5 Very Good, Very Specific Tips To Learn Danish
Have you always wanted to watch The Bridge without English subtitles or maybe order your danish in Danish (see what I did there)? Maybe you’ve fallen in love with Copenhagen or are moving there soon and want to master the language. Whatever your motivation, here are my top five tips to learn Danish for English speakers.
The Best Tips To Learn Danish
Focus On The Similarities
One of the perks of learning a language as an adult is that you already know how to read. As an English speaker, you’ve learned the Latin alphabet by heart — and this will give you a large advantage by already knowing most of the Danish alphabet. You’ll only need to learn just three more letters: Æ, Ø and Å. Plus, English and Danish are both Germanic languages, so they’re quite closely related and they share a fair number of cognates.
On top of that, the Vikings influenced the English language about a thousand years ago and left us with words such as “cake” (Danish: kage), “Thursday” (Danish: torsdag) and “knife” (Danish: kniv). And modern English left its influence on Danish with words like elevator, computer and mobil. This means that there are lots of cognates with which to start your learning! Try planning your shopping list for the supermarked (“supermarket’), for example. You’ll see how easy it is to remember all sorts of things, like vin (“wine”), mælk (“milk”) or the word æble (“apple”).
Get A Feel For The Funky Pronunciation
Danish is often described as a language with difficult pronunciation. In fact, its pronunciation makes it one of the most challenging languages for English speakers to learn, especially in comparison to the other Scandinavian languages. It’s true that the Danish language has many different vowels and that the pronunciation is rather unintuitive at times. The main issue is that Danish is not particularly phonetic, but then again, neither is English (think about the different ways we pronounce [ou] in “rough,” “through” and “thorough”).
Luckily, most Danish consonants (including B, F, H, K, L, M, N, P, R, S) are pronounced the same way as they are in English, so you’re already halfway there. The trickiest sound is probably that of the so-called “soft D” found in examples like Jeg hedder… (“I’m called…”), mad (“food”) and the famous tongue twister rødgrød med fløde (“berry porridge with cream”). It’s somewhere in the middle of an English [th] and an [l] sound, best practiced with friends in a local Danish bar (with a couple of beers). Don’t stress about getting it perfect at first, most Danes will understand you even if you don’t pronounce it 100 percent correctly. From my own experience, intonation is far more important to be understood. So listen carefully to the rhythm of the language and imitate it when you speak.
Watch Danish Crime Dramas (Seriously)
You’ve probably heard many times that language learning is all about practicing speaking. And yes, that’s absolutely one part of it. The other part is to train your ear to get accustomed to the sound of the language. While you might not be able to travel to Denmark several times a year, 21st-century technology makes it easy to access Danish culture from anywhere. One of the best tips to learn Danish is to use your internet connection to listen to the radio and podcasts in the language. Don’t worry if you don’t understand most of the conversation at first. It’s about getting used to the intonation and the way people talk. Soon enough, you’ll understand more words and phrases.
Better yet, turn your guilty pleasure of binge-watching TV series into a Danish session! No, really. There are several Danish series out there for you to watch and stream, especially if you like bleak Scandi Crime Dramas. If you want to make the most of your session, you should use Danish subtitles and eventually graduate to none at all. The best way to internalize the sound of a language is to hear it often, so don’t miss out on these easy ways to integrate it into your daily routine.
Master The (Pretty) Simple Grammar
Here’s some good news: Danish grammar is easy to get the hang of when you know English. Word order is almost identical (Jeg kommer fra London = “I come from London”), and this is true even in more complex structures like Jeg er træt fordi jeg ikke har sovet nok (“I am tired because I have not slept enough”). Verb conjugation is even easier than in English: Danish has only one verb form per tense, no matter who is speaking or how many people are doing the action.
So is it all the same? Not quite! If you’ve already studied some Danish, you may have noticed that there are two indefinite articles in Danish, en (like in en kat, or “a cat”) and et (e.g. et hus, or “a house”). Meanwhile, the definite article is added to the end of the word, like with katten (“the cat”) and huset (“the house”). Unfortunately, these articles are pretty arbitrary so you’ll have to learn them by heart and, of course, learn them together with the noun.
Luckily, there are a few rules that can help you. Words ending in –tion, –ik or –hed are always en-words, like with station (“station”), grammatik (“grammar”) and kærlighed (“love”). Humans, animals and plants are mostly en-words, as well. The most frequent exceptions to this are et barn (“a child”), et menneske (“a human being”), et dyr (“an animal”) and et træ (“a tree”). About 75 percent of Danish nouns are en-words, so I’d recommend you focus on learning the et-words first and assume other words you encounter use en. In any case, you’ll be understood even if you use the wrong article.
Act As The Danes Do
My last tip to learn Danish: If you can’t speak like a native, at least act like a native. All languages have small words and phrases that natives use frequently but courses rarely teach you. The word nå is one of those in Danish. It’s used in many different contexts and its meaning changes based on the length of the vowel. A long Nåååh ja roughly translates to “Oh yes, I remember,” while a short “Nå, skal vi?” would be more like “OK, shall we?” These are just a few popular examples.
My advice is to pay attention to the way people speak and then imitate their behavior. Say tak for mad (“thanks for food”) after a dinner with your Danish friends or tak for sidst (“thanks for last time”) the next time you see them. You’ll see a smile on their face and realize that the cultural aspect of a language is just as important as grammar and pronunciation!
This article was originally published on October 12, 2018. It has been updated.