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Easier than learning German? Four myths about the Danish language

Emma Firth
Emma Firth - [email protected]
Easier than learning German? Four myths about the Danish language
Are there any misconceptions about the Danish language? Photo by yasara hansani on Unsplash

So, you want to learn Danish? To help you make sure you know what you're getting into, we've looked into the most common myths about the language and why they're not true.

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1. It's interchangeable with the Scandinavian languages

The Danish language can be sold as a kind of "buy one, get two free" offer, and many a learner is lured into Danish class with the promise of travelling across Scandinavia, speaking Danish and being understood by Swedes and Norwegians alike.

Sadly, it's not quite true, despite what Swedish-Danish crime drama The Bridge would have you believe. Even native Danes might end up resorting to English with their neighbours to avoid misunderstandings, as Danish Tiktok and Instagram creator Kelly Louise Killjoy makes fun of here.

https://www.tiktok.com/@kellylouisekilljoy/video/7075023202681998598

Norwegian is more similar to Danish than Swedish, especially in written form where there is a lot of common vocabulary and letters such as the ø, which in Swedish is ö. This is because Norway was a part of the Danish kingdom between the 14th and 19th centuries and everything official had to be written in Danish. However the spoken language does not sound the same. Norwegian is actually closer to Swedish in terms of pronunciation, despite the words being different.

Bilingual conversations can work if both people remember to speak slowly and clearly. But for most English-speaking people still in the process of learning Danish, or who have had little to no exposure of the neighbour languages, it's going to be far easier to stick to English in Norway or Sweden. 

READ ALSO: How good are Danes really at speaking English?

2. It’s one of the hardest languages in the world

Danish, with its plethora of vowels, has a reputation among newcomers to Denmark as being one of the world’s hardest languages to learn. 

However the Foreign Service Institute ranks Danish as a “Category 1” language in terms of the amount of time needed for English speakers to learn it – no different to French, Italian or Spanish, but easier than German and non-European languages.

There are four factors to consider when learning any language, Kasper Boye, Associate Professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Nordic Studies and Linguistics told The Local in 2017.

1. The grammatical or phonological proximity of the language being learned with one’s own.

2. Motivation for learning a new language.

3. Ability or talent for learning a language (known as a sprogøre – literally, ‘ear for language’ in Danish).

4. The amount of work put in to learning.

The thing that makes Danish unusual and therefore more difficult to speak for many, is the number of vowels.

While around 50 percent of the world’s 6-7000 existing languages have five vowels and English has around ten vowels – which is already a lot – Danish has 20 by a conservative analysis and as many as 30 vowels by less conservative analysis, Boye said.

But it doesn't make it impossible to learn, nor the hardest language in the world. It just takes a lot of patience to get to speaking level.

READ ALSO: The seven stages of learning Danish every foreigner goes through

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3. Some words are just untranslatable 

We're thinking pålæg, altså, overskud, sympatisk, jo, træls and of course hygge.

But it all depends on how you think about the concept of untranslatable words.

These words don't have a precise one-word English translation, but there are plenty of equivalents in other languages. Swedish mysig and German gemütlich are very similar to hygge for example.

And it's not just the Danish language where some words don't translate directly into English. German for example has its fair share of words that are impossible to translate.

READ ALSO: Seven Danish words that are tough to translate into English

It's also about context. If you say "coffee", Danes might instantly think Americano, Italians will think espresso, and Brits might think coffee with milk. If you say "city", the size of population you'd think of will differ depending on the speaker's culture.

The meaning of adjectives like "polite" or "punctual" also differ between speakers and cultures and the same even goes for prepositions: usually means "on" when translated to English, but can also mean "in" and "to" depending on context.

Even the simplest-seeming words mean different things to different people, and different cultural contexts add an extra layer to that. 

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4. Danish isn't a beautiful language

In Danish, the words are shortened, the consonants softened and the endings almost swallowed. Then there's the glottal stop, which are words containing stød. This gives rise to the famous expression that Danish sounds like you have a potato is stuck in your throat.

It's true that Danish is not regarded as one of the romance languages like French or Italian, but it does have its own charm.

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One is that the Danish language has a lot of words that have multiple meanings, such as “dør.” You can use it to mean “door” or “dies": “Den dør vil ikke åbne” (that door won’t open) versus “personen i filmen dør” (the person in the movie dies).

Then there are some words that are very literal. Brusebad, meaning 'spray bath' for shower; køleskab, meaning 'cooling cupboard' for fridge; flyvemaskine, meaning 'flying machine' for aeroplane; græsslåmaskine, meaning 'grass hitting machine' for lawn mower and sporvognsskinneskidtskraber, meaning 'tram wagon track dirt scraper' for a person who cleans tramway rails.

What's not to love?

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

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