The festive way to learn


I’m really looking forward to the 1st of December. And not just because I have an advent calendar full of chocolates waiting for my attention. I’m mainly looking forward to a calendar of a different kind, the annual julekalender TV series on DR1.

This year, the julekalender’s name is ‘Den Anden Verden’, or ‘the other world’. I don’t know much about the story yet (I try to avoid spoilers), but I do know that the plot will play out over 24 episodes leading right from the 1st of December to Christmas Eve.

I also know that following along with the julekalender is a very effective way to boost your Danish language skills. As I’ve mentioned previously, I moved to Denmark at the end of November in 2014, so it was perfectly timed for watching that year’s julekalender. It was called ‘Tidsrejsen’ and was really, really good. I won’t pretend that I understood everything that the young protagonists were saying in the series, but I could follow the story and managed to keep track of all the jumps between different time periods (it was a bit like watching a very, very long Doctor Who Christmas special).


My recommendation to you is to sit down on Thursday evening and give Den Anden Verden a go. Even if you struggle to understand what’s going on in episode one, you’ve got 24 episodes to get to know the characters and get familiar with the subject matter, picking up all sorts of handy vocabulary along the way. If you really need a helping hand, you can watch the episodes online on DR’s web player, which gives you the option to switch on Danish subtitles and maybe understand even more.

As well as being an entertaining learning opportunity, watching the julekalender is also a very cosy way to get in the mood for the festive season and take your mind off all the presents you need to buy during the next few weeks. Or are you one of those people who has all their shopping sorted by the end of October? I am definitely not that organised, so I need something like Den Anden Verden to help me focus on the positive, less consumer-focused parts of Christmas. And polishing my increasingly rusty Danish while I watch is a lovely bonus.

So light a couple of candles, warm up some cocoa, and relax with the julekalender. If you do watch Den Anden Verden, let me know which new words you learn in the comments below!



Learning a language means tilvænning, adaptation. Applying your knowledge to the new language and making it work for you. And, in the case of moving to a new country – let’s say Denmark – adapting your life, too.

What really helps you to learn Danish is to immerse yourself in it, and that is fairly easy to do when you are in Denmark: Danish newspapers, magazines (and sometimes a limited choice of  books) are available in every supermarket.

More books, music, magazines and films are available at the Danish public library. Some Danish libraries are open without personnel being around, but in the larger ones, librarians are very helpful in assisting you. And, as a bonus, they are your easiest chance to have a talk with a real-life Dane (but that is another story).

The only thing is that all of the above only work well if they become a habit to you: tilvænning. So, for example, instead of checking headlines online in your own language, try starting the day with Danish headlines – and follow up with the ones in your mother tongue.


You’ll make tilvænning a lot easier on yourself if you follow your passions, interests or guilty pleasures, because they will ensure that you will come back for more. Harlequin books, gardening, motorcycle maintenance, sailing, fantasy – as long as it is in Danish and it has your interest, it is fine. That way you’ll pick up more Danish than you ever would expect. One of the main reasons for this is that you already know words in your own language, and you know the context these are used in. This will make it easier for you to learn new words – without even having to use a dictionary! I’ll never forget the first Danish book I read: “Tre søstre”, about Danish Queen Margrethe and her two sisters Benedicte and Anne-Marie. And I remember the two words I learned from that book: “tilbage” (back) and “nederdel” (skirt). Well, in the case of the latter, pictures help, too…


But have you considered changing the operating system of your smartphone to Danish?


The same goes for your computer. If you have to change computers, and you know that you are going to stay here a bit longer, why not buy a Danish one? All of a sudden those pesky æ’s, ø’s and å’s are at your fingertips!

I know it is a very first-world kind of approach, but if you think about it, it actually makes sense. It is the ultimate in tilvænning. 

If the idea is to surround yourself with Danish, why not by ‘danifying’ the tools that you use so often?




Bløde Konsonanter

I didn’t realise this, but for some Danes they are the crown jewels in their language: the bløde konsonanter. Or, as I call them, the consonants that should not be heard.

One of the hardest parts of speaking and understanding Danish is all those letters that you have to write but do not pronounce. I compare those to beautiful lingerie: you can’t see them, but they do have an effect – at least on the person wearing them. The same goes for those letters: you are not supposed to pronounce them, but you have to think of them while not saying them, otherwise the words come out wrong. Consider gud, gulv, gul and guld (god, floor, yellow and gold). To the beginners’ ear they sound the same, but they are not!

