Hvad?? How to accept the fact you will never understand Danish

I don’t speak Danish. Jeg taler ikke Dansk.

Now repeat after me: Jeg taler ikke Dansk.

Good work! You have learnt how to say I don’t speak Danish, which is pretty much all you will ever need to know. Congratulations. Go forth and enjoy the wonders of Aarhus.

Oh…. You want more? Hmmm. You see, the problem is, in over the year that I have lived here, my Danish has been, to say the least, not exactly the best. (This ‘I’ being Marcia by the way: our other International Extraordinaire is partnered up with a Viking so over the years she has picked up some Danish with the sole purpose of making me look bad.)

Now, my lacklustre Danish cannot be blamed on a lack of opportunity to learn. The Danish government helpfully provides all of us internationals with three years worth of free Danish lessons at Lærdansk. So I’ve decided that the problem lies with the Danes themselves: their English is just too darn good! If you try to mumble your way through a Danish sentence, they can tell instantly that you are new at this. And of course they want to help: by speaking back to you in English. Which in turn becomes the opposite of helping, as of course you then respond back in English (as the thought of uttering even one more syllable in Danish brings you out into a cold sweat). And henceforth this cycle repeats itself again and again until the end of time.

I guess that what I’m trying to say is (apart from finding any excuse as to why I have failed so miserably at the language) is that learning Danish is difficult. And it really is difficult – not just for a native English speaker without any other language skills like myself. But it’s OK. Obviously, not every single person in Denmark knows English (and knows it well), as that would make the Danes simply a species of super-Vikings. But the overwhelming majority do know English, and they know it extremely well. Which of course is amazing for us. But yet, this is also a problem, because it makes it tricky to ever really learn as you a) never have to speak Danish, b) it is difficult to find the opportunity to practice without being interrupted and c) Danish is hard!

Now, I can understand that you have probably looked at some Danish and are thinking: what the hell are you talking about? And to some extent you are right: Danish is basically English and German mixed together with a bit of Swedish and a whole lot of of herring. However, it is not the written language that is the problem: it’s the pronounciation. Danish often sounds like a bunch of vowels because they just hate consonants. If there is a g or a t atthe end of the word, they ignore it. The d is called a soft d because it is pronounced like an l. I mean, what is that all about?! Call a spade a spade  Denmark, and call the soft d ‘kinda like an l but not quite’.

Rød grød med fløde. Quite possibly the hardest phrase in Danish to ever pronounce. If you ask a Dane to speak to you in Danish, I guarantee this is what they shall say!

But the worst is definitly the counting.

Oh lord, the counting.

The Danes have an interesting counting system – like in German and Arabic (for instance),  they count in 20s. Therefore, to give you an example, this is the number 56: seksoghalvtredsindstyvende. In English, this is “directly translated” as six and fifty-ness, twenty-ness . You can only imagine what it is like when you reach triple digits….

To make the problem even worse (although it certainly makes me feel better about my own language inadequacies), the Danes have very strong dialects. Look at this video:

(UPDATE: Since someone, ahem, is very concerned about this video’s accuracy, we want to make it clear that this video is made by Norwegian comedians taking a jab at the Danish language and is obviously an exaggeration. There, you happy? ;))

So what can we learn from this?

a) The Danes can’t even understand each other! So what chance are we possibly meant to have?

b) Hvad? actually means ‘what?’. This is a very useful phrase to know. Except it’s pronounced like ‘vel?’…  I told you Danish hates consonants.

c) If you really want to learn some more Danish but aren’t attending classes, then there are a few key phrases in the arrival guide that yours truly produced.

d) That really is it. This is your first and final Danish lesson from the International Extraordinaire. However, this is only one of a number of posts which will help you to Danish-ise your life, so make sure you look out for them over the next few weeks. Hurrah!

Vi ses!

41 thoughts on “Hvad?? How to accept the fact you will never understand Danish

  1. Despite the fact that I strongly agree in quite the WHOLE points in the post, I should admit that I’m kinda disappointed about the fact that YOU forgot to mention the most effective method to lear any language: PUDEN METODE (Yes, is written in danish and the D of the first word is a soft one).

    1. For all of those wondering what that means, puden metode means to learn any language by having a partner who is from said country. Whilst that is a handy tip Mr Sinue, I don’t believe the IC can guarantee this for every student… I suggest attending Lærdansk as a start instead 🙂

      1. Hvad?!? I’ve been trying the puden metode for the past five years! His advice? “Stop trying.” And claims it causes actual physical pain to hear me try to choke out this impossible language.

        Jeg taler ikke Dansk. But Denmark does know how to steal a heart.

