Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark, Working in Denmark: Danish Business Culture

Do you have to learn Danish to work in Denmark?

In one of my seminars, I met an Irishman who had fallen in love with a Danish woman. He agreed to move to Denmark and thought it would be better for his job prospects if he learned to speak Danish.

“Why not just learn Norwegian? It’s easier,” his girlfriend said cheerfully.

The poor man did start to learn Norwegian, only to be told by his laughing girlfriend that her suggestion was an example of the famous Danish humor.

But she was correct that Norwegian is probably easier to pick up. Danish is a difficult language to learn, even if you speak its close linguistic cousins, English and German.

While the written language isn’t too tough to figure out, the spoken language is a headache. Danes pronounce only small bits of each word and smash those small bits together.

The word was not in the dictionary

One foreigner told me the story of two boys he saw trading football cards on a train. “Davilik!” “Davilik!” the boys kept crying out.

The foreigner, who was working hard to learn Danish, tried to look up “Davilik” in his dictionary – without success. There was no such word.

It was only months later that he realized they were saying, Det vil jeg ikke! or “I don’t want to make that trade.”

Even the Swedes and Norwegians have trouble understanding spoken Danish.

“May I push you?” and other useful phrases

If you’re only in Denmark for a few months, it might not be worth the investment in time to learn much more than the basic pleasantries in Danish.

Tak for “thank you” is good to know, and so is undskyld for “excuse me” when you bump into someone. (The Danes don’t always say undskyld themselves – they just charge right ahead or say Må jeg skub’ lidt?, which translates to “May I push you?” But it’s a good word to know nonetheless.)

Tak for nu, “thanks for now,” is a good way to thank people for giving you a bit of their time; the next time you see them, you can say, Tak for sidst, or “thanks for the last time we were together.”

English as a corporate language

You may have been recruited by a company that has English as its corporate language. Technically, this means that all meetings must be held in English, and emails and company documents are supposed to be in English too. This is easier said than done, but at least that’s the official policy.

What often happens in companies that choose English as a corporate language is that they become a house divided.

Foreigners and young Danes who speak English well are on one side, and some older Danes who struggle with English are on the other.

Danes who struggle with English

As a foreigner, you may sense a mild resentment from these older Danes. They have a point – the English requirement was probably imposed after they were long into their careers.

It can be embarrassing for someone who is a technical expert in his or her own language to have to stumble through a meeting in English because you have joined the team.

If they seem uncomfortable around you, that’s probably why. Please try not to take this personally.

Danes who struggle with English are actually a gift to you, because when you do begin to learn Danish, they’ll be happy to let you practice with them. (It’s a perennial complaint of foreigners that Danes switch to English whenever they hear a foreign accent.)

Learning Danish means more job opportunities

If you plan to stay in Denmark for more than a year or so, it’s a good idea to learn some Danish – and your visa may require that you do so.

Even if you’re not forced to, it’s a good idea to learn Danish if you plan to make a commitment to Denmark. It’ll make daily life easier: you’ll stop wanting to tear your hair out every time you run across a website or voice prompt that’s only available in Danish.

You’ll have more job opportunities, since around half of the positions in Denmark are with national, regional, or local governments. Almost all governmental jobs require a working knowledge of Danish.

Social life takes place in Danish

Plus, a lot of social life in Denmark takes place in Danish: Danes, understandably, want to speak Danish to each other, particularly when they’re off duty with a beer in hand.

My experience when I first arrived was that they’d kindly speak English while I was there, but as soon as I took a moment away to take a phone call or order another round, the conversation switched to Danish.

When I returned, it continued in Danish for a while until I interrupted, or until some kind person grudgingly returned the conversation to English.

Learning Danish makes you a full part of Danish society. You’ll be able to follow the behind-the-scenes maneuvers at the office more closely and join in on the usual lunchtime discussions about Danish politics and Danish TV.

If you have children or plan to have children, you’ll be able to communicate with their Danish-speaking playmates from the daycare center.

Not having to rush to Google Translate to find out how to say, “Stop hitting the dog!” in Danish can be worth the long hours of study on its own.

Places to practice speaking Danish

The first friendships or acquaintanceships you make with Danish friends will probably be in English. In most cases, relationships that start in English continue in English.

So, if you want to practice your Danish, you’ll probably need to form friendships with new Danes, or join groups where Danish is the lingua franca.

Football supporter groups for the local amateur team, neighborhood or building association boards, parents’ associations if you have kids in a Danish school, and local political groups are all good options. These are places where Danes want to speak Danish.

Another tip I offer to foreigners who want to practice their Danish is to seek out the Elderlearn programs run by many municipalities.

These organizations will arrange ongoing visits with a sweet but lonely older person who will be pleased to chat with you in Danish for as long as you like.


How to Work in Denmark AudiobookThis is an excerpt from Kay Xander Mellish’s book “How to Work in Denmark: Tips for Finding a Job, Succeeding at Work, and Understanding Your Danish Boss“, which is available on Amazon, Google Books, Apple Books, Saxo Books, and Barnes & Noble Nook, or from our webshop. Audiobook coming soon.

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