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Exploring What it’s Like to Speak Danish

The goal of the Outside In series is to showcase the ways in which local-born and immigrant people and/or communities may experience the same thing in vastly different ways, and also sometimes in the same way. This series is not just about pointing out differences, nor is it about painting one side as negative or “wrong,” but simply about exploring the idea that there are multiple realities, all of which are valid.

 
Moving to another country can be the start of a beautiful adventure, offering a fresh start in many ways. Part of making any move into a productive start is getting a handle on the local language, if it is different from your mother-tongue.

For those who move for reasons such as seeking asylum, attending school, or starting a family, there’s a sense of urgency to learn a country’s official language.

Immigrants and descendants of immigrants living in Denmark make up roughly 13% of its population. According to Statistics Denmark, as of 2021, there are 617,770 immigrants living in Denmark.

Nearly six million people worldwide speak Danish. Just over half of Danes speak some functional level of English. This is, of course, useful for English-speakers travelling to the country. It can, however, present a challenge for English-speaking foreigners learning Danish, as Danes will often simply switch to English rather than try to engage with a non-native speaker learning Danish.

While Danish can be a hard language to learn, the government provides free Danish lessons (with a 2,000 kroner deposit) to people living in Denmark over the age of 18. In addition to the social elements of learning to speak Danish, there is the difficulty in learning to pronounce Danish correctly.

There are nine vowels in the Danish language, and about20 vowel sounds that can be produced fro m those vowels. For comparison,there are 12 vowel sounds in English. Some say that to learn to speak Danish, pretend you have a potato in your throat while pronouncing its words.

For this edition of Outside In, we’ve spoken with two people living in Denmark about their experiences with speaking the Danish language. The first interviewee, Huogang Fu, or Fu, is a dual citizen of Denmark and China, and is a native Danish speaker. Our second interviewee, Joe Benjamin, is a permanent resident of Denmark and is originally from West Virginia, USA.

 

Moving to another country can be the start of a beautiful adventure, offering a fresh start in many ways. Part of making any move into a productive start is getting a handle on the local language, if it is different from your mother-tongue.

For those who move for reasons such as seeking asylum, attending school, or starting a family, there’s a sense of urgency to learn a country’s official language.

Immigrants and descendants of immigrants living in Denmark make up roughly 13% of its population. According to Statistics Denmark, as of 2021, there are 617,770 immigrants living in Denmark.

Nearly six million people worldwide speak Danish. Just over half of Danes speak some functional level of English. This is, of course, useful for English-speakers travelling to the country. It can, however, present a challenge for English-speaking foreigners learning Danish, as Danes will often simply switch to English rather than try to engage with a non-native speaker learning Danish.

While Danish can be a hard language to learn, the government provides free Danish lessons (with a 2,000 kroner deposit) to people living in Denmark over the age of 18. In addition to the social elements of learning to speak Danish, there is the difficulty in learning to pronounce Danish correctly.

There are nine vowels in the Danish language, and about20 vowel sounds that can be produced fro m those vowels. For comparison,there are 12 vowel sounds in English. Some say that to learn to speak Danish, pretend you have a potato in your throat while pronouncing its words.

For this edition of Outside In, we’ve spoken with two people living in Denmark about their experiences with speaking the Danish language. The first interviewee, Huogang Fu, or Fu, is a dual citizen of Denmark and China, and is a native Danish speaker. Our second interviewee, Joe Benjamin, is a permanent resident of Denmark and is originally from West Virginia, USA.

 

 

 

View from the Outside In: Joseph Benjamin

Joseph Donnell Benjamin, 38, known as “Joe” to his friends, is an African American man with a Jewish background originally from Dunbar, West Virginia, USA. He worked in a financial tech company. When he moved to Denmark, he played professional basketball and then worked as a personal trainer before going back to school. He now works in financial tech.

 

View from the Inside Out: Huogang Fu

Huogang Fu, 21, (Chinese name: 符和钢) is a Danish man. Both of his parents are from China. He is studying social sciences and works in customer service.

