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Coming together through language

Making friends while learning the Danish language.

Photographs: Unsplash

Text: Heather Storgaard

The Danish language is a challenge for most internationals arriving in Denmark. Danish is ranked as one of the most difficult languages to learn, primarily due to the pronunciation challenges faced by speakers of closely related languages such as Swedish or Norwegian. This can be demoralising for learners, especially new arrivals who may be experiencing the challenges of Danish for the first time. So how can we find the motivation to learn this complex language, especially in a country known for having a high English ability? Alongside classrooms, textbooks and language learning apps, here are a few ways to get to grips with the Danish language in a fun, sociable way.

"Language exchanges are a great way to meet fellow internationals and Danes interested in other cultures and international life."

Language exchanges

Language exchanges are a great way to meet fellow internationals and Danes interested in other cultures and international life. Available in most Danish cities, in such a setting, Danes and Internationals are placed on a level playing field, with everyone attending because they wish for help to improve their abilities. No shaming of language skills is allowed, and Danes attending will definitely be impressed at your attempts at their language, no matter how basic it may be. There’s also the chance to practise more than just Danish and, if you are a serial expat or grew up in a multilingual environment, it can be a great way to keep up skills in languages you have previously learnt but may no longer use so often in Denmark.

Danish language circles

I coordinate a Danish language circle for learners of the language and have enjoyed meeting such a wide variety of people through it, from people in their early twenties with career goals that require Danish to pensioners hoping to learn more of their grandchildren’s first language. In comparison to a language class, there are no tests, pressure or goals, other than to have some hygge and help one another with tongue twisters. As someone who uses Danish as my primary language at home, I find helping other Danish language learners along their journey rewarding and insightful. While I used to value my skills as less than a native Danish speaker, I have realised that as someone who speaks fluent Danish as an additional language, my insight and understanding of the learning process are very helpful to others.

Language buddies

Language buddies are available throughout Denmark, with mostly retired Danes volunteering to help internationals in their local area to learn Danish. For the Dane, this may help combat the directionless or loneliness experienced in retirement, while it offers the international a unique insight into Danish culture alongside their language learning. Outside the classroom, a Danish language buddy can help you learn the everyday vocab and local dialect that the centralised language school curriculum may struggle to capture. If you aren’t based in a city like me, this can be a great way to feel rooted in the local community.

Building friendships

Earlier this summer, I visited a language exchange in Berlin and met a Dane who also visited the city solo. We spent much of the night speaking German together, allowing her to practise and me to use a language I grew up with but no longer typically use before we switched to Danish after a few drinks. It felt very free to switch between the two together while we talked about the two countries, from the German minority in Southern Jutland to our mutual love of the German-Danish border city of Flensburg. After discussing German and Danish food, we found a restaurant serving Käsespätzle (often described to foreigners as German Mac n’ Cheese), a dish beloved in southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland that I am always keen to share. If not for the language connection, we’d never have spoken to one another, but I’m so glad we did.

Basically, be brave and give Danish a try! Try not to be put off if it doesn’t go as quickly as you’d hoped, and be perseverant while you find the language learning method that motivates and works for you.

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Such important points, Heather! I teach Danish, and I continously tell people to join these get-togethers, where Danes and expats/foreigners/immigrants meet to practice language together. Using the language in informal settings is such an important vehicle for becoming fluent in a language. Maybe a few links to where to find these gatherings and circles could be provided?

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