For the Love of Language

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Hej (hi), tak (thanks), and onsdagssnegle (Wednesday snails/cinnamon roll at Sankt Peders Bageri) is about all the Danish that I have learned so far. Thankfully, as soon as it becomes obvious that I speak English, all of the Danes that I interact with quickly switch to the only language that I really know. Although Google Translate has become helpful with trips to the grocery store and avoiding the mistake of buying non-alcoholic wine for the second time, it has not been a necessity for life in and around Copenhagen.

If I am being honest, this feature of Denmark is a huge reason why I chose to study abroad here. I was not confident in my high school level Spanish that I learned almost four years ago and I was pretty sure that my limited Italian vocabulary of gelato and pizza would not be enough for me to thrive in Florence. So, I sidestepped the potential challenge of language barriers by coming to the country that has the best non-native English speakers in the world with an education system that starts teaching it to Danes in first grade.

This luxury of being able to effectively communicate in my native language is definitely something that I have taken for granted over the past month. When I traveled to Geneva a few weeks ago, some of my friends in the group could speak French fairly well and I was able to comfortably stand behind them as they translated for me.

And while in Edinburgh last week the only trouble I faced was the occasional tour guide with a thick Scottish accent. However, my solo weekend trip to Vienna and my complete lack of ability to understand any German created a significant amount of distress.

Corinna - my own personal tour guide
Corinna – my own personal tour guide

Thankfully my brilliant friend that I was visiting is fluent in German and English (and also knows an impressive amount of French), so once I connected with her I was in good hands. However, trying to navigate an airport and transit system in a foreign country that speaks a wildly different language than English proved to be more difficult than I anticipated.

My late arrival meant that the information desks at the Vienna airport were closed for the night and all three of the people who I asked for help did not speak English. Luckily, Google Maps came to my rescue (again) and a little bit of intuition helped me get on the right train to meet my friend.

Can you spot the one English word on this sign?

I faced similar issues during my route from my friend’s flat to the train station and then the airport. This time was a little more hectic due to my bad habit of snoozing my alarm and less frequent bus times on a Sunday, but I successfully got on the right street car and made my way to the station. I was pretty confident in the stop that I was supposed to get off at, but panicked a bit when my gut feeling, poor sense of direction, and phone map told me conflicting information about where I should be going.

Despite my original plan of riding for one more stop, I blindly followed the majority of the people who got off the bus rolling suitcases behind them. Thankfully this was the right move, but I still had no idea where I was supposed to be headed in this huge train station with signs written in another language.

Looking at the time and realizing I was cutting it close, I asked someone next to me if they knew how to get to the airport. He started shaking his head and speaking in German so I quickly moved on to another person but received the same response.

Knowing that the train only comes every 30 minutes, I ran up the stairs to an information desk with hopes of finding someone who spoke English. While I did find someone, she gave me an annoyed look and told me that the train was leaving in 3 minutes.

I sprinted downstairs to the nearest ticket kiosk where I couldn’t figure out how to switch the language so I had to put my trust in the small pictures displayed on the screen. I then ran back up the stairs to platform 10 and slipped through the closing doors of the train panting and with a visibly sweaty forehead.

Vienna, Austria

As I sat down and thanked my body for providing me with the adrenaline needed to run as fast as I did (I honestly felt like Usain Bolt in that moment), I thought about how frustrating it was that nothing was in English. How dare another country not go out of THEIR way to make it more convenient for people like ME who speak English?

I was quickly embarrassed of my sense of entitlement as I thought about the difficulties that minorities likely face in America when they cannot communicate using their native language.

My short time in a foreign country with an unfamiliar language made me feel isolated from those around me and I can’t begin to imagine how it must feel for people who come to the U.S. without knowing English. Even though we don’t have an official national language, English is undoubtedly the most common and I can’t think of any place in the States where it is not the main language used.

I also started thinking about international students who come to the U.S. and must learn with materials that are not presented in their native language. Something as simple as reading a food label or trying to navigate around a building can be such a difficult task but often times these struggles go unnoticed.

This experience is helping me become more aware of the advantages that I have when I am in Wisconsin and learning at a university that caters to my first language. I am truly in awe of people who are not only skilled enough to be multilingual, but who can also thrive in environments that might not consider their language needs.