The Danish language and the benefits of village living.
Photographs: Heather Storgaard
Text: Heather Storgaard
I started on my Danish language journey three years ago, with the simple aim of giving my father-in-law’s dog commands she understood, hopefully preventing her from running away from me on the beach to steal food from fishermen. While I knew that English could get you a long way in Denmark, I wanted to have at least simple interactions in Danish. I quickly took to the language and learned to speak it fluently, if imperfectly, within a year. I’ve since worked in freelance translation and predominantly speak Danish at home.
We speak English
At the start, my biggest challenge was convincing Danes to speak Danish - Danes are very proud of their English language skills, and rightly so. However, this often leads to English being used with foreigners in situations that could have been carried out in Danish with a bit of patience. Once I started language classes and began to confidently use Danish, my frustration with Danes switching to English for simple interactions grew, as I didn’t get the chance to use even basic phrases. While some claim this comes from a wish to be polite, my experience was that many Danes would argue with me about how they did not want to speak Danish, which I found perplexing.
Another aspect can be that Danes have heard that their language is challenging to learn. Last winter, a friend suddenly started writing to me exclusively in English while speaking Danish when we met. While catching up over dinner one evening, he asked me, in Danish, if I could read and write the language. It turned out he’d seen a comedy show about how written Danish is nothing like the spoken form and believed I could only speak it. We had a good laugh about it afterwards!
Eventually, I realised that I had an easier time convincing Danes to speak Danish with me in the countryside or in small towns. For example, in Aarhus, I could regularly go to the same café and be served by a different staff member every time, whereas, in the countryside, I quickly got to know people. This meant that I only had to explain that I wished to practise Danish, and it would be remembered. Ironically, the keenest to support my language learning was a bus driver from Germany. Although we were both native German speakers, simple interactions in Danish every morning on the bus to language class helped me gain confidence.
The countryside is also where you will find more Danes out of practice or less keen to speak English. Whereas city jobs often require English ability, many people I know living and working in the countryside tell me that they haven’t spoken English since High School. These people are often naturally more patient with mistakes in Danish, and in my experience, better appreciate the effort that goes into communicating in a foreign language you may not be used to.
Tips to ease you into country living:
If you live in a city, go to the countryside to stay in a summer house and practise your Danish on the locals you interact with. Hopefully, you’ll experience a helpful attitude from those you meet.
Speak Danish to pets! They won’t be judgemental if your pronunciation could do with some work.
If you’re a regular somewhere, try to explain that you’d really like to practise ordering your coffee or beer in Danish.
Listen and sing along to pop songs, parroting rather than reading the lyrics. This can improve pronunciation by taking those strange Danish spellings out of the equation.
As your language skills improve, see if any Danes you know would be willing to have an hour, a day or a weekend exclusively speaking Danish. This can be a great way to challenge yourself, set boundaries and expand your vocabulary while building up language stamina.