Have you started your Danish lessons yet? Or are you terrified of our wonderful Vikingesk language? If so, I hear you, I see you, I understand you. Danish is hard. Danish is really hard in fact. BUT, I promise you, it is not impossible! Take my word for it as a Danish teacher: Danish is definitely possible for you to learn, if you put in the effort, the work, and if you cover yourself in a big ol’ layer of patience. And yes, you will get frustrated, and you will get sore face- and throat muscles, but when that happens you know you are doing it correctly!
There are a number of apps, webpages, and books out there that promise you that you can learn Danish using only these. I strongly disagree with this. For some it might be enough yes, but the vast majority will need some regular lesssons with a teacher – a good teacher, because the pronunciation of Danish is what will make you want to throw books, devices, and maybe even the teacher out the window. And we (I now apparently speak on behalf of all Danish teachers) won’t hold that against you, because we are very much aware of the hurdles you enevitably will face when learning Danish. I have listed some of the most common struggles I have come across in my work as a Danish teacher. So here they are: 7 reasons why Danish is hard.
- Eating the words
One of the most frustrating things for most of my students is that you see a word, you read it aloud, and your teacher instantly corrects you, because you are pronouncing what you see, and really you should in fact not pronounce half the word. The thing is, we ‘eat’ half of our words. The only way to remember this is to practice. We don’t really have any rules concerning this since it often differs according to the various Danish dialects. And yes you will hate it, but you will be able to learn. One rule of thumb however, is for instance with most words ending on R – especially the present tense R and the plural R – you just open your mouth and make a deep A sound instead of pronouncing the R.
Jeg bor i Vejle og jeg elsker det. Hvorfor skal du ikke have noget vand? Hunden kunne ikke sove på måtten.
Ja bo(a) i Vejle å ja elsk(a) de. Våfå ska du ik ha nåed van? Hunnn ku ik sou på måtn.
I live in Vejle and I love it. Why do you not want any water? The dog could not sleep on the mat.
Even though we are a positive people, the happiest in the world some would say, we use negatives – in our language that is. If we talk casually to someone we use negotations to emphasise what we are trying to say, as a means of highlighting our questions. If you don’t feel comfortable using it, then don’t. It is something that can easily be left out, but when coversing with a Dane, you might come across it, hence you need to know what it means.
Skal vi ikke tage ud og drikke øl i aften?
Should we not go out and drink beers tonight?
What do you say, should we go out and get some beers tonight?
- Soft D
The D, ohhhh that wonderful D. And no, I’m not talking about the good old hard D, but the infuriating soft D that all Danes know exactly how to pronounce, but no one ever thinks about how difficult it in fact is to pronounce for anyone outside of Denmark. The key to this sound is to press your tongue towards the lower teeth while you say the D sound (and no, it will not look pretty, and yes, you will feel silly, but that’s Danish for you). If you make an L sound, you are not doing it correctly and yes, Danes will be able to hear the difference.
Jeg hedder Mette. Jeg skal til møde. Udsigten er fantastisk.
Ja hedda Mette. Ja ska te møddd. Uddsegtn r fantasdisg.
My name is Mette. I am going to a meeting. The view is fantastic.
In Danish we don’t just have some tricky words and pronounciations – we also have our very own letters: Æ-Ø-Å. Personally I love these letters, because they are so unique. Our neighbouring Nordic countries have letters that are very similar, but these three together are Danish, and only Danish. We don’t use them that often, and Å has in many cases been replaced by AA, i.e. Århus —> Aarhus. The letters are not really that diffiult to pronounce, however when you compare them to the other vowels in Danish it can be quite difficult to distinguish between the sounds. For instance I, E, A, and Æ might be very close in sound, but Danes can definitely tell the difference. Ø, O, U, and Y are also very alike in some cases. The only way to learn to pronounce the difference is by putting the letters in context rather than just saying them seperatedly. What also makes the vowels a bit difficult is that they change according to the word they are in. That means that suddently Y is actually pronounced as Ø, and Ø is pronounced as O. This is due to something we call ‘the vowel latter’, and it is something we are taught in primary school. If you are focusing on spoken Danish (which you really should be), you should not spend energy on that, but rather learn to tell the words apart. Otherwise you will be too much up in your head and not be able to hold a fluid conversation in Danish.
Jeg brygger øl i et nyt bryghus. Jeg kommer måske på torsdag. Pronounced:
Ja brøgga øl i et nyt brøghus. Ja kåmma mosge på tårsda.
I am brewing beer in a new brewery. I might come on Thursday.
The word think is used fairly often in English, and the same goes for Danish. It is however a bit more tricky to use it in Danish, since we do not have just one word covering Think, but rather four different ones. In this one pronunciation is not the struggle, but rather remembering the difference between the four different meanings, and using the correct word when trying to speak fluent Danish. But practice pratice practice makes perfect. The four words are Tænker, Synes, Tror, Mener. Tænker is used to describe thoughts in your mind. Synes is used to express an opinion. Tror is when you are not certain, when you can out in the word maybe (måske) and it still makes sense. Mener is also used to express an opinion, but I would argue that it is used more in expressing political opinions.
Jeg tænker tit på min familie. Jeg synes Frankrig er et smukt land. Jeg tror det vil regne i morgen. Jeg mener, at kvinder og mænd skal have lige rettigheder.
I often think about my family. I think France is a beautiful country. I think it is going to rain tomorrow. I think that women and men should have equal rights.
- Words sounding alike
So, many of our words sound alike. Not just for internationals, but for Danes as well, and sometimes we really need to push our hearing to the limit, and even guess what word is being used. Luckily it often helps to listen to the context. Some of the words that sound very alike, but are grammatically very different, are Nogen, Noget, Nogle, and Nået. The first three words are all about quantity, and the latter about time. Nogen is used primarily for human beings, noget is used for incountable items, such as milk or other fluids, nogle is used for countable items, such as strawberries.
Er der nogen hjemme? Har du noget mælk? Jeg har ikke nogle nøgler. Har du nået at være på apoteket i dag?
Are there anyone home? Do you have any milk? I do not have any keys. Did you make it to the pharmacy today?
- Same word different meanings
Bog, Nå, Fyr, Rod, Anden, Tog, Tal, Stamme, Kort, Bar – these are all Danish words with multiple meanings, making it sometimes difficult to read a text. But once again, the key is to listen for the context, rather than trying to translate all the words in a given text. Bog means a book, but it is also the fruit from the beech. Nå means to reach something, but it also means to make something on time. Furthermore it is also a kind of meaningsless word used in causal conversations, best translated to ohh. Fyr means a guy, but also a lighthouse, and to shoot off something. Rod is a root, but also a mess. Anden is the duck, but also the second. Tog is took, but also train. Tal is speak, but also numbers. Stamme is to stutter, a tribe, and also a log. Kort is a playing cards, but also means short. Bar means a bar, but also a chocolate bar, and to be naked. Yes, this can be quite confusing, but again, listen for the context. Who would mention a lighthouse when you are talking about that guy you met last week.
Han tog et tog til Aarhus. Jeg spillede kort med Obama. Det var en kort aften. Jeg skal på bar i aften. Babyen havde bar numse. Jeg kan ikke nå bussen. Jeg kan ikke nå mælken.
He took a train to Aarhus. I played cards with Obama. It was a short night. I am going to a bar tonight. The baby’s bum was bare. I cannot make the bus on time. I cannot reach the milk.