Before we dive into the already fairly niche topic of “wanting to learn Danish” I think it is important for me to mention a couple relevant pieces of information first:
I have sat down at the Danish learning table as an “I’m sorry… but I can only speak English because I come from western Canada and, even though I’ve travelled a lot, the world is kinda set up so people that speak English can pretty much totally get by without ever having to learn even the very basics of another language, including the official other one that is spoken in Canada (aka French)” man of 32 years.
I have only been attempting to learn Danish for the past few months. Which is another way of me saying: I still can’t speak Danish very well. In fact, you might say that I still can’t speak it at all. You are literally about to read advice on how to learn Danish from a guy that has not learned Danish.
OK. Now that we’ve appropriately lowered all expectations down to a level I feel more comfortable speaking from, here are my 5 pearls of earned wisdom for anyone that is thinking of trying to start learning themselves some Danish…
#1 - THE PRONUNCIATION IS TOTALLY FUCKED
There is no getting around this. For some reason, way back in Denmark’s early days, they let some guy with a speech impediment decide how the language would be spoken. Or maybe it was a woman with a speech impediment. I guess the only thing we can know for sure is that whichever Viking was in charge of pronunciation had a serious problem with pronunciation.
As an english speaker first glancing at the Danish alphabet, you’ll originally be the most worried about The Three Letters What Don’t Exist In The English Alphabet. These are also known as the “A Stuck To An E” (æ), the “O's Are Not Welcome Here” (ø) and “The Little O Jumped Over An A” (å). It turns out that those aren’t the letters that you should be the most worried about (besides having trouble finding them on your english keyboard).
True, when you first see a word like “rød”, your initial reaction will be “what the feck is that in the middle?!”, but it is not too far into your 'Adventures In Learning Danish' that you'll discover that it’s the “d”, and the bastardised way the Danes sometimes “say it”, that you should have been worried about all along.
To me and my ears, a "d" often sounds like the “l” in “fell”, except the pronunciation is a little trickier (also, sometimes a "d" sounds like how you'd expect a "d" to sound like, because why not). What I try to do, and what seems to help get me the closest to sounding like a real Dane, is to say “el” like an English person saying "El Niño", but I imagine that a small person has punched my tongue and grabbed the "Niño" before I can finish pronouncing the “el” all the way. This often leads to me looking like I just vomited my tongue a bit when I try to say things like “rød”… but it also leads to Danish people going “wow, nice pronunciation”.
Here's some videos to help better prepare you for the really hard time you are about to have with Danish pronunciation…
#2 - LEARNING MATERIALS WITHOUT AUDIO ARE USELESS
This is probably true when learning all languages, but it is especially true with Danish. So if you find some learning materials that do not come with audio, than you have actually just found some materials, but no learning. And similarly, if you have just audio but no text, that doesn't work too well either. Danish words do not sound like you think they do, and they do not spell like how you think they sound.
Finding Danish learning materials can be difficult, as it is not one of those sexy languages like French or Spanish or German (just kidding, German is not sexy at all, but there is a lot of learning materials for it). Sometimes it can feel like pretty slim pickings. I had many failed attempts at even getting over the first hump of learning Danish because I couldn’t find any good source material.
Thanks to the internet, I eventually came across Memrise. It’s free. You can find courses with pronunciation (again, Danish is not sexy, so there are a lot less options than more popular languages… but there are some). And Memrise's approach to learning the material seems really good (at least for me and my brain). Start doing 15 minutes a day on Memrise, and pretty soon you’ll start thinking that maybe you’re at a point where you can write a blog post to advise other people.
Eventually, you're going to need to expand your learning materials. For example, Memrise mostly helps you learn words by repetition but it doesn't really break down any grammar rules. So if you want to learn when to use "en" and when to use "et" in front of a word, you'll need to look elsewhere [and then after you look elsewhere you'll learn that there isn't really any set rule for when you use either because WHY WOULD THERE BE ANY LOGIC TO THIS BLOODY LANGUAGE?!]
But Memrise will get you to the point where you can move on to more text heavy materials and actually make sense of them, so start off there.