Then there are the letters that are pronounced in a totally different way. The first time I heard the word ‘bjerg’, I was about to give up on Danish. Imagine seeing a G and having to pronounce it as a W: ‘bjerw’.

And, while we’re at it: a v is pronounced as a w: wiking (viking), wenstre (left), Westas (Vestas).

My biggest opponent used to be the soft D. The one in ‘rødgrød med fløde’. Or ‘rødbeder’. I was not alone in that. A friend of my husband’s used to live in Beder, a village to the south of Aarhus. Imagine living in a place that you cannot pronounce! His was a steep learning curve…

I could do the rødgrød med fløde, but in other words I could not NOT say the d. I wanted to know what I did right when I said ‘rødgrød med fløde’, because I didn’t know. I just aped what the others said. Which isn’t a bad strategy when learning a language, but sometimes you need to know what you’re doing – not just go through the motions.

Finally, my Lærdansk teacher pointed me towards a site where all the Danish sounds are explained, complete with diagrams that show what your tongue, lips and cheeks are supposed to do, and the possibility to practice.

It’s for Lærdansk pupils only, but you could try out this one, too – watch the drawing on the whiteboard!

Fear is your friend

It can’t have escaped your notice that the days are getting shorter and the mornings are getting colder. Fall (or autumn, as I know it best) is here, and it’s at this time of year that I start to look back at what I’ve achieved since the last gloomy January. But today I’m looking further back, back to when I first arrived at the end of a crisp and chilly November in 2014.

In just a month, I will have been living in Denmark for two whole years. That’s a big deal for me, having only lived and worked outside the UK for a few months in the past. Two years is more than enough time to notice how much more at home I feel here, compared to when I first arrived and was almost too shy to whisper ‘tak’ to the supermarket cashier.

It really hit home for me the other day, when I headed out on a trip to the local branch of Kiwi to pick up some milk. As I walked along, I remembered just how scary such an expedition was for me two years ago. Back then, going out for some milk took courage, as well as planning ahead to make sure I had the vocabulary I needed. I had the Danish language basics when I moved here, sure, but I was still afraid of being asked a question that I wouldn’t understand, or worse, a question I did understand but couldn’t answer.

Can you recognise that feeling? Is it something you still feel now, when you’re about to enter a situation that requires you to use Danish? Or can you remember that feeling with the warm glow of satisfaction that comes with knowing that you’ll never need to feel that way again?

Well don’t feel too satisfied just yet.

If I’ve learned anything since I stopped going to Danish classes, it’s that I need that fear in order to keep getting better. I don’t improve my Danish when I go to the supermarket and have the same simple interactions that I always have. My language skills only improve when I’m afraid, which usually comes from using Danish in a new situation. I need that level of discomfort to learn and develop my skills.

So where can you find that discomfort when you’ve already learned so much? You need to be creative and you need to be brave.

For me, finding an opportunity to briefly step out of Danish comfort zone is easy, because I work with lots of Danes. Whenever I get the chance, even if it scares me, I try and hold meetings about complex subjects in Danish. Of course, it helps that my colleagues are very patient and make an extra effort to accommodate my less-than-perfect Danish, but it really challenges me and I can come out of every meeting feeling that I’ve learned something.

Plus it helps keep meetings short, because I’m not as good at rambling on in Danish as I am in English…

Are you still in the first flushes of Danish fear, or do you need to work hard to get uncomfortable with the language? Either way, embrace the fear and trust that every time you make an effort to use Danish in a new situation, you will get closer and closer to mastering it.


Being on front


It was my neighbour who said it: ‘Nå, men så er jeg på forkanten!‘ which literally means ‘Oh, so I am in front!’ roughly translates as ‘Oh, so I am really early!’. She belatedly congratulated me on my birthday. But then of course she was way ahead of all the others for … my next birthday.


Danes are very punctual (apart from the odd one out), and I found that a frightening aspect of Danish society, when six years ago I moved from Holland to Denmark. I am practically always late, and I really try my best to overcome this deplorable habit.


I flatter myself thinking that I am getting a little bit better at it.


One reason for this is that I like to ‘play Dane’: to behave in such a way that Danes think that I am a Dane, too. It is an endless game, totally up to your own  imagination. The easiest way is dressing up. You can play Dane by dressing in a certain way, like in wearing all shades of black and wearing flat-soled shoes. And being on time is another Danish thing that can make you look like a Dane without having to open your mouth.


