Stories about life in Denmark

How I finally learned Danish: At first, I could only understand the puppets

I speak Danish. I have lived in Denmark for more than a decade, and I speak it reasonably well, or at least well enough to appear in my daughter’s school play in a Danish-speaking role. Other foreigners frequently ask me for my advice on how to learn Danish.

It wasn’t easy. For the first few years, I made plenty of mistakes.

Thrown out the window
Like, for example, the time when I was forced to quickly leave a sublet apartment, and told everybody that I was not thrown out (smidt ud) but thrown out the window (kastet ud.) Or like the time I went past the Fødevareministeriet (Agricultural Ministry) and, getting fødevarer confused with fodtøj, wondered why Denmark had such a big ministry for shoes.

I didn’t have much luck learning Danish from the government-funded Danish-language schools. Although I hear they’re better now, when I arrived their programs were clearly designed for a low-skill type of immigrant. One made us repeat over and over, supposedly as a pronunciation drill, “Jeg arbejder på en fabrik i Vanløse.” (“I work in a factory in Vanløse.”)

They also insisted on lumping candidates from all countries in a single class, being politically unwilling to accept that someone from Sweden might learn Danish a little faster than someone from, say, Korea. As each day’s class entered its third hour, the Swedish girl was drawing pictures in her notebook, while the guy from Korea was lost and gradually losing the will to live.

So I got a private teacher, which worked better for me. Written Danish wasn’t too hard; it’s straightforward and free of all the kaleidoscopic verb endings of Spanish and French and the silly old-fashioned spellings of English.

Only a part of each word
Unfortunately, written Danish has absolutely nothing to do with spoken Danish. Danes, in a salute to Scandinavian minimalism, say only part of each word. Thus, what looks in your workbook like “Hvad hedder du?” (“What is your name?”) is actually pronounced “Hv’ hed’ du?” Learning to understand spoken Danish is learning to guess which part of the spoken word is missing.

While you’re trying to learn to understand spoken Danish, the best people to listen to are other foreigners. Other foreigners, in their ignorance, say entire Danish words. One of the first Danish speakers I could understand was the Queen’s husband Prince Henrik, who was born in France. Danes hate the way he speaks Danish, but that’s because he says the entire word, every time.

I can also recommend watching hand puppets on television – since they have no real mouths, whomever is speaking for them needs to enunciate very well. Anything on TV in Danish with Danish-language subtitles for the deaf is also good. If all Danes came equipped with subtitles, life would be much easier for foreigners.

Hver dag og hverdag
Anyway, you might as well take mumbling as an advantage and mumble yourself. It makes it a lot harder for people to tell if you are making mistakes. I find it a particularly effective way of hiding my problems with adjective endings, i.e. the correct “hver dag” or the incorrect “hvere dag.” (By the way, “hverdage” (week days) does not really mean “hver dag” (every day of the week), as I found out when I tried to go to a “Åben hverdage” shop on a Sunday).

At any rate, you will often be surprised to find Danes themselves differing about spelling and other points of language, particularly when it comes to the use of commas, which can make these ordinarily gentle people come close to starting a fist fight.

I can suffer it
Small disputes aside, the Danish language generally reflects the homogeny and harmony of Danish culture. That means no one ever says anything too definitively, for fear of having an unpopular opinion and being forced to back down.

For example, if something is good, you would say in English that you definitely and positively like it, but in Danish you will say that you kan lide it, directly translated as you can suffer it. This construction keeps Danes from being unfashionably enthusiastic about things, and thereby assuming their opinion is more valuable than others, as proscribed by the Jantelov.

Also keep in mind non-committal phrases like i mine øjne (in my eyes), det kunne godt være (could well be), and the all-time favourite, blandt andre (among other things). Blandt andre should be added to the end of every list to make sure no one will ever be able to accuse you of leaving something off the list.

Watch out for O and Ø
Let me leave you with a few final tips. Watch the “o” and “ø” – for example, the “Mønster Bageri” near my home is trying to tell people that it is an excellent bakery (mønster), not that it is full of monsters.

