How Not to Fail Completely at Danish

I was born in Bulgaria. You can imagine that Bulgarian and Danish have nothing in common. Different alphabets, words, grammar, you name it. Back in 2009, the time had come for me to choose where to pursue my higher education. I was a senior in high school and had only one term left until graduation. Long story short, I applied at a few universities in Denmark. It was at this time that I had my first encounter with the Danish language. I had some knowledge of German and English, so things didn’t look that scary… And then I heard it: true tongue acrobatics. The exact word here is “indecipherable”. I knew I was in way over my head. Actually, I had a classmate who decided to join me in my quest so that we could share the burden. He, too, had slight ambitions of going to Denmark.

A few months later I had my high-school matriculation exams, after which a lot of new doors stood open before me. I sent out some applications to local universities and all came back positive. It was mid-June, but I still hadn’t received an answer from any of the Danish institutions I’d applied at. At this point I’d also stopped struggling with the language. In early August I finally got the coveted response. Yes, I was in! And so I resumed my studies…

I am now 21 years old, two and a half years into my study program. You are probably wondering why I opened with this short background story. The reason is simpleIt presents two of the fundamental building blocks of successful language learning. This is what I’m going to talk about in the next few lines. I am no linguist or expert, but experience has taught me that these work. Another important thing to consider is that my approach to learning is that of a generalist, i.e. I attack the language from all angles, slowly conquering the entire map. Other people, specialists, might focus on one bit at a time until they master it, then moving on to the next one.

  1. Be motivated! Remember my classmate? He never got past the mit-navn-er-Martin sentence on one of the more popular web-sites dedicated to the Danish language. Remember me? I started rather early, way in advance of knowing whether I was going to be an international student or not. The difference? The drive. We all have our reasons for doing what we do. Me – I like exploring languages that interest me. You might like risalamande for all I care. As long as it pushes you in the right direction (learning the language), any reason is good enough. The gist of it is that you must be motivated, even slightly; otherwise you are bound to fail. It is that simple, but I cannot stress enough how important this side of language learning is.
  2. Persevere! People speaking too fast and mashing the words together, writers using obscure words, or you having to face sympathetic looks when trying to join a grammatically sound sentence… The obstacles are numerous and often discouraging. However, bright folk have introduced this wonderful word into the English language: perseverance. Every time you get your ego leveled with the ground, remember that quantitative accumulations lead to qualitative transformations. Keep at it, some would say, it will come. And they’d be right.

Indeed, results won’t be late to show if these two prerequisites are there. Don’t forget that if you want to be successful, only one of these building blocks is not enough, rather, the two complement each other. You can be motivated to be the fastest sprinter in the world, but if you don’t put in the time and effort into it every day (perseverance), you will fail. Similarly, doing something without the slightest spark of excitement for it won’t yield any results. That’s what happens to most kids in schools nowadays.

Now that I’ve burdened your head with all these clichés, let me introduce you to some practical examples (tips and tricks if you will) that will greatly help you along the way:

»   Download a Danish dictionary for your computer. And then use it! My roommate has the awful habit of asking me about things that are readily available in dictionaries and on the Internet. Later, he repeats the same mistakes. This brings me to my next two bullet points;

»   Use Google, but not Translate. The “ “ command in the search bar is an invaluable tool when checking if something is right or wrong. While not always reliable, it is a good indicator. Make a habit of using it (e.g. “hvorden har du det” vs. “hvordan har du det”);

»   When you do make mistakes, learn from them. Mistakes are great because they provide you with feedback and provide a topic for discussion. Don’t be afraid to ask people at the office or at the university. Most Danes will help you. For instance, where I work, we sometimes have a laugh about my Danish. Recently I wanted to say I needed a color copy of a document and I said “kulørt” instead of “farvet”, and Thomas (a colleague) clarified that the former is normally used for laundry;

»   Read. At AU, probably elsewhere also, there are free newspapers. I used to come earlier every morning just to get an extra fifteen minutes of reading before classes. Every word I didn’t understand, I would underline. At the end of the day I’d go and write them down in a notebook. Interestingly, my international classmates never even open these newspapers, even though they’re free. Also, if you are in an engineering program, sign up for Ingeniøren.

