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The Danish vocabulary parents need to know for back-to-school season

Parents around the country will be preparing for their children's return to school – or perhaps their very first term – over the next few weeks. Here are the crucial pieces of Danish vocabulary that will help international families navigate the school year.

The Danish vocabulary parents need to know for back-to-school season
A teacher and her pupils at a Danish school. Photo:

Types of schools

Most pupils in Denmark go to a folkeskole (folkeskoler in plural), literallypeople’s school”. These cover the entire span of the country’s compulsory education system from age six to age 16, so all of primary and and lower secondary school. 

About 18 percent of Danish school pupils are, however, educated at privately run friskoler, or “free schools”, which might include small village schools in the tradition  These might include the Grundtvig-koldske friskoler (small, rural independent schools based on the ideas of the ideas of the Danish educationalist Nikolaj Grundtvig), private grundskoler (which tends to refer to more academically minded institutions in the big cities), Rudolf Steiner-skoler (schools based on the ideas of Rudolf Steiner) , lilleskoler (small schools), flersprogede friskoler (multilingual schools), or religiøse friskoler (religious schools for children with Jewish, Muslim, or other religious backgrounds. 

Before attending schools, children can attend a vuggestue (kindergarten for 0 to 3-year-olds) and then a børnehave (kindergarten for 3 to 6-year-olds), both of which are a type of daginstitution. There are also dagpleje, where children are looked after in the private homes of the kindergarten teachers. 

Between the ages of 14 and 18, pupils can attend an efterskole, or “after school”, a unique Danish institution of voluntary independent residential schools which tend to have a more liberal approach to education, and typically a focus on a set of subjects, such as sports, cooking, media, animation, theatre, music, or dance.

From the autumn of the year a child is six, they attend børnehaveklasse (preschool class), which is a compulsory one-year transition between børnehave and folkeskole.

What are the subjects you can study at folkeskole

Students study Dansk (Danish), Kristendomskundskab (Christian knowledge), Idræt (sport), and Matematik (maths) in all ten classes or grades, which are called klassetrin

From the first to the sixth grade they study Musik (music) and Billedkunst (painting and drawing), Natur (natural sciences) or teknik (technology). From the thrid to the ninth grade, they study Engelsk (English), with the option of Tysk (German), from the seventh grade. From the seventh grade, pupils can also study Geografi (Geography), Biologi (biology), Fysik (Physics), or Kemi (chemistry). 

How does the school year work? 

Skolestart, the start of the school year, is at the start of the efterårssemester or “Autumn term”, which is broken up in mid-October by a one-week efterårsferie, or “Autumn half-term”. Then there’s the vinterferie or juleferie (Winter or Christmas holidays), forårssemester (spring holiday), Påskeferie (Easter holidays), and the Sommerferie (summer holidays). 

At the start of term, your child might receive a tidsplan (timetable) or even an Individuel studieplan (individual study plan), showing what they are studying that year.  


Children at Danish schools are all required to have a skoletaske, a backpack or satchel. They will also need a gymnastikposer, or gym bag, as well as a penalhus (pencilcase) penne (pens), blyanter, (pencils) and a blyantspidser (pencil sharpener).  

What happens after folkeskole? 

After folkeskole, students can opt for one of the four types of gymnasiale uddannelser (upper secondary education).

These include:

The Hhx-uddannelsen, which is focused on preparing students for business careers, is normally given at a handelsgymnasium, or “business gymnasium”, and ends with the merkantil studentereksamen (literally the mercantile student exam). 

The Hf-uddannelsen, which is a general upper secondary school education, teaching a broad range of subjects. Pupils can choose to focus on naturvidenskabelige faggruppe (science subjects) or theKultur- og samfundsfagsgruppen (culture and society group). The stream ends with the højere forberedelseseksamen, Higher Preparatory Examination.

The Stx-uddannelsen, a science-focused upper secondary education, which ends with thestudentereksamen, the Danish upper secondary leaving certificate. 

