A foreigner’s perspective: Learning Danish

A foreigner’s perspective: Learning Danish

I’ve recently read quite a few articles and blog posts about experiences with learning Danish, and then speaking it in the presence of Danes. It seems that most foreigners actually don’t have very positive experiences in how their attempts to speak Danish are received by native Danes. Many recount being patronized, getting sentences repeated back to them in a singy-sangy voice as if teaching a child how to speak, or being told that they really need to learn Danish (which they obviously already were).

I have to say, my own experiences with this part have been quite positive. I reached fluency in Danish relatively quickly, but (a) I absolutely think that being German helps tremendously, as the grammar is pretty much the same and many words have common roots, and (b) I’m a language person, meaning I’m quite good at hearing how a language is supposed to sound and picking up on things relatively quickly (on the other hand, if you tried to teach me the basic laws of physics or how to throw a ball further than 5m, I would fail miserably). So that naturally helped me, but I also enjoyed learning a new language. I’m already on the lookout for a new one to start once complete my last Danish course at the end of the year. When I speak Danish to Danes, I don’t get those kind of reactions, luckily. If I get any reaction to my Danish, it’s usually a positive one, and people express that they really like that someone is learning their language. They also usually acknowledge that Danish is a difficult language to learn, so they don’t have crazy high expectations.

Sign up for the monthly newsletter, including exclusive previews and more!

No spam.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

When you come to Denmark as an immigrant and you register with the municipality, get your CPR number and all that, you are also entitled to up to three years of Danish language education – for free! I strongly encourage anyone moving to Denmark to take advantage of this offer, for these very simple reasons:

  • Common courtesy. You chose to live in this society, so I think it’s only fair to make an effort to become a part of it.
  • Integration. It’s a common theme among expats that it can be very hard to penetrate the Danish society, get Danish friend groups, etc. Dating or being married to a Dane usually helps, but for me, the biggest difference was when I started to be able to speak Danish with them. It made me part of the conversation more easily, since people didn’t have to switch to English to address me.
  • More courtesy. In the beginning, when I was only able to express very simple sentences and didn’t understand one hundred percent of what was said to me, I was often a bit embarassed to actually try my Danish. I wanted to wait until it was completely perfect so that I wouldn’t make any mistakes. At some point, it hit me like a ton of bricks: I was just pushing my discomfort on to the Danish people I was talking to, who had to switch to English, a language they themselves might not have been fully comfortable with! So once I’d made that connection in my head, it was much easier to try my Danish. With English being so readily available everywhere here, I think it’s easy to forget that someone might feel the same way about English as you do Danish, but we’re taking the choice and leaving them none.
  • Jobs. Like probably the case in any other country, the job market is much more friendly towards those who speak the local language. Obviously, there are some international firms here, too, and my job didn’t require any Danish per se. But you will learn relatively quickly that it’s definitely not a disadvantage to speak Danish.
  • Fun! Okay, maybe this one isn’t for everyone, but I actually enjoy learning Danish. I think it’s a cute language, a bit peculiar, sure, but I really like it. Plus, language school will put you in touch with others in the same situation as you, and I’ve made a couple of really good friends there.

But, it remains a subject that’s not always easy for foreigners – much like learning the language itself. We might already feel a bit vulnerable as we’re far from perfect in Danish, so we feel more easily offended or patronized if a Dane doesn’t react in a way we would like them to. So, here are my kind requests to the Danes:

  • Correct us – politely. We want to learn, so any corrections are welcome, but please try not to be condescending about it. To us, the word you’re repeating sounds exactly like what we were trying to pronounce. Sometimes it’s really hard to tell the difference (pro tip: ask a Dane to say the words for “toothpick” and “match” (as in the thing to light a candle) – they will sound EXACTLY the same, I promise)
  • Be patient. We’re trying, so unless you really, hands down can’t understand what we’re saying, don’t switch to English. I know you believe this is helpful, but it only tells us we suck really bad.
  • Don’t make us say “rød grød med fløde”. Seriously. We know we’ll never be able to say it perfectly, and we don’t want to be the joke of the party.
  • Don’t tell us it’s important to learn Danish. We understand that – which is why we’re learning Danish!