Another great way to improve your reading skills and vocabulary is to peruse an article every day (from, for example) with your dictionary open. That’s what I did when I was an absolute beginner. In three months, there was no article in Danish I couldn’t understand. And that’s not a joke. It takes 10 minutes, really;

»  When watching movies, always search for Scandinavian subtitles first. This might prolong the duration of the movie (from, say, two to three hours), but the gains are immense. Have your dictionary and notebook/Word file at the ready;

»   Talk to yourself. And no, I’m not crazy. Speaking partners aren’t always available and/or willing to listen to your gibberish. By relying on yourself only, you can polish your pronunciation and fluency anywhere. When you think of something, ask yourself: “How do I say this in Danish?” Often, you will fail to recall a word. That doesn’t matter. Make a note of it and look it up later. Rinse and repeat;

»   Listen to your classmates. Even if you don’t have any Danish friends, using your ears is free. Get a bit closer and try to pick up words/sentences (depending on your level);

»   Use computer games and forums to develop your writing and/or speaking skills. Anything you like, chances are there is a forum on the Internet about it. And a Danish one, too! Personally, I’ve learned a lot about languages from computer games, so if you play one, I recommend that you try and use them in that direction (especially an MMORPG). Join a guild/clan/kinship with your language of interest and start talking;

»   Don’t waste your time. If you are doing dull and repetitive work or something that doesn’t consume your attention entirely (at home, at work, at the park, etc.), invest in a pair of headphones/plugs and enjoy the beauty of the Danish language;

»   Translate into and from Danish. I cannot even begin to explain to you how beneficial this is. If you have the chance, do it;

»   Sign up at Lærdansk. I couldn’t do it for more than two weeks, but maybe you can, and that’s perfectly fine;

»   If you are confident enough in your Danish abilities, you can use Google Translate for ideas only;

»   Learn basic grammar. Language is not grammar. That’s why grammar comes last in my list. The three main tenses and basic conjugations are enough to hold you afloat for quite some time.

That’s a long list of tips there, but the overall goal is to move you away from the traditional passive approach to learning that requires you to grind your way through the language. Instead, these tips are intended to make you be active. Being active, however, is more than just doing things. It requires a pinch of the winners’ special ingredient: attention-paying. What this means in practical terms is to think about why things are like this, how they can be changed, and to be able to see the connections between them. For example, when reading a newspaper article, reading a subtitle or listening to your Danish classmates, don’t look at it like an obligation; rather, reflect on why the author has chosen this particular wording, think about synonyms of the words used, see the glue that connects the sentences (the grammar) and understand it. In other words, pay attention.

Everything that’s been said so far can be recapped in one sentence: change your habits. Your habits dictate whether you win or lose, regardless of your field. But changing one’s habits is, mildly put, hard. This is where the motivation-perseverance tandem comes into play. Using all available sources and resources will help us. It won’t be easy, but we can get there.

4 thoughts on “How Not to Fail Completely at Danish

  1. Hey!

    Thank you very much for your explanation, it will help me a lot.
    I will begin the danish course next week but I needed other tips for everyday life.
    I am a gratuated industrial designer and I moved to Denmark, right know I am looking for a job that why I really need to learn danish. 🙂
    But yep! You are right no easy but I am sure day after day by learning danish in different angles will make it happen.
    If you have some tips for founding a job in DK, I would be really interested to hear about it.

    Tak og vi ses!


  2. Hi Elo,

    Finding a job in Denmark is, drawing on my own experiences, never easy. Many people can also confirm this. The best piece of advice I can give you is not to be passive in your job hunting. What that means is that you shouldn’t sit at home and send CVs until your mouse breaks.
    It would be best if you could go out and meet some new people. That way you can expand your network. The word “network” is a dirty word where I come from, but here it is, I think, the most common way of landing a job. The more varied your contacts are (classmates, neighbors, co-workers, people you share common interests with, etc.), the more likely you are to find something.
    Another way of doing it is to take the initiative. Try it for yourself — go directly to the company you want to work for and talk to the manager. By showing interest and passion (you’ve come to their doorstep) and leaving your CV at the end, your chances become higher. I know it worked for me, so I see no reason it won’t be the same for you.

    I hope this helps a bit,


  3. Thanks for the advice! I’m going to start learning Danish next summer, and for what I know about it, and from what I’ve heard (my boyfriend is Danish) it sounds quite hard! I’m sure your tips will help me learn this language as fast as possible!
    I’ll make sure I use all the chances I get to practice and learn as much as I can!

    By the way, you mentioned a Danish dictionary for the computer. Would you mind sharing the name? I’m a bit at a loss when it comes to resources for learning Danish!

  4. I normally use Freelang’s dictionary. Sometimes the Ordnet one, but it is a Danish — Danish one. Gyldendal’s is also a viable option, but you have to pay for it.

    If you cannot find one, I am willing to share my freeware version with you via e-mail.

    Take care

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