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

Is learning to speak Danish worth it?

Learning to speak Danish can be difficult, 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.

One foreigner told 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.

Why bother learning Danish?
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 often don’t bother to 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.)

You may have been recruited by a company that has English as its corporate language. Technically, this means that all its meetings must be taken in English and all emails and company documents are supposed to be in English.

This is easier said than done, but at least that’s the official policy.

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

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

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 a English because wonderful you has 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.)

Why learn Danish
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 to speak 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 voicemail message 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 in Denmark require a working knowledge of the national language.

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.

Part of society
My experience when I first arrived was that they’d kindly speak English while I was there, but that 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 for awhile in Danish 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 day care 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.

Practicing your 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. Running clubs, knitting clubs, building association boards, and political groups are all good options.

Another tip I offer to foreigners who want to practice their Danish is to seek out the “Visit the Elderly” programs run by Ældre Sagen – the local senior citizens’ lobbying group – and the Red Cross.

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


Hear all our How to Live in Denmark podcasts on Spotify and on Apple Podcasts (iTunes).


Get the How to Work in Denmark Book for more tips on finding a job in Denmark, succeeding at work, and understanding your Danish boss. It can be ordered via Amazon or Saxo.com or from any bookstore using the ISBN 978-743-000-80-8. Contact Kay to ask about bulk purchases, or visit our books site to find out how to get the eBook. You can also book a How to Work in Denmark event with Kay for your school, company, or professional organization.






Want to read more? Try the How to Live in Denmark book, available in paperback or eBook editions, and in English, Chinese, and Arabic. If you represent a company or organization, you can also book Kay Xander Mellish to stage a How to Live in Denmark event tailored for you, including the popular How to Live in Denmark Game Show. Kay stages occasional free public events too. Follow our How to Live in Denmark Facebook page to keep informed.

Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2021

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  • Avatar
    Reply Mark Harty February 14, 2019 at 11:28 pm

    When I first heard my Danish wife talk to her mother, I kept hearing her say, “Deviled Egg.” I was at a complete lost as to what possible context could merit saying “Deviled Egg” so frequently. Upon inquiry, we both laughed when she told me she was saying, “Det ved jeg ikke”, or “I don’t know”. It’s a good thing I learned this otherwise I might have given her Deviled Eggs for dinner if she ever responded to my “What do you want for dinner?” question with “Deviled Egg.”

  • Avatar
    Reply Irina March 15, 2019 at 1:39 pm

    IS LEARNING TO SPEAK DANISH WORTH IT? Not at all. I live in Denmark with my Danish husband and I’m still learning danish language in the school for already 2 years (now I am Dansk 3 modul 5) and guess, all students in our group hardly speak danish. So, I have the worst experience with learning this terrible language. To buy bread in bakery Danish 3 is enough:) All the rest – thanks, I will keep talking English and let Danish break their head. Learning English in Cambridge school was much much easier and so much fun, that after 3-4 months we alreadyt could TALK and learning Danish in Danish school is the worst boring system I’ve ever experienced in my life and of cause danish system of giving language is bad and just make student loose wish to keep learning. It is pure truth that perhaps noone here will risk to write.

    • Avatar
      Reply Fanny March 26, 2020 at 10:08 pm

      I’ve been looking for opinions around the internet and the consensus seems to be the same as yours! It’s a shame that there is so little interest in giving proper attention to foreigners who want to learn the language. I emailed 2 language schools questions about how they handle lessons and if it would be possible to justify oneself as student if I was to go just to learn the language, and they didn’t answer 🙁 Besides, I read in the Visa page that it is imperative now to have very, VERY good grades to keep studying. English evaluations ask for a fair percentage, French DELF asks for 70%. But Denmark asks for outstanding scores. It’s very disheartening, but I can see how it applies to the reserved culture and the lack of interest to attract foreigners.

  • Avatar
    Reply Bruno August 9, 2020 at 9:38 pm

    I lived in Denmark for six years and learning the language allowed me to know the country in ways I never expected. I really came to value Danish contemporary literature -Eva Tind, Jakob Ejersbo, Kristian Bang Foss- and not so contemporary -Suzanne Brøgger, Tove Ditlevsen, Karen Blixen. Last book I read on the way home was “Knap så den unge mand”. Some of my best memories and conversations with locals were after watching films in Danish, such as “Den Skyldige”, “The Square” and “En frygtelig kvinde”.

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