Finally, I’m leaving you with this hilarious video, made by a Norwegian comedy group, which pokes fun at the fact that even Danes often don’t understand each other! But I’d love to hear from you: What are your experiences with learning Danish? Did you find it hard to learn, or are you still struggling? How do Danes react to you?

You might also like

33 thoughts on “A foreigner’s perspective: Learning Danish”

  • I also love learning languages. I learned French in school and took it as an A level, I did an entire German GCSE in a year and a half (usually takes five years), I taught myself basic Welsh when I lived in Wales, I went to Swahili night school and then Japanese night school. God, I even picked up some Klingon curses in my misspent youth.

    When I came to Denmark, one of my actual reasons for coming was ‘fluency in another language’. I was so excited to be immersed in another language! I got really into the flashcards, I did all my homework, I tried in shops from day one.

    The way the people (in Fredericia especially) treated me actually scarred me and I find that I am totally afraid of speaking in the other languages I know (or sort of know but they got rusty). For a while, I was walking around with a social phobia. And it’s really hard to achieve fluency in a foreign language if you’re actually frightened of the reactions of the people you are practising on! Anyway, a friend had a little kid and I’d practise on her. So, while I can speak pretty good Danish, I sound like a 7 year old because that’s the current age of my ‘teacher’!

    I’ve been here six years and I was reduced to tears during a course last week where Danes just picked away at my confidence for hours and hours. They were from all over: big cities, small towns, Sjælland, Jylland. They were NICE people but they just destroyed me.

    • Sounds like you haven’t had the best of luck – sorry to hear that! But I like that your friend’s kid is helping you, that’s very sweet. I think maybe sometimes people don’t realize how what they’re saying comes across, e.g. they might think they’re helping you by correcting you over and over, but really it just makes you feel bad. I genuinely think most people don’t have bad intentions at least. We could just meet in groups of expats and practice our Danish on each other! :)

      • I know, it still grinds me down over several hours. It’s usually okay: a couple of hours and then I can go home and lick my wounds. The last few situations have been marathons where I’ve had to stay for hours and hours.

        There’s also the dynamic of their secret thoughts and prejudices about me (as a foreigner, they don’t actually know ME me) playing out in their facial expressions and comments. Like, that’s not personal and they can’t really help it because it’s unconscious. But it still hurts, for some reason.

        There are quite a few of those practice groups! Funny that(!) ;)

  • I don’t like the part where they asked us to repeat “Rød grød med fløde” and then burst out laughing when we couldn’t get it right. We’re not circus animals and you still expect us to learn when you treat us like that?

    I’ve been here for 8+ years now and I speak fairly fluent Danish (I speak it at work) but I remember my first years here weren’t easy.

    • I like what some other commenters here suggested: play the game but then ask them a tongue twister/ difficult word in your language! That makes it less one-sided and more fun :)

  • So true! I’ve also found children were a much more receptive audience and were much nicer when they corrected me. My Danish really took off when I got a job as a pædagogmedhjælper at an afterschool club.

    I feel the worst is when you speak Danish to someone and they answer in English. I know it comes from them wanting to help, but it always feels like a kick in the teeth.

    No one asks me to say rød grød med fløde anymore. And I take great delight in correcting their grammar (it’s always hvems er disses?)!

    • Hi Kate, I think it’s very sweet that you found such good help with the Danish kids! Seems like they only turn sour later on! ;)
      Some Danes really DO have terrible grammar, even I can hear that.
      Thanks for sharing your experience!

  • I couldn’t agree more. As a German, I did not have any difficulties whatsoever, but I still feel sorry for my classmates having a hard time. I’m not sure I can agree on it helping you on the job market though – if you don’t have the “right” experiences and internships on your list, it might still be very hard, because there’s relatively few jobs and Danes do prefer their own – which I can kind of understand, but which is very unfortunate at the same time – at least in the translating business. That being said though, I have mastered to say “Rød grød med fløde” and ” Røget ørred” ( the second being even worse for a German) – but I laughed back at them. Make them say “Eichhörnchen”, “Spazierstock” “Sportplatz” – anything with sounds like: “Sch-Ch-Schp-Scht”. They’ll have problems with that.