 

View from the Outside In: Joseph Benjamin

Joseph Donnell Benjamin, 38, known as “Joe” to his friends, is an African American man with a Jewish background originally from Dunbar, West Virginia, USA. He worked in a financial tech company. When he moved to Denmark, he played professional basketball and then worked as a personal trainer before going back to school. He now works in financial tech.

 

View from the Inside Out: Huogang Fu

Huogang Fu, 21, (Chinese name: 符和钢) is a Danish man. Both of his parents are from China. He is studying social sciences and works in customer service.

 


 
 

Learning Danish

How did you learn, or how are you currently learning Danish?

Outside In: Joseph Benjamin

I was very fortunate to attend a little language school in Åarhus that gave me a hard introduction to the Danish language. We went to school four days a week from 8 am to 3 pm. This was from 2007-2009.

I had a lot of free time because I was playing professional basketball. Going to language school was a personal choice, because I had to negotiate with club teams and talk to my teammates.

The Danish language has its difficulties some days. On other days, speaking it feels like a super-power!

It took me around two years [to speak fluently], because I found it difficult with everyone being willing to speak English with me.

I’ve always felt comfortable always speaking Danish! The main problem was that my pronunciation was way off. I used to sound like a young child speaking the language, and as a result, adults would get confused and tell me to speak English with them instead.

 

Inside Out: Huogang Fu

Danish is my mother-tongue. I speak it every day and use it as my primary form of communication.

If I did not know the Danish language, I would probably think it was nonsense. If you look at the letters Å, Ø & Æ, no outsider would know how to pronounce them!

Outside In: Joseph Benjamin

I was very fortunate to attend a little language school in Åarhus that gave me a hard introduction to the Danish language. We went to school four days a week from 8 am to 3 pm. This was from 2007-2009.

I had a lot of free time because I was playing professional basketball. Going to language school was a personal choice, because I had to negotiate with club teams and talk to my teammates.

The Danish language has its difficulties some days. On other days, speaking it feels like a super-power!

It took me around two years [to speak fluently], because I found it difficult with everyone being willing to speak English with me.

I’ve always felt comfortable always speaking Danish! The main problem was that my pronunciation was way off. I used to sound like a young child speaking the language, and as a result, adults would get confused and tell me to speak English with them instead.

 

Inside Out: Huogang Fu

Danish is my mother-tongue. I speak it every day and use it as my primary form of communication.

If I did not know the Danish language, I would probably think it was nonsense. If you look at the letters Å, Ø & Æ, no outsider would know how to pronounce them!

 


 

 
 
 

First Contact with Danish

When and how did you first come into contact with the Danish language?

Outside In: Joseph Benjamin

My first contact with the Danish language was back in 2004 when I was watching a movie called The Green Butchers. It was ironically a film that you could rent from Blockbuster back in the ancient times.

So that was my first experience with the Danish language. I honestly thought it was German.

 

Inside Out: Huogang Fu

I was born in Denmark and grew up here. The language has always been there in my daily life.

I would say that the first contact with the language was in nursery school.

Outside In: Joseph Benjamin

My first contact with the Danish language was back in 2004 when I was watching a movie called The Green Butchers. It was ironically a film that you could rent from Blockbuster back in the ancient times.

So that was my first experience with the Danish language. I honestly thought it was German.

 

Inside Out: Huogang Fu

I was born in Denmark and grew up here. The language has always been there in my daily life.

I would say that the first contact with the language was in nursery school.

 

 
 

 

 
 

How to Learn Danish

What do you feel is the best way to learn Danish?

Outside In: Joseph Benjamin

The best way for me to learn Danish was to have some formal schooling and then find a job speaking with children every day.

The reason behind that is they are learning the language too and are willing to overlook your mistakes!

 

Inside Out: Huogang Fu

The best way would be to study it as well as try to use it in your daily life. Then practice your pronunciation and you’ll eventually speak it at a level every citizen in Denmark would understand.

For me, when I use something in daily life, I remember it much better. An example would be hearing Danish music, reading the text, and then singing along.

