I'll Teach Mary Danish

As distressed as I am that I may
never get a chance to date Crown Prince Frederik,

I'm happy that he has found love with Australian lawyer Mary Donaldson. She's seems to be a lovely women - although, Mary, it isn't really fair to go running back to your sunny homeland during the worst months of the Danish winter.

It seems that the only thing Mary still needs to work on is her command of Danish, and anecdotal reports indicate she is struggling. Every foreigner in Denmark sympathises with her. Danish, to a newcomer, can be overwhelming.

So let me offer a solution: I'll teach Mary Danish. Having been in Denmark for more than two years now, I speak it reasonably well, except when a policeman stops me on my bicycle, upon which time I speak only very complicated English. But most of the time, at work and at parties and while trying to get the immigration department to let me stay here and pay more even Danish taxes, I speak Danish.


Frederik loves Mary.



Of course, during that two years I've made some pretty big mistakes. Like, for example, the time when I was forced to quickly leave a sublet apartment, and told everybody that I was not thrown out (smidt ud) but thrown out the window (kastet ud.) Or like the time I went past the Fødevareministeriet (Agricultural Ministry) and, getting fødevarer confused with fodtøj, wondered why Denmark had such a big ministry for shoes.

But I'm sure I'll be a better teacher than the government-funded Danish-language schools I went through. Their programs were clearly designed for a 1963 type of immigrant: one made us repeat over and over, supposedly as a pronunciation drill, "Jeg arbejder på en fabrik i Vanløse." ("I work in a factory on the outskirts of town.") They also insist on lumping candidates from all countries in a single class, being politically unwilling to accept that someone from Sweden might learn Danish a little faster than someone from Korea. As each day's class enters its third hour, the Swedish girl is drawing pictures in her notebook, while the guy from Korea is lost and gradually losing the will to live.

So we'll work one-on-one. Written Danish won't be too hard; it's straightforward, and free of all the kaleidoscopic verb endings of Spanish and French, and the silly old-fashioned spellings of English.

Unfortunately, written Danish has absolutely nothing to do with spoken Danish. Danes, in a salute to Scandinavian minimalism, say only part of each word. Thus, what looks in your workbook like "Hvad hedder du?" ("What is your name?") is actually pronounced "Hv' hed' du?" Learning to understand spoken Danish is learning to guess which part of the spoken word is missing.



While you're trying to learn to understand spoken Danish, the best people to listen to are other foreigners. Other foreigners, in their ignorance, say entire Danish words. You'll be pleased to know that one of the first Danish speakers I could understand was your prospective father-in-law, Prince Henrik. Danes hate the way he speaks Danish, but that's because he says the entire word, every time. If you'd rather not practice on him, try the nice Pakistani lady at the kiosk. Not being Danish, she will speak a Danish you can understand.

I can also recommend watching hand puppets on television - since they have no real mouths, whomever is speaking for them needs to enunciate very well - as well as speeches by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who is so desperate to cover his Jutland accent that he speaks very, very slowly. Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister. Anything on TV in Danish with Danish-language subtitles for the deaf is also good. If all Danes came equipped with subtitles, life would be much easier for foreigners.

Anyway, you might as well take mumbling as an advantage and mumble yourself. It makes it a lot harder for people to tell if you are making mistakes. I find it a particularly effective way of hiding my problems with adjective endings, i.e. the correct “hver dag” or the incorrect “hvere dag.” (By the way, “hverdage” (week days) does not really mean “hver dag” (every day of the week), as I found out when I tried to go to a “Åben hverdage” supermarket on a Sunday). At any rate, you will often be surprised to find Danes themselves differing about spelling and other points of language: Danish may be formalised in books, but in daily use it is less so, perhaps because until recently no one has had the bother of teaching it to many foreigners.




Small disputes aside, the Danish language generally reflects the homogeny and harmony of Danish culture. That means no one ever says anything too definitively, for fear of having an unpopular opinion and being forced to back down.

For example, if something is good, you would say in English that you definitely and positively like it, but in Danish you will say that you kan lide it, directly translated as you can suffer it. This construction keeps Danes from being unfashionably enthusiastic about things, and thereby assuming their opinion is more valuable than others, as proscribed by the Jantelov.

Also keep in mind non-committal phrases like i mine øjne (in my eyes), kunne godt være (could well be), and the all-time favourite, blandt andre (among other things). Blandt andre should be added to the end of every list to make sure no one will ever be able to accuse you of leaving something off the list. For example, if you are making a list of the most attractive princes in Europe, you could say something like, "Prince William of England, Prince Felipe of Spain, and Prince Carl Philip of Sweden, blandt andre." This will help you at home.



But, in case the Queen would prefer to have someone else teach you Danish, let me just leave you with some tips. Watch the "o" and "ø" - for example, the "Mønster Bageri" near my home is trying to tell people that it is an excellent bakery, not that it is full of monsters. Be careful about words that sound similar: after hearing a safety announcement on the 2A bus, I once tried to explain to a deaf old lady that "en tyver" (a twenty-five cent piece, as opposed to "tyv," a thief) was stealing passengers' purses. And take special care when you use "dufte" (smell good) and "lugte" (smell bad) It's the same word - "smell" - in English, but people get real mad if you tell you can "lugte" the dinner they spent all day preparing.

Actually, there is a secret to learning Danish quickly, but it would horrify every Dane. That said, it assisted me enormously with grammar, vocabulary and comprehension. I might never have learned Danish without it. The terrible secret is: Learn German first. If you can speak English and German, functional Danish is only a few months of practice away.


This story was first published in Danish in the BT newspaper's Kun for Kvinder section.