      2. Yes, exactly. No one can say we didn’t try, but at one point we do get tired of the smirks and laughing as we swallow our own tongues and can only emit unintelligent gurgling sounds. Thank you for bringing up a crucial flaw of pudemetoden!

  2. Sinué is right! Pude- or lagenmetoden does work. I’m surprised that the IC can’t even provide this basic service. Maybe you should get in touch with some Danes..??

  3. I strongly believe in that you will only really learn stuff, if you need it. And I noticed that you didn’t mention any sort of motivation for learning the language – and I don’t blame you. Why would you want to waste your time trying to pronounce nonsense phonemes in a language that no one hardly speaks anyway? As the video shows, we don’t even understand eachother. And it’s ugly-sounding too.
    I enjoy watching the slow decay of such a superfluous thing. It won’t be missed!

    PS: I suppose you mean ‘Pudemetoden’…

    1. Dear Mr Frederik,
      The International Extraordinaire would actually really like to learn Danish, but as it is such a difficult language and the Danes speak English so well, it is hard to keep the motivation going after a few failed Danish classes. And I wouldn’t call it ugly as much as I would call it muffled…

  4. Hrm. That video was made by norwegian television to make fun of Danes, so it’s not really appropriate. They are not even speaking danish, which I guess is a testament to how bad your danish is, Marcia.

  5. Hi,

    Thanks for this post. I myself am trying to get to grips with the language (have been trying for the past two years, actually).

    You can check out my video attempt here:

    Take care.

    1. Dimitar, you shame us all with your awesome Danish skills! Maybe you can share with us the secret to your success? In fact, if you are interested, I would like to invite you to write a guest blog post for us on the matter!
      Email me at jn@adm.au.dk and we can discuss this. If not, no hard feelings because we still appreciate you stopping by. 🙂

      Again, kudos to your determination. I usually give up after stumbling across a word like brød…


    2. Du taler da godt dansk, Dimitar! As a native viking I understand everything you said, and I see no reason why any other Dane wouldn’t. Din udtale er selvfølgelig ikke perfekt endnu, men den er godt på vej. Best of luck with learning Danish, to all of you!

      By the way, I hope everybody gets the fact that the video in the blog post is a joke from Norwegian television. I guess some Norwegians like to make fun of Danish and vice versa (and don’t get me started on Swedish…). Here is a comic portraying this theme, actually also based on the typical ‘rødgrød med fløde’-test (you are right in that regard, Marcia):

  6. Haha this is a huge debate topic. Anyway, I thought in Denmark it is required by LAW to learn Danish if you plan to stay here for a long time. I’m from India and I was told this, and so I spent a good majority of the time with some Danish friends learning to speak and luckily after a few years I can now say I’m quite fluent though sometimes when I speak it sounds jibberish.

    1. Hey Kumar, You’re absolutely right. Anyone who plans to stay in Denmark for an indefinite amount of time should definitely do their best to learn Danish. The immigration laws are always changing, especially with the new government, but I think we should all count on having to learn Danish to get permanent residence of any kind.

  7. I am so relieved to hear that there are others out there, struggling with the Danish language. I have felt so dumb for learning so little in the time I have spent here (almost 2 years). I tried the 3 year lessons at the Sprogcenter and left in frustration for numerous reasons. I am now trying to teach myself at home but the level of learning material available is limited and all my Danish friends speak almost perfect English, of course.

    I have found a website which supplies some of the stuff the Sprogcenter used: http://www.spf-herning.dk.

    But I can’t get a job without the language skills needed and am wondering if I will ever know enough Danish to ever get a job anyway… C’est la vie. Will just keep at it for now and practice, practice, practice!

  8. Hallo,

    I just want to write and highlight two things: 1. although Dansk is more difficult than English, that doesn’t say much, because English is a grammatically poor Language. 2. the Weakling, English, out of the Picture, Dansk is in Fact, within the Indo-European Family, a grammatically weak language, and has moreover over time devolved into a less sophisticated one in and of itself.

    The point of this? Well, it implies one should not “sweat” over Dansk. It is better to sweat over (if wanting to stay in the germanic Family) something like Deutsch or Svenska, or (if wanting to stay in the Indo-European Family) something like Spanish or Русский Язык.

    The only Sense in which Dansk incurs Difficulties… is Pronounciation.

    Now the backing up of (2).

    Dansk is grammatically weak:
    Genders+Cardinalities: 3 (Utrum, Neutrum, Plural).
    grammatical Cases: 2 or 3 (Subjective, Objective, Genetive…sort of)
    Verbs: not declined by Person.

