Like my earlier post about learning Swedish, my motivation for attempting Danish also stems from a TV show. In fact, a TV show that is in both Swedish and Danish called The Bridge (Broen in Danish/Bron in Swedish).
In The Bridge, a body is found on the bridge between Denmark and Sweden, right on the border, and the respective police departments work together to solve the case. The plot may sound familiar if you’ve seen the UK/French remake of The Bridge.
If Swedish learning resources are few and far between, Danish learning resources are practically non-existent. But fortunately, the few resources that do exist are pretty good. In this post we’ll take a look at my plan of attack and how it went.
5 Fun Facts about Denmark
Before we really get into it, let’s set the cultural stage with some fun facts about Denmark that you might not know about.
1. Legos are from Denmark
Every kid knows their Nintendos and PlayStations are from Japan, but I bet few realize that their Legos are from Denmark. If you ever make it to Denmark, visit the Legoland theme park.
2. Danes call Danishes (the pastries) Viennese bread
The Danish word for a Danish is wienerbrød, meaning Viennese bread. But what do the Viennese call them? Danishes!
How did that happen? It turns out the originators of the Danish were a couple of Austrian bakers who came to Denmark and setup shop there.
3. Famous Danes you didn’t know were Danes
Don’t let his superb British accent fool you, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jamie Lannister) of Game of Thrones fame is Danish! A couple others that took me by surprise were Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn in Lord of the Rings) and Lars Ulrich (drummer for Metallica). As a ’90s child who grew up on Metallica music, I had to see this for myself. So here is an interview with Lars in Danish.
4. You might be part Danish and not even know it.
The Vikings didn’t just launch raids against Western Europe, many stayed behind. Particularly relevant to those of British descent, the Vikings managed to capture and rule an area known as The Danelaw encompassing nearly all of Northern and Eastern England. Over time they merged with the local population and their Scandinavian genetic legacy can still be found ubiquitously today.
5. Bacon is the unofficial national food of Denmark.
Yum… bacon. And the unofficial national dish is stegt flæsk med persillesovs (fried bacon with parsley sauce).
Online Danish language courses
I hope to see a Danish university put out some free quality online courses some day, but today there are still two self-study Danish programs that I can recommend.
The first is Pimsleur Danish. You can get the first lesson free from the Pimsleur website. No matter what language you want to learn, the first thing I would always do is get the free first Pimsleur lesson to start getting a feel for how the language sounds and is pronounced.
The second is DanishClass101. DanishClass101 is run by a company called Innovative Language that produces high quality courses for many languages, and their Danish courses are no exception. DanishClass101 is hands down the best self study course available for Danish.
DanishClass101 also makes you an offer that you can’t refuse. For only $1 you can get 1 month of full access to their entire Danish course catalog including lessons from absolute beginner all the way up to advanced. You also get a digital download of their Ultimate Getting Started with Danish Box Set. After the first month it converts to a monthly subscription service unless you cancel.
With DanishClass101 you can play lessons online, via their Android or iOS app, or download and play from your computer. The lessons follow a typical format of a sample dialogue followed by explanation and vocabulary practice. One of my favorites is the Top 25 Danish Questions You Need to Know course. I wish something like that had been available when I was learning other languages. I’m also a big fan of their Danish in Three Minutes series that you can preview on YouTube.
While DanishClass101 is still the best available for Danish, there are some aspects that could be better. Since Innovative Language produces courses for many languages following the same model, their courses can be a bit cookie cutter and not as tailored to the language as they could be. Danish pronunciation, for instance, is very complicated and merits much more detailed explanation than the time allotted for it.
It would also be nice to have some grammar practice exercises to drill in sentence patterns, conjugations, declensions and the like. I looked around for a Danish grammar book with exercises, but couldn’t find one available online.
Danish pronunciation almost comically bears no resemblance to written Danish. Written Danish is probably best considered more like a rough guideline for pronunciation. Or as one person I saw online put it, “Danish orthography is a vicious lie.”
There are also these glottal stops called “stød” randomly inserted into various spots in Danish words that aren’t indicated by anything in the writing. You just have to learn where they are.
For the first time I think I really understand how people must feel trying to learn English, and all its irregularities, as a second language.
What makes it worse is that Danish people tend to talk really fast and mush their words together. Even though Swedish and Danish are very closely related languages, I feel like it takes ten times as much time and effort to wrap your ears and mouth around Danish.