Be careful about words that sound similar: after hearing a safety announcement on the 2A bus, I once tried to explain to a deaf old lady that “en tyver” (a twenty cent piece) was in town picking pockets, when I should have said “en tyv” (a thief) was at fault.

And take special care when you use “dufte” (smell good) and “lugte” (smell bad) It’s the same word – “smell” – in English, but people get real mad if you tell you can “lugte” the dinner they spent all day preparing.

Actually, there is a secret to learning Danish quickly, but it would horrify every Dane. That said, it assisted me enormously with grammar, vocabulary and comprehension. I might never have learned Danish without it. The terrible secret is: Learn German first. If you can speak English and German, functional Danish is only a few months of practice away.

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  • Avatar
    Reply Daniel January 14, 2015 at 5:48 pm

    first thanks for the tips on Danish.
    I want to learn danish, because I want to work there at the moment I’m still studying so I got plenty of time to learn it. I speak fluently English and German, so the question I have is:
    would you recommend to learn Danish from English or German?

    Thanks in advance

  • Avatar
    Reply Julia January 20, 2015 at 2:35 pm

    I love your blog, even I am not a native English speaker I think I understand your jokes and the articles make my day better 🙂 I used to live in Denmark and now I will be coming back there so your advices are very useful for me, keep it up! (I hope this is how you say good work in English :D)

  • Avatar
    Reply Deborah Sorensen February 2, 2015 at 12:30 am

    I recently started to teach myself Danish again from Duolingo. My husband was born in Copenhagen and he can help me along. It’s very difficult, but I do have some knowledge off German. I enjoy your posts.

  • Avatar
    Reply Amerikanderinden February 2, 2015 at 5:42 am

    Great article! Your description of how Danes only pronounce half the word made me laugh.

    Just a tip: I think you meant “blandt andet” (among other things), not “blandt andre” (among other people).

  • Avatar
    Reply Jaki February 2, 2015 at 3:42 pm

    Very funny insight into the complications of translating literally English to Danish 🙂 & other problems……….. I still have problems when someone asks me to spell my name & the difficulties in trying to pronounce letters so that I am understood.
    And back to front numbers can still confuse me….keep it simple please…..single numbers I can cope with 🙂

  • Avatar
    Reply Erik February 3, 2015 at 12:21 am

    Actually, the verb “at dufte” can only be intransitive. So when you smell something, you have to use the transitive “at lugte” – no matter if it’s good or bad … http://ordnet.dk/ddo/ordbog?query=dufte&select=dufte

  • Avatar
    Reply Ton February 3, 2015 at 6:47 pm

    Very recognisable. I stumbled upon your blog because of a listing on Facebook by a Danish acquaintance.

    After reading this about learning Danish I could not help myself but remembering how I, with help of Anders And, started to learn the language. I woke my wife whenever I could not myself find a solution of meaning or pronunciation. She had lived in Denmark for 16 years before we met.
    The unwritten “Yente Loven” is a pestilence and coming from a big city in Holland to a small island in DK it has ever so often put a brake on things one undertakes. Stille og rolig we have come to understand our community and being a part of several klubber og foreninger we have come to understand that it is not something the Danes are proud of or like very much. So we try to blend in and be active participants to the little society with all its ups and downs and all the smaller and bigger mistakes and errors we make. Still we enjoy living on our island and have made some very dear friends. If you want to see a very nice part of Denmark not to far from København come and visit us in our B&B on Møn. Sejler hilsener StaySail

  • Avatar
    Reply Anonymous February 5, 2015 at 8:49 am

    I liked your article very much, and I liked the part where you talked about danes being afraid of being alone with their opinions.

    But; “kan lide” actually does mean “to like” so, directly translated “jeg kan lide det” is “I like it”. The word “lide” can mean both to like something, and to suffer from something. Hope it helps 🙂

  • Avatar
    Reply Camous March 23, 2015 at 10:50 am

    Very interesting article! I agree with you on practising with foreigners first it’s way easier to understand and a good way to build up confidence before speaking with Danes.