Outside In: Joseph Benjamin

The best way for me to learn Danish was to have some formal schooling and then find a job speaking with children every day.

The reason behind that is they are learning the language too and are willing to overlook your mistakes!

 

Inside Out: Huogang Fu

The best way would be to study it as well as try to use it in your daily life. Then practice your pronunciation and you’ll eventually speak it at a level every citizen in Denmark would understand.

For me, when I use something in daily life, I remember it much better. An example would be hearing Danish music, reading the text, and then singing along.

 

 

 
 
 

Danish Difficulties

What is the hardest part of speaking, or learning to speak, Danish?

Outside In: Joseph Benjamin

The most difficult part of learning to speak Danish is when learning to put sentences together.

This is something I still struggle with. You have to remember each vowel by heart.

An example would be: “the child” (barnet) becomes a totally different word when you switch over to “the children” (børnene). This has always confused me!

 

Inside Out: Huogang Fu

This is a hard question because I already speak the language fluently and have done it since I was little, so I don’t really think about it.

From an outside perspective, I can imagine that Danish is a really hard language to learn and speak!

I think the hardest part of speaking Danish is to pronounce some of the Danish words with, æ, ø and å. These letters are only common for Scandinavians, so “outsiders” have a hard time pronouncing them.

Danish is not an easy language to learn; I read once that it is one of the hardest languages to learn in the world, primarily because of those unknown letters.

Also, some words can be difficult to hear the difference between, like: “mor” and “mord” where the “d” is silent.

The Danish language has a lot of words that have multiple meanings, such as “dør.” You can use it to mean “door” or “dies: “Den dør vil ikke åbne” (that door won’t open) versus “personen i filmen dør” (the person in the movie dies).

Outside In: Joseph Benjamin

The most difficult part of learning to speak Danish is when learning to put sentences together.

This is something I still struggle with. You have to remember each vowel by heart.

An example would be: “the child” (barnet) becomes a totally different word when you switch over to “the children” (børnene). This has always confused me!

 

Inside Out: Huogang Fu

This is a hard question because I already speak the language fluently and have done it since I was little, so I don’t really think about it.

From an outside perspective, I can imagine that Danish is a really hard language to learn and speak!

I think the hardest part of speaking Danish is to pronounce some of the Danish words with, æ, ø and å. These letters are only common for Scandinavians, so “outsiders” have a hard time pronouncing them.

Danish is not an easy language to learn; I read once that it is one of the hardest languages to learn in the world, primarily because of those unknown letters.

Also, some words can be difficult to hear the difference between, like: “mor” and “mord” where the “d” is silent.

The Danish language has a lot of words that have multiple meanings, such as “dør.” You can use it to mean “door” or “dies: “Den dør vil ikke åbne” (that door won’t open) versus “personen i filmen dør” (the person in the movie dies).

 

 
 

 

 
 

Misconceptions about Danish

Are there any generalizations about the Danish language within the Danish culture that you feel are true? What about ones that aren’t true?

Outside In: Joseph Benjamin

The main generalization about Danish is that you full sentences sound like one long word. Once you train your ears to hear all the syllables, you will find out that’s not true.

There are no rules, however, for et or en! When I first was learning the differences, I thought the words were masculine or feminine, like with Spanish and French. But I quickly found out that I was wrong. Instead, you just have to remember each one.

 

Inside Out: Huogang Fu

This is a very hard question! I do not think that I ever have heard a generalization about the Danish language within Danish culture.

The first thing that popped up in my head was: Swedish and Norwegian people think that when Danish people are speaking, it sounds like they have potatoes in their mouths.

Outside In: Joseph Benjamin

The main generalization about Danish is that you full sentences sound like one long word. Once you train your ears to hear all the syllables, you will find out that’s not true.

There are no rules, however, for et or en! When I first was learning the differences, I thought the words were masculine or feminine, like with Spanish and French. But I quickly found out that I was wrong. Instead, you just have to remember each one.

 

Inside Out: Huogang Fu

This is a very hard question! I do not think that I ever have heard a generalization about the Danish language within Danish culture.

