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Five tips that make it easier to learn Danish

Learning the Danish is a challenge shared by all newcomers to the Scandinavian country. It can be a tricky language to master and the high level of English proficiency amongst Danes can make for a disheartening experience when putting your new skills into practice. But there are ways to help smooth the path to proficiency.

People studying and talking
These tips can help you on the path to learning Danish. Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

“Godmorgen. Jeg vil gerne have en bolle med ost, tak.”

“Sure, would you like cheese on your bolle?”

“Err.. yes please, I mean ja tak, ost tak.”

And before you know it, attempt number 56 at speaking Danish in public has been met with incomprehension and a switch to English. And yes, you did say all the right words, in the right order but it just didn’t sound that Danish.

Therein lies the rub.

The Danish language contains a lot of vowel sounds and swallowed words that can feel almost impossible to imitate as an adult who has never spoken the language before.

You can study all the books, take all the classes, even pass your PD3 [prøve i dansk 3, the final exam at language classes] exam with a 12 and still be confronted by the drone of a “hvad?”, when you try to speak like a Dane.

But with a lot of persistence and patience, it is possible to learn this tricky language and we’re here to help with these five top tips:

1. Practice speaking Danish as soon as you can

Of course, this is much easier said than done, when everyone switches to English but there are ways:

  • If you live or work with someone who speaks fluent Danish, try to switch the conversation to Danish just for a few minutes a day to start with.
  • Find libraries, for example Nørrebro Bibliotek, where language conversation groups are held.
  • Join an organisation like Elderlearn, who pair you with a Danish older person to chat to and keep them company, while you practice your language skills with a patient listener.
  • Look for places that hold language events, such as cafes or the weekly gatherings at SMK Kom where you can chat to other people learning Danish.
  • Join conversation groups through the Meetup app.
  • Look up ‘frivilligjob’ to find volunteer opportunities in your area, such as working in a Røde Kors shop, or a library, or cafe like Sweet Surrender in Copenhagen, where you will get to practice your Danish.

2. Language School

As long as you have a CPR (personal registration) number and are over the age of 18, you can sign up to a language school and take lessons for free. This wasn’t the case for two years, when between 2018 and 2020, participants had to pay 2,000 kroner for every module.

You can take 5 modules of Danish language, ending in the PD3 exam, which is the level needed for citizenship. You can go on to study module 6 and take Studieprøven, to get to a level where you can enter Danish higher education.

The advantages of language school is that it gives you a structure to your learning, and gives you skills in the four areas of reading, writing, speaking and listening, as well as learning about Danish culture. The class times are often flexible and you can choose between online and classroom lessons.

The downside is that with large class sizes, there isn’t a lot of opportunity to practice speaking, which is why supplementing language school with speaking opportunities can really help.

3. Danish Media

Watching Danish TV with subtitles is always helpful. If you don’t have a TV, you can watch some Danish channels online including TV 2 News, TV 3, DR1, DR Ramasjang. 

The DRTV app gives you access to all of its programmes, including those in its archives like the famous Matador.

DR Ramasjang and Ultra are for children and teens and can be easier to follow than some adult programmes, especially UltraNyt, which is a children’s news programme.

On Netflix there are popular Danish series including Broen (The Bridge), Borgen, The Killing and Rita.

You can access audio books for free on @reolen or using a subscription service like Mofibo.

Listening to Danish songs can help with pronunciation. Kim Larson’s Papirsklip is a song you will get to know when living in Denmark. For children’s songs, Popsi og Krelle on Youtube is a good introduction.

4. Children’s books

Reading children’s books out aloud can help you learn how to make your mouth form those tricky words, as well as give you confidence when you can read and understand the whole of Peppa Pig in Danish.

Children’s picture dictionaries can be less daunting ways to learn new vocabulary and children’s song books like De Små Synger, or books that play the song and have text showing the lyrics, are also a good ways to improve your skills.

You can borrow books from your local library or buy them from second hand children’s shops like Røde Kors or Red Barnet.

Classic Danish children’s books include characters like Rasmus Klump, Totte, Cirkeline, Malle and Mimbo Jimbo. When you’ve mastered some of them, have a go at the well known Halfdans ABC, which has rhymes like this: ‘Freddy Fræk fra Fakse fangede i fælder femten flotte friske fiskefrikadeller.’ Good luck.

5. Creating new daily habits

Forming small but regular new habits will keep up your language learning without it feeling too overwhelming.

