How to Learn Danish

I have lived in Denmark for nearly five years now. (Five years in August). My Danish is pretty okay. Though, it is hard to tell because the people who give you the most honest feedback are usually the ones who do not understand that complete native-sounding fluency is an unreasonable expectation.

I will give you a for-instance. The Queen of Denmark married a French guy and even though he speaks excellent Danish, he still gets shit because his accent is French. A lot of people judge him as having not learned Danish because of his foreign accent. His daughters-in-law are also foreigners and they have perfect Danish. It does not stop some people from remarking on their “charming” accents. These guys all had private tutors and all the stops pulled out for them to learn as completely and perfectly as possible. They still have accents and they still make occasional errors.

Hey, guys! Native-sounding fluency is an unreasonable expectation!

My receptive Danish is way better than my productive. This is because I do not get a lot of opportunity to use Danish. Not because “Oh Danes speak such excellent English, I never get the chance” I live in Fredericia and often Danish is the only option. But rather because the people who I would trust to listen to my Danish where-it-is and communicate with me without ego are also the people I want to communicate with freely and comfortably. I just don’t want to put them through it!

Children are fair game. They do not speak English and they have enough energy to listen to me and meet me where I am. So, this is why I sound like a child when I speak Danish. That’s my vocabulary set. STAKKELS MIG!

If you are fresh off the boat and trying to learn Danish, you need to bear in mind that some of the sounds you will need to make are not possible yet with your current tongue. You need to develop your mouth muscles before you can vocalise these sounds. It takes about a year. Sorry. I am not even sure if there is a short cut. Possibly a regular Danish mouth gym might get you there sooner?

You will also need to develop your ear and this may be the hardest thing of all. There are some vowels that sound identical to me but are very distinct in Danish ears. If you mess up, usually context is enough to carry you but there is always one douchebag who will gleefully inform you that you said “pussy” and not “kiss” or “whore” and not “listen”. The other night, my otherwise delightful boyfriend laughed when I said that cats give birth to baby chicks. IN MY FACE.

What helped me in the beginning was Copenhagen Cast, Louise is a goddamned hero. Whatever the topic, whatever the vocab set, just repeat what she says. This will help your tongue no end.

As for passive fluency, this can be achieved more easily. I found early on that the resources provided at Danish school were making things worse. The unpolished political agenda was repulsive. As were the stories about foreign bus drivers getting beaten up or women getting raped or men getting stabbed. Jesus.

What I realised was you need to make this shit brainfriendly. What sort of thing did you like to read when you were in your own country? Fitness magazines? Trashy novels? Craft instructions?

Seek this stuff out in Danish. This is where your library comes in. What will happen is that you will have a Danish-surge and get all the resources. Then you will let them pile up and not go through them. And they will gather dust in a sullen pile. Get them out of the library. It is cheaper and the next time you visit, you are more likely to pick out one or two interesting things to ignore… I mean… read through.

Audiobooks are also your friend. If you can find a trashy novel (pulp fiction tends to have simple structure, very few metaphors and allusions and vocab repeats), in print and on tape, you can have it read to you just like when you were a kid.

This is how I learned the word “Adr”

Boxed sets of Danish tv often have Danish subtitles. English subtitles are fine in the first few years too. I learned “Helt ærlig!” from Klovn. These are worth seeking out. Again. Go for the sort of stuff you liked in THE TIME BEFORE.

Look through newspapers, they are mostly online (although there are paywalls) and commuter newspapers have the double whammy of being free and simply written. Although, bear in mind, most people in Denmark lose that Honeymoon Feeling when they know what is going on around them. I hate hate hate watching Danish news because they regularly have a story about how immigrants are ruining everything. It is not quite brainwashing if EVERYONE is brainwashed but it is still pretty grim. But newspapers, you can skim and bubble-protect yourself from their bullshit.

You will also need someone to practise on. I do not know where you can get this from. Children are good but where do you get children from if you are not part of a family or work in a school? I do not know.