The first thing that popped up in my head was: Swedish and Norwegian people think that when Danish people are speaking, it sounds like they have potatoes in their mouths.

 

 

 
 
 

Speaking With Non-Danes

Do you speak Danish with people whose mother-tongue is not Danish? In what contexts?

Outside In: Joseph Benjamin

When meeting people whose mother tongue is not Danish, I just speak Danish unless they request that we speak English.

This makes it easier for me to show my level of fluency with others, and of course with Danes.

 

Inside Out: Huogang Fu

It depends on the situation. Most of the people I talk with understand Danish.

When I communicate with my parents, I speak in Danish, and they answer in Chinese.

Sometimes my mother speaks Danish with me, but my father will always respond to me in Chinese.

Outside In: Joseph Benjamin

When meeting people whose mother tongue is not Danish, I just speak Danish unless they request that we speak English.

This makes it easier for me to show my level of fluency with others, and of course with Danes.

 

Inside Out: Huogang Fu

It depends on the situation. Most of the people I talk with understand Danish.

When I communicate with my parents, I speak in Danish, and they answer in Chinese.

Sometimes my mother speaks Danish with me, but my father will always respond to me in Chinese.

 

 
 

 

 
 

Danish Slang

What is your favorite idiomatic Danish phrase?

Outside In: Joseph Benjamin

When I was professional basketball player and I didn’t like the referee’s call, I would say “Er du makke i hovedet?” which is Jysk Dansk for, essentially, “are you stupid, or what?”

[Editor’s note: this is considered a rude statement and we do not recommend using it!]
 

Inside Out: Huogang Fu

For me, it would be the word “hygge,” a popular word in Danish. The word “hygge” can’t be translated into another language but roughly means “a feeling of coziness.”

I work in customer service, so I talk to a lot of different people. A slang phrase that has grown on me is: “Der er ingen ko på isen” (“there’s no cow on the ice”), meaning that there aren’t any problems. The phrase usually calms the customer and makes them laugh.

Outside In: Joseph Benjamin

When I was professional basketball player and I didn’t like the referee’s call, I would say “Er du makke i hovedet?” which is Jysk Dansk for, essentially, “are you stupid, or what?”

[Editor’s note: this is considered a rude statement and we do not recommend using it!]

 

Inside Out: Huogang Fu

For me, it would be the word “hygge,” a popular word in Danish. The word “hygge” can’t be translated into another language but roughly means “a feeling of coziness.”

I work in customer service, so I talk to a lot of different people. A slang phrase that has grown on me is: “Der er ingen ko på isen” (“there’s no cow on the ice”), meaning that there aren’t any problems. The phrase usually calms the customer and makes them laugh.

 

 

 
 
 

Language Evolution

Do you see language as an evolving thing? Why or why not?

Outside In: Joseph Benjamin

Yes, I do see it as an evolving thing for us all. Communication is very important in all societies.

In particular, I have seen my evolving understanding of the Nordic languages such as Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, and even a little German. I can have a full conversation with an Norwegian in Danish and vice-versa, but I can’t read Norwegian.

Furthermore, I can read Swedish, but not necessarily understand a Swede when they are speaking to me.

 

Inside Out: Huogang Fu

Yes, I would say that language is evolving. If we look at the Danish language, we get new words within a year! This year we got smittekæde (translated as “chain of infection,” in reference to COVID-19).

In general, I would say languages are always evolving, growing, and adapting. Language evolves with technology, for example, which brought us the word “emoji.”

Outside In: Joseph Benjamin

Yes, I do see it as an evolving thing for us all. Communication is very important in all societies.

In particular, I have seen my evolving understanding of the Nordic languages such as Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, and even a little German. I can have a full conversation with an Norwegian in Danish and vice-versa, but I can’t read Norwegian.

Furthermore, I can read Swedish, but not necessarily understand a Swede when they are speaking to me.

 

Inside Out: Huogang Fu

Yes, I would say that language is evolving. If we look at the Danish language, we get new words within a year! This year we got smittekæde (translated as “chain of infection,” in reference to COVID-19).

