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Learning Danish: The bumpy road to fluency

The past 2.5 years I have been learning Danish. Once I knew I was moving to Denmark, I downloaded one of those apps that help you learn some words. I remember how I was replaying the sound of skildpadde (‘turtle’) again and again to determine what kind of sound it was the Danes finished that word with. I decided it was an ‘L’. It turns out it was still a ‘d’, but more on that in another post. That was when I first got an idea of some of the bumps in the road to Danish fluency.

Linguistic distance
And then I have it relatively easy, coming from a country with a language that is very similar to Danish. Like with German, there are quite a few words that are similar, and many more words that are recognizable if you know the patterns. There are also similarities with regard to grammar. That helps a lot. But imagine how tough it is for my Chinese friend!

Why can I still not understand you?!
I’ve heard many foreigners sigh that they have such trouble understanding Danish. I have already talked a bit about the difficulty of understanding spoken Danish in earlier blog posts. This has Bump in the roadbeen the main bump in my road towards learning Danish. The head start I get by being Dutch did not help me at all when trying to understand Danish. It was just so frustrating to hear this blur of words and not being able to even distinguish the words, let alone decipher their meaning.

The world upside-down
So I actually speak (much) better Danish than I understand, which was also quite frustrating because I get into these situations where I am actually able to speak quite a bit of Danish, but then be completely at a loss when they answer me in their normal (incredibly fast and slightly swallowed) way. I might have brought it on myself by not having a television – and hence not watching Danish TV – but I also blame it on the ‘muddy’ way in which Danes pronounce their language… (according to Danish linguist Ruben Schachtenhaufen!)

Keep on going…
So I sometimes did feel like I would never understand spoken Danish, but now I’m starting to feel better about it. I’m now in the fifth module at language school, so I’m not there yet. But my listening skills are starting to catch up, and I can have long conversations in Danish (though not about too complex topics such as politics, and only with one person at a time!). It is funny how you can have the feeling that you are not progressing at all, yet then all of a sudden make a jump and realise you just had a four hour conversation with a friend about many different topics!

Photo by Doug Haslam via Flickr.

2 comments

  1. Audrey

    Hi! Thanks for sharing this! I can totally relate. I’m a native English speaker who spent 5 years in the NL, and now that you mention it, I think the Dutch pronounce their language in a ‘muddy’ way! I’m living in Germany now and had no previous knowledge of German before moving here, but in the 3 months that I have been here so far, I have found it so much easier to understand German than Dutch. And I really think it’s down to the pronunciations. Is there an article somewhere about how the Dutch also speak their language in a ‘muddy’ way? I’m encouraged by how much Danish you’ve learned, and I hope I’ll be able to have “long conversations” with Germans in a few years without having to resort to asking them their favourite colour/food! :o) Good luck with everything!

    1. msvanbakel

      Thanks for your comment, Audrey, and apologies for this very late reply! I am not sure about the pronunciation of Dutch – and being Dutch myself, I, of course, think the Dutch pronounce everything very clearly and logically  – just like many Danes say they do. I think it also has a lot to do with how much experience you have listening to a language. English, for example, can also be considered as a difficult language in terms of pronunciation, though it sounds quite logical and clear to me – and you, as a native speaker. This blog post has the following passage about this:

      It would be a lot simpler to pronounce English if the written form resembled the spoken form more closely. Amongst the most confusing bits are silent letters – r, l, b, h, k, n, p, s, t & w are all silent some of the time. Then there are letters that can be pronounced in lots of different ways – ‘s’ can be pronounced as /z/, ‘t’ can be pronounced in at least 5 ways, and an ‘n’ can become /m/ or /ŋ/. And that’s just consonants – English contains 19 vowel sounds, but it only has 5 vowels to spell them with, so who could possibly guess that ‘good’, ‘food’ and ‘blood’ all contain different vowel sounds (/ʊ/, /u:/ and /ʌ/)?

      Danish is improving for me now that I have had more exposure to it, and (some) pronunciations start to feel more logical. So I guess it is also very much a matter of the amount of exposure…

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