    I am quite surprised about your experienced at the languages school though! I have heard similar experiences, but it’s quite easy to switch school and the one I am going put us together according our level and background and if after some class they see you are too “good” then you go to the next level to not get bored and learn quicker. However I found out one of the best way to learn was to do language tandem, my French for some Danish and it’s a good way to apply what I learn in class or what I don’t understand 🙂

  • Avatar
    Reply Madeleine November 12, 2016 at 10:59 am

    Honestly I’m an American living in Denmark and I’ve only been here three months but the language has been moving very quickly for me. Maybe it’s just me personally but it’s not hard to remember or understand people as long as they don’t speak too fast. My main problem is e t and n forms of adjectives. Pronunciation, vocabulary and dialect is pretty easy and I don’t know German. Could be because I have always been very visual as in I always picture the way the word it written even when I speak English. I don’t think of the object itself for example if I say horse. I think of H O R S E. it’s weird. But my mind is like a book. Haha. Anyway don’t give up people! If I can speak basic Danish after three months you can too!

  • Avatar
    Reply Kara December 9, 2016 at 7:51 am

    Lovely post, and accurately summarizes my experience in Danish language classes. I have been to only two so far, but have lost the will to live about an hour into each one. Do you have any recommended resouces on where to look for a private tutor? Thus far the government funded language classes have been a disaster for me.

    • Avatar
      Reply Kay Xander Mellish December 9, 2016 at 8:26 am

      What worked for me was putting up fliers at a teaching college. The students are already in the process of learning how to teach, they usually have flexible schedules, and they’re eager to make a little extra money.

  • Avatar
    Reply Tomas Brian January 8, 2017 at 12:10 am

    Very helpful and after being a couple of times in Denmark, I can relate to a lot of the stuff you have written here 🙂
    But it’s fun to learn languages and Danish presents a decent challenge, much bigger than Swedish, I think 😀
    Still, I don’t give up 😉

  • Avatar
    Reply Vasya Pupkin April 23, 2017 at 6:58 pm

    Been living in Denmark for 9 months, been studying Danish for almost one year now (took the Duolingo course before arriving to Denmark). All I can say is that the grammar is pretty easy, really straight forward, compared to Russian grammar, for instance (one of my two native languages). The worst out of everything are the Danes themselves, they never wish to help you in practicing Danish with them, but I can’t blame them. Basically what they do, is they move to English all the time, instead of wasting time to understand you, because yes, you pronounce a word SLIGHTLY different than it’s supposed to be pronounced, and you will not be understood. So yeah, practice, practice and one more time – practice.

  • Avatar
    Reply mark July 22, 2017 at 8:36 pm

    I would like to learn Danish but I am profoundly deaf , lip reading and can speak quite well in English. Can y give me your advice to learn to speak Danish for deaf person please thanks. My late mum is danish. I planning to go and visit my uncles and anties and family also friends.

  • Avatar
    Reply Mandi June 27, 2019 at 9:12 am

    Do you have any links to recordings of Prince Henrik to listen to (or the puppets) that we can listen and watch on the internet? I’m trying to learn from Alaska.

  • Avatar
    Reply VanOs July 16, 2019 at 12:30 am

    I am about to move to Denmark and looked into government funded language classes. All I can find are paid classes for 2000 krone. Did they stop funding it?

    • Avatar
      Reply Kay Xander Mellish July 17, 2019 at 12:37 am

      Unfortunately, yes. As of mid-2018, government-funded Danish classes are only available to limited groups, such as refugees. A short-sighted decision, from my point of view.

  • Avatar
    Reply Dominic April 19, 2020 at 1:30 pm

    I have been living here for 4 years. I struggled and then literally over night I understood everything! I started by speaking with my son who is Danish and a very interesting, vibrant and curious toddler. I went to school which helped with grammar but I struggled outside, partly because I found everything including the way of life terribly confusing! So I immersed myself in culture got a job in an all make Danish factory and advised my colleagues only to speak in Danish… This worked!!! And afterwards although alot is still hard to understand I did it and with a can do attitude I learned a foreign language. I’m very proud and my Danish wife very happy 😊

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