In general, I would say languages are always evolving, growing, and adapting. Language evolves with technology, for example, which brought us the word “emoji.”

 

 
 

 

 
 

Danes with Non-Danes

How do you feel Danes, overall, treat non-Danes who are trying to speak Danish? Do you think those learning the language feel encouraged to speak it?

Outside In: Joseph Benjamin

I have found that in a relaxed setting, Danes don’t want to speak English, period. Especially if it’s a whole group of Danish speakers and you are the only one that isn’t. I have been to work functions and parties where they [expressed that they] were happy that I can speak Danish.

You get a whole new perspective on what is going on when you understand Danish. For example, I thought people were discussing interesting topics like culture, politics, and climate change while partying; however, it was more like, “ahh Flemming, you really can’t drink!” This was an eye-opener.

I have learned that when Danes see you trying to learn the language, and if you push them to speak Danish with you, it makes an impact. The older generation is impressed and welcomes it; they also expect it!

The younger generations don’t care as much because they speak both English and Danish very well. But do expect to [be asked to say] say “rød grøv med flød!” And yes my rendition is flawless now!

All in all, if you are not very good at speaking Danish, they’ll help you with pronunciation and translation. But do push them to help you [if you need it].

Some Danes love to hear someone with an American accent speaking Danish; they find it funny.

 

Inside Out: Huogang Fu

I do not think that Danes treat those who do not speak the language any differently; I have never experienced anything else.

If a person learning Danish is trying to communicate in Danish, and does not ask to speak in other languages, then the conversation would just be in Danish. Danes would try to take it slow so the other person understands.

From my perspective, I work in customer service and speak to a lot of different people. I have met people that are learning Danish and I will just let the customer speak at their own pace.

I never interrupt the person and have never had a hard time understanding the other person. If the customer doesn’t understand me, I would speak slower or try to explain it differently.

Overall, I would say that the Danes take in non-Danes with open arms, which gives the non-Danes the courage to speak Danish.

Outside In: Joseph Benjamin

I have found that in a relaxed setting, Danes don’t want to speak English, period. Especially if it’s a whole group of Danish speakers and you are the only one that isn’t. I have been to work functions and parties where they [expressed that they] were happy that I can speak Danish.

You get a whole new perspective on what is going on when you understand Danish. For example, I thought people were discussing interesting topics like culture, politics, and climate change while partying; however, it was more like, “ahh Flemming, you really can’t drink!” This was an eye-opener.

I have learned that when Danes see you trying to learn the language, and if you push them to speak Danish with you, it makes an impact. The older generation is impressed and welcomes it; they also expect it!

The younger generations don’t care as much because they speak both English and Danish very well. But do expect to [be asked to say] say “rød grøv med flød!” And yes my rendition is flawless now!

All in all, if you are not very good at speaking Danish, they’ll help you with pronunciation and translation. But do push them to help you [if you need it].

Some Danes love to hear someone with an American accent speaking Danish; they find it funny.

 

Inside Out: Huogang Fu

I do not think that Danes treat those who do not speak the language any differently; I have never experienced anything else.

If a person learning Danish is trying to communicate in Danish, and does not ask to speak in other languages, then the conversation would just be in Danish. Danes would try to take it slow so the other person understands.

From my perspective, I work in customer service and speak to a lot of different people. I have met people that are learning Danish and I will just let the customer speak at their own pace.

I never interrupt the person and have never had a hard time understanding the other person. If the customer doesn’t understand me, I would speak slower or try to explain it differently.

Overall, I would say that the Danes take in non-Danes with open arms, which gives the non-Danes the courage to speak Danish.

 

 
 

 

Want more cultural perspectives? Read the Outside In series.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Header image by Freya August McOmish.
Line illustrations by Jenesesimre.

This entry was posted in Culture and tagged culture, Denmark, Outside In on by George McFarley III.

George McFarley III

George McFarley III is a freelance writer and Communications Specialist, who has been living in the Greater Copenhagen Area with this wife and two children.

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