Is Danish hard to learn? - An honest look at the language.
- Mille Larsen •6 mins read
Danish is a Scandinavian language spoken by less than 6 million people in the world. Almost all of them live in Denmark and good part of them speak pretty good English.
Yet, there's a growing interest in the world for learning Danish! And while Danish won't help you while traveling the world (other than Denmark) or speaking to immigrants (other than a handful of Danes), it does provide access to a growing number of Danish TV-series, Danish literature and of course. The Danes.
So you want to learn Danish and be able to speak with the Danes in their native, strange language.
But is Danish difficult to learn?
Danish, a cousin to English
Danish, being a Germanic language actually has a lot in common with English. A great part of the grammar is related and much of the vocabulary will look like English.
The two languages do, in fact, share a great deal of history, which explains many of these similarities. There are a lot of cognates between Danish and English. These will make learning the Danish language a lot easier.
But beware of false friends! Reaching for an English-sounding word when speaking Danish can be tempting, but you have to be completely sure that the meaning is the same in Danish, or you might end up offering people poison rather than presents. (The word "gift" means poison in Danish)
Danish pronunciation - the only problem
While the vocabulary and grammar are quite easy to master, the pronunciation in Danish has a bit of a reputation.
One thing is that Danish adds a few extra letters to the Latin alphabet, like Æ, Ø and Å, and pronounces the "r" a little like a weak form of the French R.
There's also the glottal stop, called "stød" in Danish which is a way of pronouncing certain words. To the un-trained ear, the word "hund" (dog) and "hun" (she) might sound the same, but "hund" uses the glottal stop, which makes it clearly different to Danes. The same goes for "mor" (mother) and "mord" (murder) and "hej" (hello) and "haj" (shark).
Stød, or the glottal stop can be described as suddenly closing off your breath while pronouncing a word, cutting it short. But a video might make it a little clearer. Watch the below video, to get a better idea of the stød in Danish:
Another problem is that Danes are known for speaking in a weirdly monotone manner. (The Norwegians and Swedes like to tease the Danish by saying that they speak with a hot potato in their mouths).
Add to that the fact that most words are only pronounced in half, leaving out many of the letters that make them up.
There's a huge difference between how Danish is written and how it's actually pronounced, and there's not a lot of rules to help you figure it out.
You just have to know.
This sounds like quite the challenge, but you've actually faced the problem before:
English does the same thing!
If you want to check out what Danish sounds like, try listening to these short dialogues I recorded. I obviously speak a little slower and a little clearer than I normally would in Danish, but it should give you an idea about the pronunciation.
The difficulty of Danish according to linguists
The FSI (Foreign Service Institute) is the US government institution charged with teaching foreign languages to American diplomats.
They are known for dividing the languages that they teach into categories of the time needed to learn the language.
They put Danish in the lowest category. FSI judges that they can teach Danish to an English speaker in under 600 classroom hours.
What does this actually mean?
Well - you need to take the number "600 hours" with a grain of salt. That number is based on intensive classroom learning, while following FSI's program to the letter. I personally believe that you can learn Danish faster by yourself than by taking an intensive course. (Read my advice for self-studying Danish)
But the 600 hours estimate allows us to compare Danish with other languages. According to FSI, Danish demands as much time as other Scandinavian languages, but also languages like Spanish and French.
I'd argue that Spanish and French might be on the upper level of the scale, whereas the other Scandinavian languages would demand a little less effort than Danish.
Then there's German, which takes 25% longer than Danish to learn, Hindi and Russian take something like twice as long to learn and languages like Arabic or Chinese take a whooping 4 times longer than Danish.
So according to FSI, Danish is not the biggest challenge in the world.
I've written a separate article about the time it takes to learn Danish that you might be interested in reading.
The Danes consider their language very hard!
If you ask the Danes, however, you'll get another answer!
I've often heard Danish people speak of their own language as one of the hardest languages to learn in the world! Why this should be the case escapes me, but the people who think so speak of unnamed scientific research and second-hand anecdotes.
They'll tell you about the Queen's husband, a Frenchman who's not mastered the Danish tongue even though he's been in the country for over 50 years. Or they'll mention their foreign neighbor or evoke how the tourists in Copenhagen mispronounce common words.
All of these things are mostly just words. If you ask the native speaker of almost any language, they'll tell you why their language is hard. But they don't really have the experience of studying it, so how would they know?
The prince (who has now passed) could maybe have benefited from a stronger focus on pronunciation and grammar. But his Danish was above functional. And why would anyone expect tourists to pronounce languages they don't know correctly?
Assuming that one's language is the world's hardest is extremely common. It's really just a kind of vanity.
Danish is not difficult at all, so don't be scared by the stories the Danish people like to tell you!
In reality: Just go for it!
In my opinion, you can learn any language easily if only you put in the time. Danish is no exception, and it might actually be one of the easier ones to learn.
But you won't learn any Danish if you spend all of your time worrying, hesitating and beating around the bush. Don't put off learning Danish. If you started last year, you could have been fluent today!
As with anything, the first step if the hardest. Making a decision and getting your feet wet will be the start of an exiting journey. I hope that this little article has cleared some things up for you.
So go for it! Start learning Danish today!