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Learning the language

As an expat, no matter where you come from, you have many things to consider when moving to another country. Of course, work or studies are among the most common reasons to relocate, but what about the language? Jane Elgård Petersen takes us through the ups and downs of the language barrier.

Photographs: Unsplash

Text: Jane Elgård Petersen

When you decide to move, all the practical questions will come hand in hand with this decision. Even though you have prepared everything, many questions will arise during the first months in Denmark. You will have to get used to many differences from where you've moved from.

However, the language is one of the biggest challenges for any expat. During the recruiting period, you might have been told that Danish is required.

I have to say that Danish companies can be quite stubborn, especially if you get a job in a smaller company. So the requirement for speaking Danish from the beginning will depend on what type of job you get. But don't worry - you will also get help with Danish language courses. However, even with help, many expats still struggle to learn the language. Usually, reading and writing are not the most significant challenge - of course, there will be grammar issues, but that also happens with Danes.

The biggest challenge is pronunciation. Understandable as native Danes are often lazy with that, as many words might have more meanings depending on the pronunciation and context. Furthermore, we also have so many different dialects, making it difficult for everyone. Some Danes even find it challenging to converse with people from other parts of the country as many dialects have entirely different words meaning the same, making it complicated for all. According to the University of Copenhagen, the official number of dialects is approximately 32, but there are more local dialects.

We also must accept that Danish is a small language, only spoken in Denmark. So no surprise when parents might choose international schools for their children. As one father mentioned, "We have chosen the international school for our daughter, as we are only here for two years, whereafter we are moving to another country, so she will never speak Danish anywhere else". That is an understandable comment, as he was working on a short project for an international company.

Social and business language

In the workplace, you might see a significant number of differences. For example, there are two types of conversations with your colleagues - business and social. On the other hand, business Danish might not be challenging in many organisations, as several terminologies are in English.

When it comes to the business language used in an organisation, you will also learn that there might be differences in technical and business terminology, which can be confusing.

As a newcomer to an organisation, it would serve you well to understand the professional business language so that all correspondence with the market, customers and suppliers, has one tone. Just remember that some businesses are more formal than others!

The social part can be much more challenging, as individuals all have their own way of expressing themselves – but don't worry, you'll soon learn about Danish dark humour.

Language in the classroom

Many expats have their first Danish lessons in a language school. Fortunately, that works great for most, as they get confidence with basic grammar and daily conversations with others on the same language level.

I once met an expat who felt so confident with the language that she wanted to meet locals in a social setting. We attended the event together, and I agree that my expat friend fell entirely behind, as no one was sensitive to the fact that she and other guests didn't have Danish as their first language. In addition, she didn't understand as much as she thought she would, even with her high level of sprogskole (language school) Danish. So I recommend that you always try to speak to as many people as possible to get used to listening to different tones and accents to help you settle in with the language.

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