#3 - LEARN THE 100 MOST COMMON WORDS & BASIC GRAMMAR RULES
There is a Tim Ferris blog post about how the key to becoming conversation fluent in any language in just a short while is to focus in on learning the 100 most common words. And he has another post about how translating just a few simple sentence into the language you want to learn, you can unlock that language's basic grammar rules and be well on your way.
Now, I can’t say that this was my approach and oh yeah it totally worked, but… I think it is a pretty useful concept to tell yourself when you are just getting started. The early learning days can get quite discouraging, so thinking “I just need to learn 100 words and translate a few sentences?! A monkey that knows how to use Google Translate could do that!” helps keep you motivated.
Also, when finding the above Tim Ferris links I noticed that he has since posted some more “hey… learning languages can be way easier than you think" posts, so if you want to build up your pre-learning confidence maybe have a read of 'How to Learn Any Language in Record Time and Never Forget It' and '12 Rules for Learning Foreign Languages in Record Time — The Only Post You’ll Ever Need'. Danish is hard, so any tricks or false belief in the easiness of the task ahead is helpful.
#4 - WANT TO FEEL LIKE A KID AGAIN?
Learning a new language is a great way to re-live how it feels to be a little kid again. Well, maybe not re-experiencing that blissful brand of child-like wonder, we’ve all been far too corrupted by now for getting another go at that, but you can have grown adults give you applause for doing tasks usually reserved for toddlers, like counting to ten (also known as “ti” in Danish) or naming almost all of the things at the dinner table.
“Det er en talklerken!” you’ll say as they point at a plate. And when you confidently say “Det er en ske!” when they hold up a spoon, they will damn near drop that spoon, along with their jaws, and begin banging their palms together for you. And you know what? They won’t even think you’re an idiot when you can’t remember what butter is called, because hey, you’re just a little foreign kid now. And little foreign kids are cute because they mispronounce the darnedest things.
Eventually, most will tire of testing your low level language skills after a few rounds (because, let's be honest, it's not actually that impressive), but if they don't and you start getting tired of 'Small Child Trivia Night', a good sentence to learn to say is “Kan du stave det?". This means "Can you spell that?", which, after the 4th or 5th time you say it to someone trying to force your danish hand, it should eventually put off the most keen amateur Danish teacher.
And if you have a real keener on your hands, follow every one of their "do you know how to say this?" questions with another question: “Kan du skrive det ned?" (which is "Can you write that down?"). They will leave you to your rye bread soon enough.
#5 - DANISH AND ENGLISH ARE MORE SIMILAR THAN YOU THINK
Despite your initial thoughts when first hearing it being spoke, Danish and English actually have a lot of similarities. A lot of words are super similar and some words are even spelt exactly the same. This all makes a lot of sense once you remember that Danish Vikings were all up in the UK raping & pillaging many years ago, so of course there is going to be a lot of crossover. However, there is not so much crossover that things become super easy, there is just enough that it gives you a little hope in knowing that learning Danish is not as “I might as well be learning Chinese" as you originally thought it would be.
But, be warned: as you progress and start mastering certain words and grammar, you can't just directly translate things from English to Danish. Sometimes the Danes put things in a weird order, sometimes they don't. Sometimes you think you've grasped the proper structure and all the words that should make up the sentence you're about to say, and then it will turn out that the Danes “just don't say it like that" or "in this certain situation, and for reasons that cannot be explained, you'd actually say something completely different than what you have logically attempted".
Also, just because something is an expression where you are from, and just because you know the words to now say that expression in Danish… that doesn't mean it works over in Denmark. Although, that hasn't stopped me from telling people to “sparke sten" ("kick rocks").
Alright. I think that is more or less all the "getting started learning Danish" wisdom I can pass on from my first 3 months of attempting it in my free time. I will now leave you with a helpful quote from the comments section of this 'The very rough guide to Danish' article…
"no Englishman could speak this Language adequately unless he were drunk and had no roof to his mouth"
And with drinking now explained as a vital part of my educational tool kit, I best get back to trying to master that Danish language… skål!