    • Hi Rebecca, thanks so much for your comment. Yes, we’re definitely a bit privileged as Germans! :)
      I hadn’t thought of making them say German words, but thinking about how my boyfriend pronounces “ein bisschen” (“ein bischn”), “Eichhörnchen” should be good to cause some laughs, too – if anyone dares the “rød grød” stunt again! :)

  • Hej! I’m here since almost 3 months and for the moment people are adorable! But I have to say it’s hard to meet danish people and keep in touch with them… Until now, I speak with everybody in english because I just started my Danish courses last week and already understand few word/sentences of other people danish conversations around me! It’s so pleasant! I’m french and my english isn’t fluent yet so danish people I met didn’t expect me to be fluent in danish now…But I say few words when I can and they seem proud and happy that I’m trying to learn their language.

    • Hi Elodie, thanks for your comment! I hope you’ll have fun learning Danish – it sounds like you’re on the right track just practicing whenever possible – I should have done that much more!

  • When Danes ask me if I can say “rød grød…” I just say “no.” Then I smile and walk away. Or I ask them if they can say any of the tongue twisters in English. (this would be just as effective if you have a native language other than English.) Having a thick skin really helps. I have found that as my Danish improves, the blank stares and condescending garbage subsides, but remember: there are jerks everywhere. Don’t lump all Danes into one big category. None of us foreigners appreciate it when others do that to us!!

    Find those who can help you and start with them. Kids are great, and they tend to not judge. But some people are just better at this than others. Perhaps they are more empathetic, have lived abroad, or are just natural teachers. Figure out how much correction you want/need, and communicate that. Some days will go better than others. Have a sense of humor about it. Really, it’s just Danish. No one dies if you say that you were standing in the “ko” instead of in the “kø.”

    • I like that idea – I’ll definitely start making them say “Eichhörnchen” (German for squirrel) as Rebecca suggested! Danish is not the only language with hard words! :)
      I agree that having a thick skin helps, but sometimes it’s these little things that can make you feel unwelcome, even though you’re really trying.
      Thanks for your comment! :)

  • Dear Laura,
    It’s always encouraging to hear good stories from expats in Denmark……wish it was my case. I have been living here for almost 8 years and did everything by the book, finished module 6 with a 10 grade, worked for more than 3 years full time in the cleaning branch only to earn certain rights and live decently, couldn’t get my studies from back home recognised so I started all over again here (under the advice of a danish student counsellor) and I was super fluent in Danish. What did I get in return? Strangest awkward faces returning a “hva’ siger du?” or simply switch to english, rolling their eyes at me, laughing at my face, talk slowly as if I had a disability and so on. In a practical sense I got a second degree, social welfare, SU and am grateful for it, though it didn’t come for free, I worked hard for it. But when I think the way people treat me here besides the language issue, it is depressing, lonesome, cold and irritating how many foreigners are simply put down as second class people. I must say, not all danes are like that but the society as a whole it is. For years and years all I wanted to hear was positive experiences because that’s what I wanted for myself, a good experience but my optimism was crushed too quick. Not only language-wise but human-wise. Luckily I am soon leaving Denmark behind and my complaints, if you don’t like where you live then move……this has been told to me so many times by danes and believe me, it’s a painful thing to hear. So I am always happy to hear that other foreigners thrive in this society……gives me hope that good and open-minded people are still out there.
    Keep the spirits high!!

    • Hi, thanks for taking the time to share your experiences. I’m sorry to hear they haven’t been so great. I really enjoy living here (for the most part) and I hope other foreigners do, too. I agree that it can sometimes be a bit hard to feel welcome here, not only when it comes to language issues. But that might not be a Danish problem per se – I haven’t lived abroad in other countries for extended periods of time, so I can’t really compare. I wish you all the best for where you’re going, I really hope you’ll be happier there! :)