    Dansk has devolved:
    * Genders Masculine and Feminine collapsed to Utrum
    * De (II. Person Formal) no longer used. (Whereas others in the Indo-European Family, preserve the ‘tu’ & ‘Vu’ distinction.) This is cultural, but it nevertheless counts as a Devolution.
    * Capitalisation of Nouns disestablished — weakening immediate Recognition of Nouns. (Again, don’t compare to English, compare only to sophisticated Langauges. Note that on this Point, other Languages fall too.)

    Compare this to it’s near relative, Deutsch, and we have immediately something grammatical far richer. The real Power in Deutsch, however lies in two things: the incredibly high Non-rigidity of Sentences, and the ability to (and acceptability of) transform linguistic Objects from one Type to another. But purely in terms of things one can count, Deutsch improves, but let us consider a drastic contrast:

    Russian is grammatically powerful:
    * Genders: 3 x 2 States (living and nonliving)
    * Cardinalities: 2 (EVERY Gender possess a pluralisation, incl. Neutral!)
    * grammatical Cases: 6 (!) (Nom., Gen., Dat., Akk., Instrumental, Präpositiv)
    * Verbs: declined by Pronouns (9=first sg. masc+fem, first pl., 2 seconds, 4 thirds)

    Just consider Adjektives and Nouns. How many Declension: naive Upperbounds: in Dansk 3×3=9. In Russian? 3x2x2x6=72. Actually, in Russian Words are further catergories by Endings, rendering in Fact ca. 200 Declensions.

    Just take the Cases alone Dansk: 2 (or 3… but not really: Genitiv doesn’t play that much of a role in Declining), Deutsch 4, Russian 6, … Latein 7.

    If one leaves the Indo-European Family, there is Finnish with ca. 15 Cases, and Ungarisch with debatably upto even 30 Cases.

    Again, why am I saying this? To put Perspective on Dansk. It is not difficult in an absolute Sense. Don’t be discouraged! In Fact the only reason I can see to not learn Dansk is to go for something more powerful, of which there is an Abundance!

    Small Note:
    » “The Danes have an interesting counting system – like in German and Arabic (for instance), they count in 20s.”

    I don’t know about Arabic, but in Deutsch, the Base (even with the Names) is ten. I think that could be French, from which Dansk had become heavily influenced.

  9. I just stumbled upon this site by accident but thought I would clarify something. In Danish you don’t actually count in 20’s when counting normaly like one, two, three (mængdetal) but only counting like first, second, third (ordenstal) and then you only ad it to the 50’s-90’s so 56 is just seksoghalvtreds (six and fifty) and
    seksoghalvtredsindstyvende means 56’th. Furthermore the -indstyvende is seldom used. My guess is that we so seldom have to talk about the 50’th or 70’th of something that many danes never have learned the proper way.
    The words though for 50, 60, 70, 80 and 90 is relic of counting in 20 and though it was once called halvtredsindstyve, tresindstyve and so on you now never call it anything but halvtreds, tres, halvfjerds, firs og halvfems.
    I would think that the hardest in learning the Danish numbersystem is the fact that we reverse the order of out ones and tens so for instance 35024 becomes femogtredivetusinde og firetyve (five and thirty thousand and four and twenty)
    Og forresten held og lykke med at lære dansk 🙂

  10. love the video of the guy trying to get his bike fixed. fun and very tongue-in-cheek humor. I lived a year in DK and did not find the language so difficult to learn and understand, but definitely challenging to speak. Luckily for those of us that speak English, Danes for the most part are excellent at speaking English and are glad to show off their skills! :o)

    1. Thanks – as a new contributor to this blog, I have to agree that though Danish is challenging to speak, it is quite easy to understand and learn and the Danes do a great job of helping out when you’re dedicated. But for the most part, my English goes a long way since Danes love to practice (even if they say they can’t speak English, they still can speak a lot more than I can speak Danish!)

  11. To be honest I always considered Danish as one of the easiest languages to learn (I’m not Danish). And ever since I moved to Denmark 2 years ago I’ve been proved right as I actually got a grip on the language pretty quickly (faster than I thought I would actually). The only thing that is indeed hard and I am still struggling with (sometimes even desperately) is the pronunciation – there seem to be no rules there which is also why I must have a terrible accent but I’m talking Danish 90% of the time in Denmark and from what people are responding I also guess they understand me (though definitely noticing I’m no Dane). But the grammar, the words and the whole structure of the language is relatively simple and easy compared to other germanic languages. But maybe Danish is just a bit easier to learn for me as, although I’ve been growing up in the UK, my actual mother tongue is German and there are far more similarities between Danish and German than Danish and English ( though German definitely being the harder and uglier language – which is in contrast to Danish obsessed with consonants)

    1. I definitely agree that German helps out your Danish learning process! I lived in Germany for some years and speak German and sometimes, if I don’t know the Danish word, I simply say the German one just holding my tongue a little and it works out in my favor (sometimes… not always!).