That said, written Danish is not quite as disordered as it seems at first glance. Like English, eventually you get used to sounds made by certain combinations of letters together.
At the end of the day though, you just have to hear a native say a word to know what it’s supposed to sound like. Fortunately, there are some excellent resources for this:
- Den Danske Ordbog is an authoritative online dictionary that contains phonetic transcriptions, as well as audio pronunciation for many. You need to know something about the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to interpret the phonetic transcriptions.
- Google translate provides a machine based voice that can be spotty, but it’s the only way to generate pronunciation for full sentences on demand.
- Forvo.com is a crowd-sourced pronunciation dictionary that typically has excellent coverage.
Study plan and approach
Like with Swedish, my goal wasn’t so much learning Danish, but enjoying a more full experience of the TV show by being able to understand a little bit of the language in addition to just reading English subtitles.
Accordingly, my goals for Danish were modest. Learning a language to the point you can watch and fully comprehend a TV show in another language in a very short period of time is completely unrealistic. My hope was just to pick up on words and phrases that I knew, and learn some new words in the process.
The first thing I did was work through the first lesson of Pimsleur Danish, then half a dozen or so lessons from the DanishClass101 absolute beginner series.
Then I started watching the first episode of The Bridge. I’m not going to sugar coat it, it was a linguistic train wreck. Not only could I not make out a word the Danes were saying, I couldn’t even tell what language was being spoken most of the time! To complicate matters, there were Swedes with Danish accents and Danes with Swedish accents. And the Swedes in the show speak a southern dialect of Swedish that sounds very different than the Stockholm dialect I’d acclimated to.
So I scrapped that project for now, and decided to try a different show first to give my ear a chance to acclimate to Danish. I settled on Rita, a show about a middle school teacher in a suburb of Copenhagen. Standard Spoken Danish and pretty basic day-to-day vocabulary–perfect!
Rita is currently available to stream on Netflix in the US and various other countries. And it also has the Danish subtitles–an absolute must–which are conspicuously missing from the digital versions of many Danish shows I’ve looked for.
From there on out I interwove a few lessons of Danish with episodes of Rita. Pausing, rewinding, and checking the dictionary as I went. The goal was not to understand every word, but just pick out parts that sounded like something I knew or phrases that might be interesting to know.
At first it was incredibly difficult because of the pronunciation issues. The English subtitles would indicate the characters said some words that I should know, but I had completely missed them. I’d rewind and play it again with the Danish subtitles. The Danish subtitles would indicate that the Danish words I expected to be there were in fact supposed to be there, but I still couldn’t hear them! Many, many, many replays later I finally started to hear the rudimentary sound contours of the words that were supposedly there.
It got easier over time. Eventually I discovered that one of my main problems was stød in unexpected places that made the word and sentence rhythm sound very different. So I became a stød detective of sorts. I checked each and every single new word I encountered in Den Danske Ordbog for stød which it indicates in the pronunciation transcription with an IPA symbol that looks like a floating question mark.
Sometimes just saying the sentence aloud myself helped my ears to “find” it in the show dialog.
Now that I’ve finished watching 3 seasons of Rita, I feel pretty satisfied with my progress in Danish. Although it took way, way more work than Swedish just because of the pronunciation difficulties.
Danish learning resources
Pimsleur Danish – An audio only language course, first lesson free.
Den Danske Ordbog – Online Danish dictionary. Note, this is not a Danish-English dictionary. It’s main use for absolute beginners is the pronunciation transcriptions and pronunciation audios.
Google translate – Free Google translator app. Machine translations are often suspect, but still very useful.
Forvo.com – A crowd-sourced pronunciation dictionary. Listen to native speakers pronounce words. Very good coverage.
Vores fællessprog – Online Danish lessons helpful for learning grammar. Despite their basic level, there is no audio so they are better suited to learners who already have a good grasp of pronunciation and some exposure to the language.
I’ve become utterly fascinated by sentences in Danish and Swedish that are essentially word-for-word the same as English and just sound like English with a thick accent. Here are a couple.
Danish: Hej. Det var en god ting, at du hjalp hende.
English: Hey. It was a good thing that you helped her.
Danish: Kan du høre mig?
Swedish: Kan du höra mig?
English: Can you hear me?