Detour: The Horror of Learning

My feeble yet ongoing attempts to learn Danish have been retarded by, as far as I can tell, two basic character flaws: poor hearing and excessive reliance on non-verbal cues. Perhaps it’s an attempt to save money by foregoing things like Q-tips, or deep cochlear damage thanks to that one step closer to that speaker at the front, or simple faulty genetics, but my hearing is not so great. The second factor is less somatic and more behavioral and is certainly an attempt at social insulation. Basically, instead of absorbing people’s words and phrases, I’ve focused on and reacted to tone, gesticulation and body language.

I tend to do this in English too; it’s a convenient device to dodge confrontation even if it is an awfully insincere way to communicate. But in trying to learn a language, it’s practically cheating — the short term goal of understanding the immediate situation is achieved, but no progress is made in actually understanding the language. If language is more a mode of personal expression than it is conceptual communication and if the way we speak is more about who we are than what we are trying to get across, then focusing on the visual aspects of social communication busts a whole series of human nuts. Like food in pill-form, it is all utility without flavor.

Once I realized my visual bias, the explanation behind my Danish limitations became pretty clear, as did a possible solution. The words that had stuck were ones that appeared in situations of clear visual referents: grocery store labels, clothing stores, etc. So I just needed to find an outlet that represented conversation visibly and audibly, in a way not intended for pre-schoolers. The answer was in subtitles.

The sheer mass of American cultural bric-a-brac that has been absorbed by Denmark is both incredible and confusing. Flipping through the national television channels on a weekday evening, I found “MacGyver,” “Star Trek” and “The Big Bang Theory” playing simultaneously on different networks, all with Danish subtitles. I imagine the doppelganger child that would have formed out of government translated episodes of “Bill Nye,” “The Simpsons” and “Gilmore Girls.”

But to my purposes, seeing the Danish words without hearing them wasn’t enough — I couldn’t form a structure on top of the language that came out of so many mouths with so many potatoes in them. This led me to “Riget,” or “The Kingdom,” the TV mini-series created by the mischievous and sometime sadistic Danish filmmaker, Lars von Trier.

“Riget” is a hospital horror/drama that rubs medical soap-opera cheesiness against supernatural phenomena. There are children beget of demons, clairvoyant dishwashers with Down Syndrome and sexy medical students.

Not only does the show afford me invaluable vocabulary lessons (demon, voodoo, “Where’s the head?”) but it also pushes a harshly ironic, sarcastic Danish sense of humor that doesn’t translate well into textbook forms. The show is the basis of edutainment, not in the bludgeoning Epcot-Center way, but in that it manages to be more genuinely frightening than any American horror film I’ve seen in a while.

Something “Saw IV,” “Piranhas 3-D” or “Human Centipede” just don’t do is offer the banality of human idealism alongside and as part of the horror. Yes okay, there is a deranged German surgeon sewing tourists’ orifices together, but that is the horror, not in spite of it. Fighting Riget’s supernaturalism would be futile, so the characters aren’t reacting to the same horrors as the audience. Case: a mal-proportioned arachnoid infant, its spindly legs scraping blood and what resembles mucus along the broken confines of its incubator, calls for its mother (“Mor? Mor?”,) as a woman with tangled blond hair reaches out with a pacifier, sobbing.

And the edutainment is as effective as the horror. Or at least that’s my hope. I would hate to have to go back to talking to people at bars.