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Why is it so hard to learn Danish?

Compassion, patience and support may be the key.

Photograph: iStock

Text: Martina Popadakova

“How long have you been in Denmark? You should already speak Danish!” “Do you have a Danish partner? Why don't you already speak the language?” Does this kind of feedback resemble your own experience? Then you are not the only one. Internationals in Denmark face many challenges while learning Danish. As a result of “why it takes so long” is a frustration of many - for some, it takes two, five or even ten years – and still, the battle is evident to understand and speak it at a local level.

Either we aren’t trying hard enough, or Denmark’s language is really one of the hardest to learn in terms of the amount of time (years) invested in learning. Surprisingly, none of this is true.

Is Danish really as difficult as its reputation suggests?

According to The Foreign Service Institute, the Danish language is a “category 1” in terms of the amount of time needed to learn it. It is not generally harder than languages like German, French or English. There are challenging and easy elements in all languages – grammar can be complicated, while sounds are easy, or vice versa. Therefore, the idea that it is not possible to rank the languages in terms of difficulty makes sense.

The perception of difficulty depends on a particular linguistic background and a person’s first language. Kasper Boye, associate professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Nordic Studies and linguistics, described to The Local: “For a Norwegian or Swede, for example, with all else being equal, Danish will be easier than learning English, German or French, because Danish resembles Swedish or Norwegian far more than English, German or French do.”

What is the real struggle?

It is a high number of vowels that makes it challenging to get our tongues around. Boye explains that Danish has 20 vowels by conservative analysis and 30 by a less-than conservative analysis. While approximately 50% of the world’s existing languages have five vowels and English has around ten vowels, which is already a lot. To produce such a disproportionately high number of ‘click’ sounds is not for the faint-hearted. It is quite an effort to pronounce these vowels correctly, which thus makes the whole process of learning longer and harder.

Furthermore, it is difficult to understand this fast-spoken language. Danish is a combination of flat, monotonous and softly spoken sounds. It almost sounds to someone who just arrived in Denmark as “mumbling”, but it is just the way the language sounds. Once we get on board with the basic understanding, it gets easier to recognise words.

"To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world." - Chinese Proverb

Danes are perfectionists The problem arises when it comes to speaking the language by internationals. English, as such, is understandable even with a thick accent. Danes will struggle to understand if the accent is off, a phrase mispronounced, or a word missing.

Almost everybody speaks English

Danes are really good at English, and the slightest detection of a foreign accent will push the conversation back to English. It also depends on education and working environment. If English is the primary speaking language, then the need and motivation to master Danish declines. All circumstances together make it hard to practice Danish daily.

More patience and support

Attending Sprogskole (language school) for a couple of hours a week is simply not quick enough. If we want to master our Danish faster, it is necessary to ask and to expect the patience and support from Danes. Many of us don’t feel comfortable using our Danish in everyday life, because we have not mastered the pronunciation yet. Every day chit-chat is the key to practice the sounds that are so challenging to many of us. Be proud of your level of Danish, order your coffee and beer in Danish, answer the cashier in the supermarket in Danish, talk to your friends in Danish and make them listen, soon you will be speaking like the locals.

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