  • Hi, just thought I’d leave a reply from a Danish person and give a little perspective from me. I have an Australian boyfriend who’s trying to learn the Danish language. It is both fun and frustrating to follow his journey on pronouncing our strange words and to translate our words to him (his favourites are so far 1. Dovendyr (directly translation is lazy animal – in English “Sloth”), 2. Selvfølgelig (because it is SO FAR from how it’s written) and 3. Fornuftig (still haven’t figured that one out – to me it’s so natural but to him it sounds like something from the muppet show).
    Anyways, I just wanted to reply to all of those who are frustrated with the Danes when you try to speak Danish and who are leaving the country or left in tears because of it (I’m so sorry!). Danish IS a language based VERY MUCH on the pronounciation. We’re a farmer’s country and have about 1/4 of the number of words as the English language, which means we reuse a lot of them but only change the pronounciation or the context (for example these words are pronounced exactly the same way but mean completely different things: vejr, værd, vær, hver…….And if you go far enough out to the country side, even I can’t understand Danish because of the mumbling! Danish has also evolved in its pronounciation – watch some old Danish shows like Matador and hear how slowly and clearly they speak – I’m not sure what’s happened since then!
    So, that’s the language. Then there’s the culture. In DK, we are very direct, honest and open with each other, so if you experience people telling you what they think, it’s not because they don’t like you, they just do that (I think Germans are a little similar here too so that part helps as well). Joking about “Rødgrød med fløde” is the only joke we all know with foreigners, and we’re actually making fun of the Danish language – not of you! We LOOOOOVE self-irony in Denmark, so it’s more about us than you!
    Lastly, there’s the approach to foreigners (which I’m very sorry about!). I can imagine if you live in the “dark” Jutland it will be harder than in Copenhagen where the concentration of foreigners is higher and Danes (usually) are more well-traveled and open to foreigners. But a thing about Danish culture….in the 80s, we were having an economic crisis and the government’s response was to import a lot of work force creating very easy immigration from e.g. Turkey (MUCH easier than today – I know the WHOLE immigration system by now with a boyfriend from outside EU!!). This created a large flow of immigration, and resulted in a response in political parties against the immigration and especially muslims (from Turkey), creating an image of muslims coming to take over Denmark (google Mogens Glistrup and Muhamedanere for a good example!). Denmark is a bit like a small village where everyone feels like they know each other and share the same values (when Danes travel and we meet other Danes, we are instantly good friends by default! Even if we wouldn’t get along at all back in DK). Imagine then a lot of foreigners arrive in this village. Deep down I think Danes are just scared of losing Denmark as we know it because of integrating other cultures – hygge, frikadeller, jul, etc. There was a big outcry when kindergartens wanted to take Frikadeller of the lunch-menu to respect muslims as an example. Or watch Matador or Lille-Per for a bit of Danish culture in the 50s where foreigners was an exotic thing you only heard about. Danish political parties (I think you know one in particular) is using this fear to manipulate Danes about our small society losing its values and being overrun by foreigners taking advantage of our welfare system (it’s mostly those stories that appear in the media at least). At the same time, we acknowledge the need to be part of something bigger (EU) for us not to die as an economy. But many believe DK would be just fine if we were just on our own (living off bacon and butter?). For those who know Danish (or heard about a thing called Google translate), read this article comparing DK to a hobbit society – it’s a pretty good comparison! http://politiken.dk/debat/kroniken/ECE1425487/den-danske-hobbit-og-verdensoekonomien/
    I hope this long input can help a bit on your frustration with the Danes – I know I know it’s tough (I can see it on the face of my partner almost every day) but give us a chance and don’t get down about your failures – most Danes are good at heart and once you have a Danish friend, you’ll have them for life (or most of it).
    Kærlig hilsen

    • Hi fellow Laura,
      A big thank you for sharing your insights on this topic – it’s great to get a Danish perspective on this as well. You make some very interesting points about the Danish language and Danish society as a whole, for example about Danes being open and straightforward, I hadn’t really thought about this angle before. I like to think that most Danes don’t mean any harm in the way they react, but maybe we need to create a bit more awareness about how their reactions make us feel.

  • One more thing – when Danes swap to English, they are doing either because a) they are trying to help you so you don’t feel embarrased or struggling and they want the conversation to flow easily so you can understand each other or b) they want to show off how good they are at English – we Danes generally tend to think so about ourselves and we get a boost from talking with foreigners.
    So again, please don’t take it as a critiscim of you! If I were you, I would simply state the obvious and say “It’s so nice of you to try and speak English with me, but I would really like to practise my Danish – can we continue in Danish instead?” and I promise you, they will do as you ask them to (we all love to help others don’t we?)

