Language Learning and Me: Danish

Claire Handscombe
Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

F’s husband is from Denmark. They met in Brussels nearly four years ago, and she started taking Danish classes three days before they got married. She has some great advice about learning the language, and languages in general. Worth a read!

1. Your husband speaks near-perfect English and you don’t live in Denmark, so why did you decide to learn the language?

A few reasons. His family have mixed levels of English and I really want to be able to communicate with them well. I feel more part of the family the more I can take part in those family conversations over meals and around coffee tables. If we have kids in the future, we would want them to raise them bilingual, and I can’t imagine not being able to speak to them in their father’s language.

But a bigger reason was that I really believe that by learning someone’s mother language, you get to know them in a whole new way. My husband and I were already close of course, but I think learning his first language has really strengthened our relationship in a way that’s hard to describe.

2. Have you learned other languages before? If so, what were they, and how does that experience compare with learning Danish?

I did German A-level many years ago, but haven’t had opportunity to use it since, so it’s rather rusty. I had a fantastic German teacher, Mrs Bexon, for the last few years of school, who made the whole experience of learning the language so much fun. I credit her with my not being apprehensive about beginning to learn another language years later.

3. How have you gone about learning Danish? How successful has it been?

The big difference with Danish, though, is that I have a much bigger and long-term motivation to learn. That’s a big factor in my success in learning and I’ve learnt faster than I ever did at school.

I began by taking a beginners’ course in Danish in Brussels, run by the Scandinavian Language School. I had a great Danish teacher and wonderful classmates (most of whom were also in a relationship to a Dane!) and it was a good start to the language.

After that course finished I looked for a Danish tutor and found a Danish woman living in Florence who offered video Skype classes. I was initially sceptical but I love it. We’ve moved city four times in the last year and I didn’t need to pause my classes with her. It’s just the two of us, we chat about our weeks, do listening and dictation exercises and she sends me homework via email. It works so well. Now I am no longer a beginner, I’ve found the individual classes so much better for me, as we can progress at my own rate.

4. What’s the hardest thing about learning Danish?

Sometimes it’s hard to assess your progress, especially when not living in a country where the language is spoken, but I like that I can now have a conversation with my mother-in-law on the phone in Danish with not too many clarifications or translations needed. And I kinda love that R and I have our own “secret language” that none of our colleagues or friends at home understand 😉

The pronunciation. A Swedish colleague once told me that Danish sounds like Danes forgot to swallow their porridge in the morning! There are a lot of silent letters and mumbled words, so understanding spoken Danish has been the hardest for me to master.

Learning a language in a country where it’s not spoken has also been hard. I imagine I could have learned faster if we were living in Denmark, but you work with what you have.

5. What resources would you recommend to someone learning Danish? What advice would you give them?

My husband comes from a small Danish island called Bornholm, which has its own very strong dialect of Danish. When someone speaks Bornhomlsk on Danish television, they often provide subtitles! This adds its own level of complication as I start picking up Bornholmsk words and pronunciations that entirely baffle my Danish teacher!

Since the pronunciation is hardest, I’d recommend listening to as much Danish as you can. We listen to Danish Radio in the morning (PR3) and we have some Danish programs and films that we watch together: Forbrydelse (‘The Killing’ in English) is popular, Klovn, Matador. Start with subtitles in English, change them to Danish and eventually you can understand without them at all.

6. What’s your favourite word or phrase in Danish?

Also, find ways it can be fun. Take the things you enjoy in your own language and do them in Danish. I love interior design magazines, so I find ways to buy copies of Rum, BoligLiv, Bo Bedre, and work my way through with a dictionary to hand.

It’s always when you get asked a question like this that you forget every Danish word or phrase you’ve ever learnt 😉 But a while ago I learnt that to say “up hill down hill” which is op ad bakke, ned ad bakke — not super useful but very fun to try and say fast over and over…

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Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

Washington, DC

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