  • For example, keep a little notebook or a place on your phone where you can write down new words you come across in your daily life. During the week, while on the bus or waiting to meet a friend, keep looking at those words to get them stuck in your head.
  • When you’re caught off guard in situations, such as someone asking in a shop, “kan jeg hjælpe dig?” (‘can I help you?’), and you automatically blurt out English, don’t feel too disheartened. Instead, write the scenario down, find out the different ways to respond, and memorise them, so that next time it automatically comes out. “Jeg kigger bare, tak” (‘I’m just looking, thank you’) is always a useful one.
  • Add some Danish accounts to your social media so when you scroll, you’re seeing and hearing Danish. There are some useful Danish language accounts such as @wannalearndanish, @danish_for_you, @learning.with.ervin.
  • Listen to Danish podcasts or audiobooks on your way to work or when doing the washing up, whether it’s about a topic you’re interested in, or a specific language learning podcast like ‘Danish 101’.
  • Plan out what you’re going to say in a new situation before you say it and commit to it in Danish, for example booking an appointment, ordering food, speaking to your neighbour or language teacher.

Danish language learning can be a slow and painful process but keep going, take the small wins and one day, we promise, you will be understood. You may even be able to say, “rød grød med fløde.” 

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Why you shouldn’t be surprised to hear Danish children say the F word

Newcomers to Denmark are often struck by how often they hear what we fondly call the “F-word” on the street—particularly from young children.

Why you shouldn't be surprised to hear Danish children say the F word

So what the f*ck is going on? To find out, the Local Denmark spoke to Henrik Gottlieb, a linguist at the University of Copenhagen who studies the influence of English on other languages.

“Taboo words that are imported in any language tend to lose their edges,” Gottlieb explained—and that applies to taboos on both ends of the spectrum.

“The Danes are very, let’s say, shy about showing their feelings too much,” he added. “We don’t usually say ‘jeg elsker dig’ (‘I love you’) very much. Whereas we hear people saying ‘I love you’ all the time in American films—very often just meaning ‘goodbye.’ So we have a feeling that these words are already devalued.”

Similarly, the f-word is omnipresent in American music, tv and movies, so while it’s considered cool by association it doesn’t have the same bite as Danish curses. Another advantage is that f*ck is simply an incredibly versatile curse, Gottlieb says. It can be used as virtually every part of speech—noun (you stupid f*ck), verb (f*ck you), adjective (this f*cking guy), etc.

A recent scholarly article examined the use of the word ‘f*cking’ in “Ex on the Beach,” a Danish reality tv show spun off from a UK title of the same name in which singles looking for love are confronted by (you guessed it) their exes on a beach.

This latest article is of part a surprisingly thorough body of linguistic scholarship on “Ex on The Beach” after the Danish Language Board, or Dansk Sprognævn, compiled transcripts of all words spoken in seasons 1-3 for study—it’s clearly a rich text.

Researcher Thrine Victoria Jarnot Meline found that 82 percent of the uses of f*cking in “Ex on The Beach” were as adverbs—as in “I’m f*cking looking forward to it”—to emphasise excitement, annoyance or anger.

Meline concludes that compared to studies on Danish youth in 2010, “something has changed in the last 10 years or so: young people in Ex on The Beach use English swear words more, including f*cking.”

Subs or dubs

But why don’t English speakers hear the f-word sprinkled quite so liberally on the streets of other European capitals?

A big factor is how English-language media is presented to Danish audiences, Gottlieb explained. Production houses for internationally-released movies generally produce dubbed versions—or versions in which the audio is re-recorded in a different language—for large language cohorts like Spanish-speaking audiences. In a dubbed version, curse words like the f-word are translated to a local equivalent or softened to a “lesser” word to accommodate cultural differences. So while a Spanish teen would hear Samuel L. Jackson say “hijo de puta,” a Danish teen would see a Danish translation but hear Jackson’s original “motherf*cker.”

This phenomenon isn’t unique to Denmark. “All the minor speech communities—that is, countries with less than 25 million people—tend to subtitle foreign productions,” Gottlieb explained.

Gottlieb is a contributor to the Global Anglicism Database Network, which compiles the English loan words used in various languages (but not Spanish). While the Danish language boasts many colourful entries in the F-U-C section, a printed Spanish language dictionary that Gottlieb had on hand listed none, jumping straight from “frost” to “fuel.”

“I know the guy who wrote that dictionary,” Gottlieb said. “He’s not afraid of swear words.”

The future of f*ck

Gottlieb isn’t worried that f*ck will drive the Danish home-grown equivalents to extinction.

Danish’s many colourful curses are alive and well, including some that have no equivalent in English—like kraftedeme, or “may cancer eat me.”

“Maybe f*ck and all the other f*ck-friends—you know, f*ck off and all these expressions—will die out when they have lost their bite,” Gottlieb said. “They may become slightly irrelevant in 10 or 20 years.”

“Youth will use these very spicy expressions more than older people, which has always been the case,” Gottlieb said. And while Danish kids and teens may play fast and loose with f*ck, there are limits to what they’re allowed to say. Gottlieb pointed to incidents in which children called their teachers a pejorative term meaning sexworker—those kids faced consequences.

READ ALSO: How did the Danish language end up with its crazy numbers?