Learning Danish – Surprising Realizations

Local Food (The Smorgasbord) - Copenhagen, Denmark

When I first arrived in Denmark I was gung ho about learning Danish.  I felt that as an incoming resident who would be spending two years in the country it was the least I could do to learn Danish during my stay.  To my surprise the majority of my Danish friends appreciated the sentiment but discouraged me from learning Danish – the common statement went along the lines of, “Only 6 million people speak Danish and it is a terribly hard language that is almost impossible to master, besides we all speak English”.  I can’t imagine a similar sentiment being expressed about English back in Arizona.  Granted, it’s a very different situation, but even if it were not, I just don’t see Arizonans ever voicing similar advice.

Eager to expand my horizons and truly immerse myself in Danish culture I decided to take their recommendation under advisement, but push ahead with learning Danish. Now, several months later I’ve had several realizations that have re-shaped my relationship with the language.

The first is that most Danes really do speak excellent English.  It’s almost impossible to find a Dane here in Copenhagen under the age of 40 who doesn’t speak fluent English.  It’s taught in their schools, most of the movies shown in theaters are English with Danish subtitles, and about 70% of the movies and shows on TV are presented in a similar way.  Of those over 40, most speak at least some English.

Danish is an incredibly difficult language. Now, I don’t consider myself a linguist by any stretch of the imagination. Quite the opposite actually, but based on my experiences with Spanish I feel as though I have at least a general baseline to compare against.

The thing about Danish is that it is a fairly guttural/throaty language, it is very general and re-uses a wide variety of words which makes it very contextual.  The words in Danish are also some of the longest I’ve ever encountered which I’ve found challenging as I’ve yet to learn where to pause and what to omit.  In addition to having incredibly long words, many letters of the alphabet in words are actually silent which makes hearing it and reading it phonetically extremely difficult.

The most difficult part of Danish for me, so far, has been the guttural enunciation.  Danes commonly joke that as a non-dane the best you can hope for is to get close. Unfortunately, so far even the simple three or four letter words have largely escaped me. As it turns out, my version of west coast, slightly southern English uses every part of my mouth EXCEPT the parts used in the guttural aspects of Danish. In general the way I’ve learned to talk is with crisp – perhaps harsh is more accurate – vocalizations.  The result is that I can’t even make many of the sounds used in Danish, let alone hear them.  For those of you that battled with the rolling R in Spanish, this is similar, but across the entire language.

On the upside, while I have difficulty hearing and pronouncing the more subtle aspects of the language the one area my English background helps with, is the cross over and use of words which have their roots in Old Norse and the Germanic languages. Words like hour (timer), etc. are clear cut enough that I can make contextual sense of them when reading websites, menus, etc.

The Danes are also very finicky about the pronunciation of words.  What sounds identical to a non-native speaker is often a significant enough difference in pronunciation that the Danes have difficulty recognizing and understanding the word(s) being spoken. I know that for some people, this has been mistaken as being unhelpful, but the more I’m exposed to it, the more I’ve come to realize that it’s deeply ingrained in the complex structure of Danish and the key importance of subtle emphasis and not done out of any sense of elitism or stubbornness.

An additional point of interest has been Dane’s use of English in the midst of general conversation.  As I understand it English (in part because it is a new language) has much more descriptive words for a lot of actions and things than traditional Danish.  As a result it’s fairly common for Danes to supplement Danish with English during the course of their conversations.  Sometimes only using a word and other times switching to English for a sentence before diving back into Danish for the remainder of the conversation.

I’ve been very surprised by the Dane’s willingness to switch entire discussions over into English if an English speaker is present without complaint. I’ve even seen a number of Danes switch from Danish to English when ordering in ethnic restaurants without a hint of complaint or annoyance.  That said, despite English’s generally widespread use in Denmark, the social language barrier you would expect elsewhere between Danes and non-danish speakers is less visible but still present.

I share the above because I’ve been forced to adjust my approach to learning Danish. My previous goal was to be able to speak, write, and read Danish by the end of the year. While I’ve realized that given enough time it’s certainly doable, the reality is that I’m not likely to attain that level of mastery over the two year period I’ll be here.  From conversations, this realization inspires many long-term visitors and expats to abandon Danish all together. Which I also don’t find to be the right approach.

My revised goal is to learn enough Danish that I can hear and understand spoken, conversational Danish when it is occurring around me.  From there, though I’d like to be able to (and hope to in time) respond in Danish. For the time being I’ll focus on responding in English.   This should allow me to participate in many of the conversations that I might otherwise accidently be excluded from without forcing everyone I meet to constantly speak English, just because I’m in the general area.

It is going to be a challenge. The re-training of my ear has already been a surprisingly difficult task, but it’s one which I’ve already found to be quite enriching and informative.  The role of language in learning more about culture, myself, and in shaping this experience has been a significant one, even with my current limited vocabulary of about 5 spoken Danish words.

For now, I’m off to ride the metro, silently mouthing each station name and announcement as I work to acclimate myself to a new world of sounds, words, and grammar. Looking like I’m talking to myself is a small price to pay for the chance to learn a fascinating language with a rich and storied history!