She was tall, blonde, very easy to look at—and bored in conversation with some geography rube. “A lot of people think Copenhagen is in Holland,” she said, a light accent and a hint of annoyance indicating that she was from the former. I sidled up. “I don’t!” I volunteered. She brushed me off. Damn. Too chipper.
It was 2005 at a Fourth of July party in Manhattan. I had spent a lot of time in the Netherlands and a little time in Denmark; I’m the type of nerd who had learned Dutch for fun. My diploma says Master of Philosophy in European Politics and Society. This rarely pays dividends, but occasionally you go to parties and get to impress the kind of European girl who is tired of explaining that Copenhagen is not, in fact, Amsterdam.
We met again later on the roof, shared a cigarette lighter, and pretty soon were a bit of a team, chatting cattily about the other guests. When two Germans came along, I thought, ha. Another chance to impress. Out came my German, once sharp after a student year in Germany. That had been 10 years earlier. Nervous, I struggled with German’s intricate syntax, starting sentences I couldn’t figure out how to finish. The Germans switched back to English. She smiled pityingly.
I’m sorry. I was trying to speak Danish.
I told her, almost pleadingly, that I love foreign languages (true), and on a good day, I thought I was pretty good with them. She dared me to pronounce her name. “Easy. Eva.” No, not quite. “Eeva.” Nope. “Eava.” Nope. “Aaaeva.” Nope. She laughed. I hadn’t butchered her name too badly, then. We went on flirting. There were—literally—fireworks. She let me walk her home.
I felt like I could talk to this woman forever—and what was almost as exciting for the kind of nerd I am, she spoke a new language for me to learn. I began studying Danish on a free website, speakdanish.dk. A week later, when we met for a “date” at a boring event at the UN, where she worked, I tried a wisecracking “fed fest, hvad?” (“Great party, huh?”)
“What?” she said.
“Uh, fed fest, hvad?”
“I’m so sorry, my English must be so bad, I really don’t understand…”
“Fed… fest…I’m sorry. I was trying to speak Danish.” She laughed, surprised that anyone would bother with her tiny country’s language.
I had all the will in the world, but despair was my new friend. Learning Spanish had been a snap; German, manageable. But my spoken Danish wouldn’t come out right. It seemed as though Danes only pronounced about one-third of the letters in each word, and three of the vowels (including the first one in “Eva”) seemed identical.
And some of the sounds were, frankly, weird. On our twentieth or so date, I told her I was struggling because some common Danish sounds were ones that Americans make only when they’re trying not to vomit. This took as much courage to admit as I needed to pronounce the words—the closer I got to correct, the sillier I felt. She proved to be a good linguistic sport. She countered that my German was clearly getting in the way: By pronouncing Danish words as if they were some kind of coded German, I sounded like German soldiers in Danish World War II films. Wunderbar, I thought. I sound like a Nazi.
Rosetta Stone contacted me, offering me a trial, hoping I might write a review. I said yes, and sure enough, the software’s endless repetition began to drill the sounds and the rhythm of the language into my head. The only problem was its irrelevance to the sentences I’d normally say. “Do you think your Danish is getting better?” she asked. “Den gule trekant er større end den blå firekant,” I said. “The yellow triangle is bigger than the blue square.”
She told me that our engagement wasn’t complete, because she expected to be asked in Danish, too.
“How do you say it?” I asked.
She smirked. “Look it up.”
As our relationship progressed, Eva was doing some language learning of her own. She was already brilliant in English—that is, in English English. In the way she pronounced them, “water” and “car” had no r. This would not do, I joked. Not only that, but if she was going to visit my family in Georgia, she had to learn the right kind of regionalisms: “if you ask about my father’s sister, ahnt Sue, nobody’s going to know who you’re talking about. You need to say ant Sue.” I know that American English sounds irritatingly nasal to many foreigners—like a duck quacking, I’ve heard, or perhaps how Cantonese sounds to me. I also know that Americanness carries plenty of baggage; there are good reasons for wanting to sound, say, Canadian or Irish. But imperceptibly, her spoken English shifted. I realized she sounded a lot like I do.
We were growing together and I couldn’t see us growing apart, so I asked her to marry me on the beach where my family used to vacation, on Tybee Island, Georgia. She said yes. A few weeks later, over dinner, she told me that our engagement wasn’t complete, because she expected to be asked in Danish, too.
“How do you say it?” I asked.
She smirked. “Look it up.” She wanted it exactly right.
So I looked it up. “Vil du gifte dig med mig?” Thank you, Google. Literally, it’s Do you want to marry yourself with me? “Ja,” came her answer. Now it was official. We married in Brooklyn, and a bit of Whitman was the only embellishment on the traditional vows in English.
In our marriage, language remains something we talk, joke, and argue about. Bored, she asks me to say something in Portuguese. “O português é muito fácil,” I reply in singsong, imitating my old Portuguese teacher. (“Portuguese is very easy.”) She knows to expect this. “Say something different. Say something romantic…” I tell her if she likes Portuguese so much, she should have run off with the Brazilian diplomat she was seeing when we met. She retorts that I secretly wish she were Swedish, because Swedish is easier. I start speaking Danish in a ridiculous Swedish accent. She taunts that I still can’t say “Eva” properly.
Eva teaches Lane some essential Danish words
And now we’re raising a toddler, 30 pounds of molten multilingual metal. (And raising him in Berlin, where he’s exposed to German at day care.) “No no no!” came his first words of defiance. But now, inexplicably, it is always “Nej nej nej!” Or is it “Nein nein nein!”? They sound almost identical; we can’t tell. Like all eager parents, we seize on anything we hear from him that could plausibly be a word, but the task is complicated by not knowing which language we’re listening for.
The ambitious might focus their language learning on big and economically valuable languages like Chinese or German—and steer their little ones in that direction. My efforts to learn Danish, a language of only 5 million speakers, 4.9 million of whom seem to speak better English than most Americans, was not a rational one. Eva’s English is perfect. But I wanted to enter her world as much as she was entering mine. She moved to America to be with me; it was the very least I could do. And to raise our son without speaking Danish would be unthinkable not just to her, but to me.
I could never put a price on the years of shared language-learning, the inside jokes, the car-trip debates—the ordinary stuff of coupledom, run through two language filters and back. I’ve realized that hitching your life to another is sort of a metaphor for learning a language. Perfection isn’t and can’t be the goal. Instead you listen, try, make mistakes. Occasionally you swallow your pride. Try again, listen harder, even if you think you understood the first time, and never stop learning.
One day, I might even get her name right.
Robert Lane Greene is a journalist based in Berlin. He is a business and finance correspondent for The Economist, and he writes the "Johnson" language column for The Economist online. His book on the politics of language around the world, You Are What You Speak, was published by Random House in 2011.