A difficulty for Danes learning English

Some Danes often make errors in inflecting English verbs, even though the same people speak English very fluently and, in almost every other respect, very accurately. Their error is that they don’t add the suffix -s in the 3rd person singular of the present tense. For example, they might say she give instead of she gives.  

In one respect, this isn’t very surprising. Danish verbs do not inflect at all for person or number in any tense. For example, the present tense of the Danish verb is giver, for all persons (1st, 2nd and 3rd) in both singular and plural. For instance: jeg giver (‘I give’); hun giver (‘she gives’); de giver (‘they give’). Thus, Danish speakers are not used to inflecting verbs. They must learn how to do that when they learn English.

On the other hand, for several reasons, it does surprise me that some Danish speakers do have this difficulty in learning to implement this one aspect of English:

  • Many other Danish speakers have mastered this particular aspect of English.
  • Danes generally start learning English from an early age. Many of the ones I meet work a lot of the time in English and are very confident in English. So although inflecting verbs does not come naturally to Danish speakers because Danish lacks all inflections, I expect that all the Danish speakers I come across know, intellectually, that English verbs add the -s suffix for the 3rd person singular. But for some reason, they can’t implement that knowledge automatically if they don’t stop to think about it.      
  • Although Norwegian and Swedish also lack verbal inflection, I think I have never met a speaker of Norwegian or Swedish who doesn’t inflect English verbs automatically and accurately.

Why do Danish speakers find this hard?

I haven’t been able to work out why some Danish speakers have this difficulty. The obvious answer is that Danish lacks all verbal inflection for number and person. But that fact is equally true for all Danish speakers—and it is also true for the closely related languages, Norwegian and Swedish. So it isn’t clear to me why the same problems doesn’t seem to arise for some other Danish speakers—nor, apparently, for any speakers of Norwegian or Swedish.

I can only think of 2 possible explanations, and I have no idea whether either (or both) of them is valid:

  • Although standard Danish, Norwegian and Swedish have no verbal inflection, inflection does occur to a limited degree in some dialects. Perhaps, those speakers who take longest to learn how to implement verbal inflection in English automatically are people who had no exposure at all to verbal inflection in any language (or dialect) in their early years, and so never internalised this feature of language. And perhaps all Norwegians and Swedes, and some Danes, do get enough exposure to inflection in their early years to develop something they can build on once they start to learn English as a foreign language.
  • It seems that learning to implement verbal inflection may take a lot of effort for people who had little or no exposure to inflection at an early age. Among the types of people I tend to come across, perhaps all Norwegians and Swedes have had enough exposure to achieve that, but some Danes have not.  

Verbal inflection in English

For more on verbal inflection in English, please see The English verbal ending -s – Language Miscellany

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