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LEARNING DANISH

How to think in Danish: tænke, tro or synes?

Danish has at least three different ways of expressing the English word "think": tænke, tro and synes. Learning when to use each of these words correctly is a good way to sound like a true Dane and to make sure your point gets across.

How to think in Danish: tænke, tro or synes?
You think it's a nice restaurant, but is this your opinion or your belief? File photo: Thomas Lekfeldt/Ritzau Scanpix

Despite the fact that tænke, tro and synes words can all be translated to “think” in English, choosing the wrong verb in Danish can change the meaning of what you’re trying to say. 

As a general rule, you should use tænke when talking about the act of thinking, tro when talking about a belief you hold, and synes when you’re talking about a personal opinion. That might seem confusing, so let’s go into a bit more detail below.

Tænke

The act of thinking

Tænke is the most literal of these three verbs. It describes the act of thinking, such as in sentences like jeg tænker på dig (“I’m thinking of you”) or kan du være stile, jeg prøver at tænke! (“Can you be quiet, I’m trying to think!”).

If someone seems lost in thought, you can ask hvad tænker du på? (“what are you thinking of?). In a different context, the same sentence can be reproachful: Du glemte at sætte mælken i køleskabet og nu er den blevet dårlig. Hvad tænker du på! (“You forgot to put the milk back in the fridge and now it’s gone off. What were you thinking!”)

I’d quite like…

Another way of using the word tænke is to say that an idea appeals to you or that you’d quite like to do something – like in the phrase jeg kunne godt tænke mig et stykke kage (literally “I could think me a piece of cake”, actually “I would like a piece of cake”).

If, for example, you were discussing with your partner what you should order for dinner on a Friday night, you might say jeg kunne godt tænke mig sushi, which is more like a suggestion compared to jeg skal have sushi (“I want sushi”).

I was wondering

Tænke can also be used to make a tentative or polite suggestion if you use the past tense: Jeg tænkte på, om du havde lyst til at ses til et glas vin på fredag? (“I was wondering if you might like to meet for a glass of wine on Friday?).

Synes and tro

These two verbs are closer in meaning and slightly harder to explain than with the word tænke. The best way to distinguish synes and tro is to be more specific when translating them in to English. Although “think” can be used as an umbrella term for both of these concepts, the differences start to become clearer if you use more specialised verbs when translating them instead.

An opinion, usually based on experience

Synes has the same meaning as the English words “deem”, “regard” and “consider”, which are all used when expressing an opinion about something.

To use synes, you would say jeg synes, at (“I think that”) followed by your opinion. In spoken Danish, the at is often left out. Jeg synes, (at) du er sød (“I think you’re nice”) and jeg synes, (at) her er koldt (I think it’s cold here) are two examples.

A belief or speculation

Tro, on the other hand, can be translated as “believe”, which can be used when speculating about something or expressing a belief, such as jeg tror på Gud (“I believe in God”) or jeg tror, det bliver regnvejr I morgen (“I think it will rain tomorrow”).

Here’s an example to illustrate the difference between saying synes or tro:

Jeg synes, det er en god restaurant would mean “I think it’s a good restaurant”, in the sense of “I consider that to be a good restaurant”. You may have eaten at the restaurant before and you can recommend it based on the food that you ate.

Jeg tror, det er en god restaurant would also mean “I think it’s a good restaurant”, but in the sense of “I believe that’s a good restaurant”. Maybe a friend has told you that they had a nice meal there, but you’ve not been there yourself so you can’t say for certain. 

Synes om

You may also have come across the phrase synes om, which has a slightly different meaning than synesSynes always requires some sort of elaboration – it should be followed by a statement about what your opinion is – whereas synes om simply means that you like something.

Jeg synes, (at) han er sød, jeg synes, (at) chokolade smager godt

(“I think (that) he is nice”, “I think (that) chocolate tastes good”)

Jeg synes om ham, jeg synes om chokolade

(“I like him”, “I like chocolate”)

So, how do I think in Danish?

Essentially, you should use tænke when describing actual thoughts in your head, synes when expressing an opinion or a recommendation based on something you’ve experienced, and tro when expressing a belief, or a recommendation based on something you’ve heard or read from another source.

If you’re not sure whether to use synes or tro in a specific situation, try swapping out the word “think” with “consider” or “believe”, and see if that helps.

