Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Learning Danish By Listening


Learning Danish is hard for many reasons: the vowels that don’t exist in English, pronunciation not well represented by the spelling, and the fact that Danes also tend to just drop syllables, sometimes even a whole word.

Furthermore, Danes have a very narrow standard of deviation of proper pronunciation within which they can understand you. Unlike native English speakers whose mother tongue is studied and spoken by many and therefore get used to understanding English with thick accents, the Danes don’t usually encounter foreigners who know Danish and so they haven’t heard much non-native Danish.

Most of the Danes speak English quite well (better than the Germans, for example), not only because they start learning English at a young age and many of their university text books are in English, but also because movies in English are subtitled and not closed-captioned. They are, therefore, superb at knowing slang and vernacular you don’t expect foreigners to know (e.g., “I got brain freeze”). They learn by listening.

I thought I should also learn Danish by listening: not by listening to them speak Danish (because their pronunciation doesn’t map to the spelling you’d expect so it’s hard to visualize what you are hearing even if you have encountered the vocabulary/expression before), but by listening to them speak English.


When they make mistakes speaking in English and you hear the same mistake over and over again made by different Danes, you know you are onto something: it’s most likely because that’s how they say it in Danish. It’s a small thing, but these small things are hard to get right. I kept hearing “I am happy for it” instead of about it (in response to a stool I left outside our door so my neighbors can also use it when they are putting their boots on). Sure enough, in Danish, you would say “Jeg er glad for det.”

When I ask “May I speak in English?”, their response is often, “Yes, we can take it in English,” instead of do it. They do indeed use the verb “at tage” (to take) in this case, in Danish.

I thought the reverse might work: learning expressions that seem odd to me when literally translated by saying the literary translated version in English. For example, the answer to how are you is “Jeg har det godt” literary translated as “I have it good”. So when someone asks you how are you in English, i would say “I have it good” instead of “fine thanks”. The method was quickly retired after just one lunch period.

Photo: Ebeltoft, Denmark


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This entry was posted on June 27, 2015 by in Denmark, language and tagged , , .
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