      A lot of times, if you go somewhere and begin in Danish, unless you severely struggle, a Dane will continue the conversation in Danish and smile at how silly you sound. The grammar and language is perhaps simple… but a difficult pronunciation is certainly a big part of the hurdle to get over. If I compare learning Danish to learning German, I have to say that though German grammar can be difficult, I found it much easier to learn. Sure the second verb is placed at the end and there are the silly rules with accusative and dative and genitive… but those come with time of going out and speaking the language and hearing it. I could practice “rødgrød med fløde” 400 times and still struggle every time I have to utter the silly soft d! Thanks for the comment!

    1. Hi! Actually I think you would be better off finding a Dane to help you translate as the contributors to this blog are mostly native English speakers!

      “Jeg har aldrig elsket dig højere” would translate roughly to “I’ve never love/adored you more” … but I’m having trouble understanding the English sentence fully, I guess!

      Hope I’ve helped a little!

  12. This has cheered me up! I may not live in Denmark and I never have but my family are Danish and they all live in Denmark. I am now 32 and although I have a reasonable understanding of what is being said to me, I am often laughed at for spitting on people and sounding drunk and as you have already stated everyone then comes to my rescue by speaking English… 🙂

  13. i have a English friend that want’s to speak Dansk. But she doesn’t have to im trying to tell her that. it’s a small country with strange ppl. that speak in many different ways. and i kinda got sad about the movie where they pretend to speak Dansk. it’s so far off its crazy. anyhow we tease each other, about the way we speak and are kinda separated from island to mainland and so on. and there are some gray zones in Danmark no one except the natives understand what they say xD ohh and btw. we have English in school at a young age so the thing about lack of knowledge is wrong ^^ and i do think you have to learn Dansk to live here, or well i just hate ppl. living here that don’t even want
    try, if i hear them try they get so many bonus points right off the bat! i love watching a obviuos not Dane speak perfect Dansk its great 😀

  14. Det har været yderst interessant og læse dit indlæg og diverse svar…… Men meget navlebeskuverende…… Det er kun en vej -fu må lære det sprog det land du bor, hvis ikke er du meget navle beskurende og så kan je kun sige hAve fun

  15. I spent my last year in Denmark as an Exchange Student, and even though I was told that Danish was one of the most difficult languages to learn, I think a did a pretty good job. I tried to speak Danish as much as possible, and when people were able to understand me (despite of my pronunciation) it was a big win for me. I can now officially say that I can hold a conversation entirely in Danish for more than 10 minutes!

    Jeg ønsker alle en fantastisk dag! Vi ses!

    btw, my mother tongue is Spanish. Just in case you were wondering 😉

    1. It’s always a great feeling when you realize that you can actually hold a conversation without the huge breaks and pauses. And furthermore that the other person in the conversation actually understood you too!

      I think it’s different for everyone. Personally, I don’t find Danish hard to learn either – it’s the pronunciation that constantly throws me off. I’m not sure where you lived but a lot of times in my setting, just pronouncing a word wrong makes people believe you don’t know Danish, so it’s difficult to continue to practice when everyone slips into English. That being said, of course you could just continue in Danish, but that disheartening feeling often takes over and you just go with the flow of the conversation… now in English.

      But that being said, some people just have an ear for Danish! Perhaps you’re a lucky one! 🙂

  16. Hey there ! I randomly found your blog, and as a native Dane I was a little surprised, but in a very positive way, that there are so many foreigners who take an interest in learning Danish ! yay !
    Couple of comments regarding the actual blog and comments:
    – The video that you uploaded is hilarious, but I don’t understand a word they’re saying haha xD (and yeah I read that you were already told it’s Norwegian coedy etc.) On one hand it’s pretty funny, but on the other hand I really hope that it won’t discourage and keep people from taking on the Danish langauge, if they aren’t aware that it’s Norwegian satire.
    – I can easily imagine how frustrating it must be, when you initiate a conversation in Danish, and the Danes (hearing you’re struggleing) start replying in English. Of course this might discourage people to learn Danish any further, but the solution is as simple as can be: just say that you prefer to have your conversation in Danish ! xD instead of replying in English once they’ve swapped from Danish to English. Simple as that. I’m sure that 95 % of the Danes would say okay : D. Those who just keep speaking English might be in a hurry or are just impatient in general… who knows.
    – My own thoughts on the difficulty of Danish compared to other languages: hm.. as many of you say, I think the grammar is alot less complicated than other European languages and personally I think alot of Danish words are quite similar to English words.. say you have af fish = en fisk .. a house = et hus etc etc.. I can imagine how the pronounciation is hard for a foreigner as we have all the “silent letters” in our words like silent D’s or G’s example: the Danish name Mads is pronounced like the English word “Mass”.. but once you get a hang of it, there aren’t many other (if any) linguistic challenges.
    – and just out of curiosity: what the heck is “puden metoden ” ? o. O The Pillow Method ? sounds really comfortable haha