  • Hi there,
    I thought I would also add my experience. So I’m Hungarian, but have been living in The Netherlands for some years, before together with my Danish boyfriend we moved to Denmark about 2 years ago.
    I think both Lauras :) have good points and what Danish Laura writes about why Danes react as they do, and why they switch to English, would be so true to the Dutch too! They just love to show off their English, and they indeed want to be helpful too. Back in NL there came the point when I knew I speak better Dutch then most of them spoke English, and so it became especially annoying when they’d speak English to me. But indeed if you ask them to stick to Dutch/Danish, they will do as they are told ;)
    About the “rødgrød med flød”… Well, I never annoy him with tongetwisters, but I also enjoy listening to my boyfriend trying to pronounce Hungarian words or phrases, and for example now, that we are looking for baby names :) I do make him repeat some of them 20-30 times, most probably without him hearing any difference. “Rødgrød med flød” is a stupid old joke, just like the one I get so very often, when I tell that I’m from Hungary. “Are you hungry?”…. Hahahah… :S
    And whilst there are still those reactions that make us feel uncomfortable -even from Danes that like/love us- there are compliments too. My boyfriend came home yesterday night after his first Hungarian lesson, an told me that compeared to his teacher (a Hungarian guy living in DK for over 20 years) I have no accent, or hardly any, and certainly not a Hungarian one :) So whenever you get an encouraging compliment, just hold on to it, and try to remind yourself of it when the next one says something annoying!
    Keep up the good spirit all you foreigners! After all we all had our reasons to make a move :)

  • Hello Laura and everyone else,

    Laura: I love your post, and recognize so much of it! I am Dutch myself, and have had very similar experiences, both with learning Danish and handling Danish culture. People have generally been nice to me, but I fully agree that you need to have thick skin sometimes, especially in the beginning, when your Danish still is shaky and you feel like people are judging you by how well – or badly – you speak Danish.

    The difficulty is that you both need to learn how to laugh at your own mistakes, and to dare express yourself, when something upsets you. It is very important to set boundaries! I started at University a year and a half after I came here, and one of my class mates was very good at correcting my every mistake. But it got a bit much after a while, and I told her so. We came to an agreement, where she corrects me now and then, but not all the time; only when it really annoyed her or whatever I said was plainly wrong.

    That worked out fabulous for me. Nowadays people are surprised when they hear I am from the Netherlands. They tend to react like: “O really? I thought I heard a bit of an accent, but I couldn’t place it…” or “I just thought you were from Sweden/Norway/the Faroe Islands or something”. This last thing is meant as a huge compliment, for it means they think of me as Danish by proxy. Lovely.

    On the other hand I have also been told that I put a lot of weight on my Dutch heritage, maybe even so much it is annoying some people. It is true that I have a tendency to make comparisons that go along the lines of “… but in the Netherlands we do things like this”, whenever I come across some difference between the countries, however small and insignificant, and I fully understand that it can come across as if I feel the Netherlands are a better place than Denmark. That is not at all my intention! The comparison allows me to cope with the situation, and lets me vent any frustration or awkwardness I might feel as a result, and through it I can (re)assert my personal identity.

    That was one of the hardest things I had to cope with when I moved to Denmark: the loss of identity. The feeling, that I suddenly was like a child again, that needs to go to school to learn how to speak and write properly and isn’t taken serious until it can. The realization that all my years of studying suddenly mean nothing and that I now have to compete with people who have the “right” (= Danish) papers and job experience. And worst of all, the sense of homelessness and social isolation, caused by the geographical distance between me and my family and friends. I am happily married now and have made a couple of good friends, but I still keep asking myself: If anything bad happens, where will I go? What will I do? Will I leave the country or stay? And I can’t answer these questions just yet. It’s kind of scary, not knowing where you belong. Is this something you can relate to?

