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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.

Girl with a textbook on her head in despair
How learning Danish can sometimes make you feel. Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash.

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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LEARNING DANISH

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.

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