If you are only here for a short time, then do not buy the “GET FLUENT OR YOU ARE A DICK” message. Learn how to order coffee and you will be a king amongst men. Learn how to order dinner and you will be a rockstar. You actually do not need to know the difference between sin and hendes, even though your language teacher put in the first few modules at language school. You certainly will struggle with understanding what is going on around you from what they teach at sprogskole. You might as well just tell yourself you are a lazy bastard for three hours after work instead, for all the good it will do.

If you are here for a medium to long time, then learning the language beyond “En kaffe latte, tak” is probably not a bad idea. However, the language schools are shit (some are good). Get a personal tutor for the LOVE OF GOD. Some people can even teach themselves. I pretty much did but I regret not having the Princess Mary Polish. Or you could try the Irish Polyglot way.

What not to do, under any circumstances, is to beat yourself up for a lack of progress. It is freaking hard, what you are attempting. And it takes time. It is like an obstacle course with a series of walls.

You hit the wall and you climb it and you run! Run like the wind! Everything is easy! You learned Danish! And then you hit another wall. But this time it is taller. And you climb it but it is harder this time. And then when you clear it, you can run again… Until the next wall.

The only foolproof way of making it impossible to scale the wall, is to decide you are a bad, lazy person who cannot learn languages. So, just take a breath. Take a break. And then try again the next day. Because what you are doing is extraordinary. And you will get there.

4 thoughts on “How to Learn Danish

  1. “just repeat what she says”

    It depends, if you mean learn the expressions and repeat them in the appropriate social situation yes. If you mean listen and repeat that’s not the ideal way to go about language learning, you just get lots of practice making your typical mistakes.

    To improve pronunciation, Find an audiobook of a work for children ( not too simple something written for pleasure reading by 10 year olds is probably a good bet) and acquire the printed form. Listen to sections and then practice reading out loud along with the recorded voice at the same time. (in the beginning regular language learning materials can be used).

    The human brain has all kinds of abilities to match/mirror behavior but they can’t be consciously controlled. But by trying to match the voice in terms of speed and intonation your brain is freed to make the other elusive micro-changes that can mean the difference between being understood and have people say HVAD????????? at you. I once used the technique with a language with tones and it was the way I got the tones to be part of the word instead of something I was trying to add to the word (if that makes sense).

    Reading, go for the simple stuff. Go for simple, mass market genre literature. Most people have lower literary standards in reading a foreign language than their own so stuff that seems too stupid to you in your own language is liable to seem interesting (or at least harmless fun) in Danish. Harlequin style romance novels and whodunnits are the best, if they’re not too literary – think mid-century Agatha Christie instead of PD James for example. Westerns are probably good too if you like the genre (I could never get into them though).

    Also, develop tactics to make it more pleasant for Danes to interact with you in Danish (despite the problems you may have). A few ugly anglophone habits might be worth cultivating like pretending you don’t understand them. I’m told that learning a few phrases in German and offering to speak that language instead of English works wonderfully well in the Netherlands to convince locals to put up with non-fluent Dutch but I don’t know if that would work in Denmark.

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    1. Hah! I like the “how about German?” Gambit!

      I definitely mean parrot. Understanding is important but a tongue work out is really necessary in the first months.

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  2. Great post and spot on! I find the language classes to be a total waste of time and I’ve been at a loss for alternatives. They’re crazy about grammar rules, but after filling in 3 pages of the correct form of HV-words, it becomes mindless. It would be a lot more motivating and useful to be taught situational Danish… like going to the checkout at the grocery store, going to the baker, scheduling appointments online. Everytime my Dr. gives me crap about wanting to do the appointment in English, I want to challenge her to learn another language in they way they teach Danish and see how comfortable she is doing a Dr. appointment in that language.

    And why does the sprogskole insist on sended me letters in Danish from Day 1? If I knew Danish, I wouldn’t need their damn school! I’m so over sprogskole.

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