    To all the enthusiasts wanting to learn Danish : Bare giv den gas !!

  17. I never understand why people say English is extremely easy to learn due to its simple grammar, yet say Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, which are only slightly more complex in this respect, are very difficult. Granted I don’t speak any of them, but I have read up on the grammatical structure. I do however speak German, which is obviously far more grammatically complex, but still not that hard to learn. I’m not really sure why some one is saying it has an incredibly high non rigidity of sentences. German has very rigid rules. Yes you can play around a bit with word order, but only within certain strict boundaries.

  18. Danish Can eb really difficult to learn, but there is also some of the grammar which is really easy to understand and remember!
    Like in many languages, you got the
    “I have, you have, she has ect., Ich bin, du bist ect.) but in the Danish language it’s just
    Jeg har, du har, Hun har, ect, and that is pretty easy to remember! It’s the same thing for the words (like walk, talk, think, am/are, ect.)

    I’m a native dane, so I can speak the language without any problems! 🙂

    But I will say, that there is many stupid things about the rules of speaking danish…

    Many of the rules are just based on, remembering, hearing, and when you finally finds a rule, there are so many exceptions…
    Like the “et/en” thing… (Like an/a)
    In english It’s called “A house” But in Danish It’s called “et hus”, why? That’s just the Way it is. And You just need to remember it. You can’t even have A rule of wether to call it “en” or “et”, you just have to remember it. Everything. But it’s not the most important thing about the language, it doesn’t affect the meaning, it just sounds weird to us if you say “en” when you should say “et”.

    But if anyone needs any help on the danish language, I’m here to help and stuff, because it would be wonderful if you learned it, and since there is not many people who speak it, it’s hard to get help/learn it! ^_^
    So just contact me if you want help with it;

    Hugs from a happy Dane! 😀

  19. Hello, this is a very intersting text. I’m a dane, and I mostly agree with you, but there are only a few things that are not correct; we only say “seksoghalvtreds” and nothing more, even I don’t know what to call the higher numbers in the” extended version”. And the soft ‘d’s is not pronounces as an ‘l’, it’s a quite unique sound which is hard to explain, but some people say it sounds like having a potato stuck in the mouth, quite funny!
    I hope more danes want to speak danish with learners of the language, I always find it funny whenever someone speaks danish, because it seems like it’s the last language someone would try to learn. But great blog!

  20. Yeah I don’t know why all of us are finding this post now years later, but you’re giving our language a bad name 😀

    Nobody says “seks og halvtredsindstyvende”, it’s just seksoghalvtreds. And it simply means “six and fifty”, nothing more. We just turned it around. In English you say fifty (and) six, and in Danish you say six and fifty. Norwegians are the only ones who have really figured this out, as they simply say “five ten(s and) six”.

    The reason it was once called halvtredsindstyvende is complicated. It literally means “half three snese”, that is 2.5 * 20. Which is essentially like Norwegians five ten(s and) six, except doubling up. But since we no longer say half three for 2.5, and no longer say use snese either, it’s just been shortened down to halvtreds. The same way that fifty used to mean five tens, but is now just fifty. Because who wants to count anyway? It doesn’t get any more or less complicated above that.

    And pronouncing soft d as l is doing it wrong B) it sounds funny when people do that, but it’s actually the same as the soft th in English (father, bother).

  21. Thanks for this funny article. Although some of your arguments and facts are true, some other points are extremely exaggerated. I don’t live in Denmark, but after 3 years I can now speak Danish and understand most of it. Motivation and study are crucial. If I made it, anyone can with the right method and a good teacher or tutor.?When I visited Denmark last year, everyone would speak Danish to me (at least in Central Jutland). In Germany, Austria and Italy there are dialects that are way more complex and obscure. And if you travel across the British countryside, you can hear impossible accents and the result would be the same (if the traveller is not British). This is just to encourage everyone to learn Danish or give it a try. It’s fun, rewarding and rich!

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