Thursday, 14 February 2013

English expat in Denmark: The Danish Language - it's all in the attitude

Ah, for helvede. Det danske sprog.

Not an easy one to master, by any means. I've been learning it for two years and although my passive vocabulary is quite large for someone that has only been here for three months, I still have a way to go before I reach fluency.

The Danish language is, 9 times out of 10, a piece of conversational priority when meeting fellow expats here in Copenhagen ... sooner or later you will be asked "so ... do you take Danish classes?". More often than not in my experience, the conversation is then led into a serious discussion of how difficult it is and how one can get by with just English; or the question is met with a flippant "oh I'll NEVER learn it!" with a toss of the head and an embarrassed chuckle. I'm not laying scorn, by the way. I've done both those things. I concur. It's definitely not an easy language to learn. But it's also not impossible. I mean, what language IS easy to learn? If a Brit moved to Spain, would we all be speaking it within the year? I doubt it. Every language has its .. let's say 'quirks'.

Half the battle with fluency in another language is mindset, no matter how many languages you speak. Being in Denmark, most Danes and most expats will speak very good English. Does that mean that English is easy to learn? I have heard that it is not. Our prepositions are all over the place, verbs need to be conjugated in accordance with who the speaker is, the same combination of a couple of letters can sound different in different words (cough through a ghost, anyone?). Yet a LOT of people pick English up. Yes, English is everywhere. Computer games, movies, TV, music. But, being in Denmark, so is Danish. You have children's television. Grown up television. The news. Danish movies. Danish radio. Free online Danish courses. Not to mention free Danish classes (if your CPR number is all in order) and actual Danes to practice on (though this admittedly takes balls .. gets easier though, promise). But if, even if your arsenal is bulging with all of the above, if you don't possess a positive attitude towards the language then you are setting yourself up for failure. I'm not pretending to be profound in any way as it's just common sense - but if you constantly tell yourself you will never know when to say 'til' instead of 'for or 'i' instead of 'på' then of course you won't know. Because you won't be surprised when you do make the mistake, hence 'proving' that you were right all along. Self fulfilling prophecy.

Well, I'll leave it there. Whether you have already started Danish classes or are planning to enrol and are wondering just how you'll ever 'get' it my best advice is simple - keep at it! Be inventive as well. Pictures below. Sad, maybe. But it all helps.


  1. hey there! i keep telling people that the danish language is easy to learn; it's getting the locals to understand you that's the hard part. welcome to copenhagen. i've been living here 5 years now and i still like it. (:

  2. Hi Mina,

    Ah, I'm still finding the language a challenge - mainly because it's written so differently to how it's spelt - but I'm confident that I'll get there. My pronunciation is actually ok (convinced that's my musically trained ear that's helped me), my main challenge is getting the confidence to be able to speak properly in public. I can understand the gist of a lot of conversations even though I don't quite grasp every single word, nor should I be expected to at the moment, but I clam up very easily in groups of more than two native Danes. In school I'm confident as I guess the teachers are a safety net of sorts but out in real Copenhagen it feels very different. However that is my own issue that I need to overcome. I have been informed by a few fellow students of the language that I shall reach a point where I just don't care about making mistakes. I can't wait to reach that point!

    (I will get there - as I say, it's all in the attitude :))

  3. Love the idea of labelling things! Try to get to the point where u just talk & don't care if it is not all correct. Create opportunities to speak!

    1. Thanks, Charlotta. I met a girl at a dinner party a few weeks ago who didn't have Danish as her first language but she was speaking it. I asked her advice and it was "eventually you will reach a point where I just don't give a ****" - I need to reach this point!

  4. listening to Danish music helps too ;) I really like Rasmus Seebach. Totally pop-py and might not be so "cool" admitting to friends here that you listen to him, but it does make learning Danish a little more fun!

  5. Thanks all! Karen, I shall look into Rasmus Seebach - I don't like any "cool" US or UK music so I don't think anyone would be surprised if I started listening to him, haha!

    I also just realised I said this in my first comment: "it's written so differently to how it's spelt" - I do of course mean "mainly because it's written so differently to how it's spoken". Maybe I should write a blog post about the English language too!

  6. Hi Nicola. I totally agree with you re how much your attitude actually means in terms of learning a foreign language. I'm an eduacated translator, and the first year at the University all our teachers told us almost every day: "DO NOT BE AFRAID to speak the language and make mistakes. You'll never learn and you'll never know what's right, what's wrong until you actually make mistakes" :) We were also recommended to put stickers on different pieces of furniture :)
    Just another proof of how, let's say, correct you approach to learning the language is. So, you'll definitely get to the point when you just don't care :) I've also noticed that Danes are very patient when listening to us foreigners speaking and making mistakes :)