    • Hi Mayke,
      thanks for sharing your experience! I like the approach of agreeing with your friends how much correcting is appropriate for you. Normally, I would expect that people are open to this, especially since the Danes, as mentioned in another comment, are very honest and straightforward, so I’d expect them to appreciate this approach.
      This is “not my first rodeo”; I’ve lived in Paris and New Orleans before, although this time in Denmark, I’ve moved here indefinitely. I’ve always found that living abroad actually brought me closer to my heritage and opened my eyes more for things that I took for granted, but came to realize were actually very typical German. I do know the “what if” feeling, too, from time to time. I think that’s probably just part of the expat experience. Of course we feel lost and lonely sometimes, being (more or less) far away from home. But what I love is that we can also pick and choose the best from both worlds! I love some typical Danish traditions, like all the Christmas stuff, and of course “hygge”, and I include them in my life just as I do my German traditions. :)

  • I used to get angry with Denmark and the Danes for making it so unforgiving practicing beginner Danish. My boyfriend who is a Dane watched helplessly on the side while I had ores a lot of resentment. I moved to the states because of work for two weeks ears and came back and decided to stay permanently to start a family with my Danish boyfriend. It was hard but what I realized was my mindset was wrong. Rejoice whenever small achievements are made speaking or listening to Danish. Laugh at oneself as well and meet new people and let them know you are trying. The Danes have been completely forgiving and very helpful when they find you have a fun adventure trying to learn Danish. I think expecting to be perfect and being embarrassed is natural but if one has a resolved who cares. I will learn by practicing whenever I can and to laugh it will become a more positive experience. It is true. There will be asses that will laugh but that is when you educate them that hey at least I am trying. Sometimes it is just ignorance that they might act rude to foreigner. For example, Americans wold also do the same if things are mispronounced or not understandable. It is not about you but they do not know their offense. They mean well. This time around my Danish learning is much more fun and less scary. . Also practice at language cafe. They are less scary because we all are foreigners and know to be patient and understanding and it gives a safe environment to practice Danish even if it is basic or bad. People will kindly correct and give you new vocabulary and you meet friends there too. Hope this helps!

    • That very much depends on how much time you want to invest, if you know any related languages (like Norwegian, Swedish, German), etc. If you are willing to put in the effort, you can probably reach fluency in a year or two.

  • I did enter a comment on FB hoping to win a copy of En Lille but then I read the small print. Seems I’m disqualified by virtue of not currently living in DK. Oh well… Here is my comment just the same…

    I was born in DK but grew up in the US. When I was 20 I returned, to work in a “Børnehjem” in Juelsminde. I re-learned most of my Danish from the kids I was looking after so when I was traveling on my own and looking for a train station in Aalborg, I asked for the “fuh-tog” (choo choo train). I found the fellow I asked very amused and forgiving. Of course, this was in the 1970s and perhaps attitudes have changed but I never felt belittled by my imperfect Danish. I’m hoping to return to Denmark to live as soon as I get my dual Danish/American citizenship. I love the US and don’t want to burn any bridges by leaving for too long as I have retained my Danish citizenship all these years.

    I’m loving your blog! Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!

    Best Regards~

  • Hey! I enjoyed your article a lot! The fact is, that after learning Spanish and English I was so excited to learn one of the Scandinavian languages, Danish ,Norwegian or Swedish.
    So,8 months ago I started with Norwegian and then Swedish and these days i’m testing Danish in order to choose one of them. I love Danish pronunciation no matter how difficult it sounds .
    The only part of the comments I’ve heard so far, by the majority of people that went to Denmark to learn the language,is the snobbish attitude of Danes towards new learners.
    It is something that makes me feel quite disappointed about it.
    Neither Spaniards nor English natives ever made me feel uncomfortable in the very beginning of learning their languages. The contrary they were very supportive and kind.
    I mean I don’t want t learn Danish ,just to go to Denmark and find work or something so I could deal with snobbish natives’ attitude.
    It’s just for my cultural and linguistic needs and pleasure….
    I’ll have to turn my eyes on Norwegian or Swedish instead.

    • Hi Edrik, thanks for taking the time to comment! I don’t necessarily think that the Danes have a snobby attitude towards Danish learners – in my experience, it’s more that they take notice when people struggle with Danish and then quickly offer to switch to English instead. It’s mostly meant as a nice gesture, but I know that people often misunderstand it as rudeness. From personal experience, the vast majority of people are happy to speak Danish with a new learner, if you ask them to. Good luck with whatever language you end up choosing! :)

Leave a Reply to Laura Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.