The Htx-uddannelsen, which is focused on preparing students for technological higher education and ends with the teknisk studentereksamen.

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Danish in the third person: When do you use hans, hendes, sin and sit?

The third-person possessive in Danish is more complicated than ‘his’ and ‘hers’.

Danish in the third person: When do you use hans, hendes, sin and sit?

In English, when talking about possessions in the third person, we use “his”, “her” and “their” as the adjective (“his apple, her car, their shoes”) and “his” and “hers” as the possessive pronouns (“the apple is his, the car is hers, the shoes are theirs”).

Things work a little differently in Danish.

Sin, sit and sine

Some parts of the Danish language are more important than others to master. For example even though it is good to know which words are en (en bil = “a car”) and which are et (et hus = “a house”), it is not a disaster if you happen to say “et bil” or “en hus”.

Using the wrong pronoun (such as hans or hendes) could cause more confusion, however. Take a look at this classic example:

  1. Christian kysser sin kæreste.
  2. Christian kysser hans kæreste.

In English, both sentences translate to “Christian is kissing his partner”. In Danish however, you make a distinction between “his own wife” = sin, and his as in someone else’s wife, hans in the second sentence.

If we swap sin and hans for names, this may become clearer:

  1. Christian kysser Christians (sin) kæreste.
  2. Christian kysser Henriks (hans) kæreste.

In other words, if Christian is the subject of the sentence and also has an “owner” (please forgive the expression) relationship to the object of the sentence, then we express that ownership by using sin and not hans.

It is not only hans that sometimes should be replaced with sin. It is also the case for hendes (“her”) and deres (“their”). It is also worth bearing in mind that sin changes to sit if the object is an et-word, and to sine if the object is plural. See the examples below:

Christian har malet sit hus i sommer

Christian painted his own house last summer

Christian har malet hans/hendes/deres hus i sommer.

Christian painted his (Henrik’s)/her/their house last summer.

In the second sentence here, Christian has painted someone else’s house – maybe he’s a painter-decorator or a helpful relative.

Christian skal hente sine børn fra børnehaven

Christian is going to pick up his children from pre-school

Christian skal hente hans/hendes/deres børn fra børnehaven

Christian is going to pick up his (Henrik’s)/her/their children from pre-school

In the second sentence, Christian is not picking up his own children from pre-school (unless we’re referring to shared children in the “their” version).

Unfortunately, sin, sit, hans and hendes cannot always easily be deduced from this subject-object pattern. In the following sentences:

Christian synes godt om maden, som hans kæreste tilbereder

Christian likes the food that his partner prepares

Jens venter med at gå i seng, fordi hans søn ikke er kommet hjem endnu

Jens is waiting up since his son is not home yet

Kathrine og hendes kæreste skal på restaurant i aften

Kathrine and her partner are going out for dinner tonight

You might ask yourself at this point, “Why not sin all of a sudden? There’s an ‘ownership’ connection in play, right?”

The explanation for this lies in what the subject and object of the sentence is, and whether it is split into clauses.

Christian synes godt om maden is the main clause (hovedsætning) in the first sentence. “Christian” is the subject.  

som hans kæreste tilbereder is a subordinate clause (bisætning or ledsætning). Here, hans kæreste is the subject in it. Since hans kæreste is not an object, it cannot take the sin pronoun.

Not that a main clause makes sense without the subordinate clause, but a subordinate clause cannot be a standalone sentence – this is how you tell the difference between the two types.

In the second example, Jens venter med at gå i seng is the main clause with Jens as the subject, and fordi hans søn er ikke kommet hjem endnu is the subordinate clause in which hans søn is the subject.

In the final example which unlike the others is single-clause, Kathrine og hendes kæreste are the subject together, so hendes mist be used, not sin.

When you are speaking Danish in real life, you probably don’t have time to think about sentence structure and subject-object relations. If you’re in doubt, it’s probably better to hedge your bets and go with hans or hendes – regional dialects of Danish in Jutland sometimes use these instead of sin and sit anyway.