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LEARNING DANISH

The seven stages of learning Danish every foreigner goes through

You've got your dansk ordbog, you've downloaded all the apps, you are ready and willing to learn Danish. Then you move to Denmark and reality hits. Optimism, overwhelm, delight and then over it: These are some of the emotions familiar to those of us trying to learn the language, writes Emma Firth.

The seven stages of learning Danish every foreigner goes through

Stage one: Optimism 

You’ve decided to move to Denmark. You’ve watched The Killing and Borgen and can pick out the words ‘tak’ and ‘hej hej’, so you’re sure that within a year or so of actually living in the Scandinavian country, you’ll be sounding like Sarah Lund herself. You can’t wait to get started.

Tip: Hold onto the optimism because you’re about to have the shock of your life.

Stage two: Overwhelm

You arrive in Denmark, you’re overwhelmed by the next level life admin and you do not understand a word, not a word, of what is going on around you. You start to recognise written words while you’re out and about; ‘s-tog’, ‘gade’, ‘rugbrød’, but when you say them out loud, oh dear. You soon realise that you can’t learn Danish by reading it in your head. This is a language that needs to be listened to, at slow-speed, then de-coded, put back together and practiced. But you’re too tired for that because you’ve just moved country.

Tip: Enrol in the government’s free Danish language course as soon as you can. It will give you structure and motivation for starting to learn some useful vocabulary and vowel sounds. Duolingo and Google Translate are also your friends.

Stage three: Quiet delight

You’ve passed your first module of your Danish language course. You had a little chat in Danish and explained which country you come from, where you now live with and how many siblings and/or pets you have. This is it. You are going to be fluent in 18 months’ time (after Module 5). There’s tangible progress in your language skills and you are on your way to deciphering Danish.

Tip: Remember this feeling of progression and how good it feels because you’re going to have to keep it going for quite some time. Speak the little Danish you know, over and over again to gain confidence in hearing yourself make the sounds.

READ MORE: Five tips that make it easier to learn Danish

Stage four: Incredulity

You’re now half way through the language school modules. You’ve put hours and hours into learning this language. You know enough vocabulary to use in everyday life – it’s there in your head – you even know how to spell and conjugate the word. So why, when you go to say the sentence to the person behind the check-out, do they look at you in bewilderment and after another failed attempt, switch to English?

You start to feel like the hard work has been a waste, or perhaps you’re terrible at languages, maybe you’ve actually got an undetected speech impediment. The truth is, Danish takes a lot of hard work and practice to get to conversational stage. The vowel sounds are subtle and plentiful; the only way to master them is to keep speaking Danish. 

Tip: Don’t give up – you know far more than you sound like. Keep talking Danish wherever you can and push past those awkward exchanges, which unfortunately have to happen in order to progress to the next level. Force Danish speakers to stick to Danish, even just for five or ten minutes, or mix up a bit of English into your Danish so you can keep to the general thread of Danish conversation.

READ MORE: The best podcasts for learning and perfecting your Danish

Stage five: Reinforcements

The reason you can’t be understood is not you, it’s Danish. You realise that the language course alone is not going to make you fluent. You need reinforcements. You sign up to a language cafe, force yourself to listen to some Danish podcasts, start to watch more Danish TV and read some children’s books.

Tip: If you haven’t got a Danish person living with you, go and find one who will help you practice. There are schemes where a Danish volunteer can sit with you and help you practice speaking, or you can volunteer yourself in a local charity shop. If you have a cheerleader who reassures you that you can and will be understood, then you will get over that barrier many face after language school finishes.

Stage six: Breakthrough

You are being understood more than you’re not, you can read posters, apartment notices, letters in your e-boks. You are not so embarrassed by the vowel sounds coming out of your mouth and people are impressed you can understand a Danish exchange. 

Tip: Don’t take your foot off the pedal just yet. Keep going with the podcasts, the TV and the reading because stage four can and will still happen, and it can knock you off your course.

Stage seven: Acceptance

Despite your breakthroughs and miles on the clock, you realise you no longer know what fluency feels like. You will never sound exactly like a Dane; there will always be new words or expressions to learn; there will always be someone who responds with a “hvad?” to what you’re saying. But what you now accept is that this is the case with any language and we are all learning every day.

Tip: The more you use the language, the more you’ll enjoy it. One day, you may even find yourself sounding like Sarah Lund, to the untrained ear.

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