’t have a lot of sympathy for. But to his German ears, the crucial difference remains imperceptible.

An embarrassment of vowels

As Bohn’s example suggests, the overabundance of vowels is the main hurdle facing foreigners struggling to learn the language. Because Danish has at least 24 different vowel sounds. In contrast, Arabic has just three. 

And not only are there are a lot of vowel sounds to keep track of. They are close to indistinguishable. In fact, so close to indistinguishable that linguists can’t even agree on precisely how many there are.

“If you ask ten linguists, you’ll get 20 different answers. My best estimate is that there are 24,” Bohn explains.

Good luck with the 46 click sounds

Germans like Bohn have a relatively easy time with Danish vowels, because German speakers are used to distinguishing between 14 different vowel sounds. And after a few weeks in Denmark, Bohn could already read quite a bit of Danish.

On the other hand, there are other challenges, like the stød sound (glottal stop) that separates the pronunciation of hund (with stød) from hun (without stød).

“I don’t even know if I use the stødin Danish. When I came to Denmark and took language classes, my teacher told me to just drop it. Because it’s almost impossible to learn, and there are a lot of Danes who don’t use it either,” Bohn says, such as the stød-free dialects of Southern Jutland and Southern Fyn.

There are easy things and difficult things in all languages. 

“For example, even though you only have to distinguish between five vowel sounds in Spanish, on the other hand it’s hard to conjugate the verbs.”

For the same reason, Bohn doesn’t subscribe to the idea that it’s possible to rank languages in terms of difficulty, because the perception of difficulty depends on your particular linguistic background. However, he will go so far as to single out the southern African language !Xun, because it’s so different from other languages, and learning to produce its 46 click sounds is not for the faint-hearted. 

“But all languages can be learned. Otherwise, they’d be extinct,” he notes.

Love and dialects

Bohn’s deep fascination with language has its roots in his childhood home in Kiel. Although both of his parents had grown up on the North German islands of Sild and Før and both spoke the minority language Frisian, their dialects were so different that they had trouble understanding each other. So they spoke German.

His memories of his first love are also linked to language:

“She was a Norwegian girl. 

I was 16. She was a little older than me and was visiting my family. To this day, if I hear someone speaking Norwegian – or even just English with a Norwegian accent – my heart beats faster,” he says, thumping his chest to mime a pounding heart.

You’re never too old to learn

Bohn’s research has taken him from Kiel to California, Canada, Australia, Alabama, Georgia and New York. And of course to AU, where he’s been a professor for 23 years.  

His greatest discoveries have to do with early childhood language acquisition, as well as debunking an old myth: encouragingly, Bohn’s research shows that the idea that it’s impossible to learn new languages after a certain critical window early in life is simply untrue. 

“It’s never impossible to learn a new language, because there is no critical window. It’s just simply not the case,” he says.

Some other linguists claim that the ability to learn languages dries up quite early in life. But according to Bohn, their conclusions are based on poor research: 

“In most cases, you can demonstrate the opposite results. It turns out that their studies were unfair, because the older research subjects haven’t had a realistic chance to learn it,” he says – obviously, a young person who comes to a new country and lives with speakers of the new language will learn the language faster than an older person living with her family from the home country. 

However, he stresses that while there is no expiration date on the ability to learn languages, it does become more difficult with age because older people already have filled in a lot of their ‘language map’, as he calls it. There has to be room for the next language. 

Which may sound as if it’s a lot easier to learn a new language if you haven’t learned many yet and your map is still fairly blank. But reality is more nuanced. Because we also know that it becomes easier to learn a new language when you already know several. 

So exactly how our language maps work is still something of a mystery.

Hand cart or shagging wagon?

Linguistics aside, Bohn and his family have also had their share of encounters with the mysteries of language. Because even though – or precisely because – a lot of German and Danish words resemble each other, you have to watch out:

“Like when we first moved to Denmark, and my wife walked by pulling the children in a hand cart. A neighbor came by and complimented her on it. “My wife said thanks: ‘Yes, that’s our bollervogn [literally ‘shagging wagon’, ed.]’.”

The neighbors were a little surprised to hear that. His wife had simply translated the German word for hand cart, Bollerwagen, directly to Danish. Not a good strategy in this case. 

Bohn’s wife also raised some eyebrows when she said there had been a snake (slange) in the bank – or rather a German Schlange, which means line or queue.

As Bohn puts it:

“Language takes work. You’re never done learning a language, and as a Dane, you’re probably still learning new words every day.”

 

Myth or fact?

Is Icelandic really the most difficult language in the world to learn? 

No. What languages are difficult to learn depends on your linguistic baggage.

Is there such a thing as an ear for languages? 

Yes. Some people have an easier time learning new languages than others, but research hasn’t uncovered the causes. It my have something to do with your musical abilities, but the jury is still out.

Is there a maximum for how many languages you can learn?

No. In fact, it’s easier to learn a new language when you already know several, but research still can’t tell us why.

What language is the most difficult to learn for a Dane?

Arabic can be very difficult for Danes. Aside from having three vowel sounds while Danish has 24, the only words that look familiar are kaffe (coffee),algebra and admiral. The rest have to be learned from scratch. It can also be hard for Danes to learn Chinese. And similarly, Chinese and Arab-speaking people will have trouble learning Danish.

Can you forget a language? 

No. You can forget what some words mean, but you will never forget the sounds of the language. We know this from studies of Korean children adopted by American parents at the age of one. They could still recognize the sounds of the Korean language much later in life. This means they would have an easier time becoming fluent in Korean than their American-born friends.

Can unborn children hear that you’re talking to them? 

Yes. The unborn child is listening in for the last three months of pregnancy. Studies also show that infants prefer listening to their mother’s voice over running water, music or other sounds. And if it’s not the mother’s voice, then they prefer someone who speaks a language with the same rhythms as the mother’s, because that’s what the child is used to.

The answers to these questions were provided by Bohn and rephrased by the journalist.

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