Another reason is that I found my neighbour’s remark so funny that it stuck in my head. This way I found out that although I find it hard to be on time, I find it comparatively easy to be really early.


The same goes for ‘playing Dane’ while talking: get a head start. Many Danes complimented me on my Danish almost from the beginning, and I really enjoyed that. It gave me that feeling of achievement that you need so badly, when you are learning a langauge and trying to make it your own.


I also realised that Danes kept on saying it. Even now, after six years, someone will say ‘Nå, men du taler fint dansk for én, der har været her i kun seks år’. My initial efforts have been rewarding me all the way up until now. And they were not much of an effort anyway: I just started going to language school early on.


So to all of you who just have started: do yourself a favour, put all your efforts in those first few months learning Danish and be rewarded for that for the rest of your Danish life!


Staying motivated after language school

As I suspected, I’m not using as much Danish as I did while I was going to Lærdansk three times a week. I’m not the kind of person who does a lot of studying if there’s not an exam to prepare for, so I lose motivation quite easily now that the only person who cares about how much Danish I know is me.

I’m using a fair amount of spoken Danish at work with my colleagues, but I’m hardly writing any Danish at all. If I’m going to maintain my current level of written Danish, I’m going to have to make a special effort. I’m using a lot of energy getting up to speed in my new job, so making a special effort in my free time seems unlikely right now.

There must be some written tasks I can do in Danish instead of English, so that I can sneak a bit of Danish into my day. Writing a shopping list? Do it in Danish. Writing my daily to-do list at work? Do it in Danish. Writing a text message to my husband? Do it in Danish. I know this doesn’t sound like large volumes of writing, but I’m hoping that doing a little bit every day will help protect my skills.

How about reading? I’ve got that covered by finding things that really interest me and reading about them in Danish. I get a couple of magazines every month and try to read one or two articles from them every day. One magazine is about nature and wildlife, while the other is about consumer rights (I used to work for the British consumer organisation, so I love reading about this topic in Danish!).

So my top tips for staying motivated once you’ve finished with your free Danish classes would be these:

  1. Try to do a little bit every day, or bad habits will creep in
  2. Don’t force yourself to read about something that doesn’t interest you – a fascinating topic or story will keep you reading on
  3. Be creative and look for opportunities in your day to day life to sneak in a bit of Danish

It would be a huge shame to waste all the hard work you’ve put in, so keep those good habits going, even when there’s no teacher to check up on you.

Held og lykke!


How to get Danes to speak Danish

I’ve been told that Danes in general wield the English language quite proficiently. This is of course an easy feat when you are being compared to France, Germany and Spain, but it still feels quite nice being praised for being good at something. In fact, it feels so nice that many of us jump at every chance we get to flaunt our mastery of the modern world’s lingua franca. I have actually found myself conversing with people from Sweden in English because we found this easier than speaking Danish and Swedish to each other, even though the latter two are basically just different dialects.

Most Danes will switch to English as soon as they feel that this might make the conversation flow more freely, and while this is only done to be polite, I’m sure it can sometimes make it hard for people who want to hone their Danish skills to get a sufficient amount of exposure to the language. This would be an instance of a bjørnetjeneste in its original (and only correct!) sense, by the way: ending up doing someone a disservice while intending the opposite. For this reason, I have tried to think of some clever ways to make sure that the otherwise enabling Danes provide you with the needed exposure to their tongue twisting language.

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Be honest: Straight up ask your conversation partner to stick to Danish if you need him to. You might feel like you are inconveniencing him or her by declaring your common English language off limits, but don’t. If there is one thing Danes love more than flaunting their English skills, it’s when people are committed enough to Denmark to actually learn the language.

Be persistent: Insist on speaking Danish yourself. Even though this might make conversation harder and more tedious, this will prompt your interlocutor to stick to Danish as well, as you are clearly determined that the long term benefits of doing so are worth it, despite the fact that switching to English would be an easy fix.

Be a pickpocket: This is not at all recommended! I just couldn’t help but think of an anecdote from my study trip to Florence. One of my classmates had an Italian dad and was taking classes in Italian himself, but wasn’t really that motivated, which his grades reflected quite accurately. One night in Florence though, he was pickpocketed. After a short chase through the streets, we lost the culprits, and my classmate started swearing. In fluent Italian. The trick is that sufficient emotional excitement precipitates immediate verbal release in whatever language you are most comfortable using. You might not be treated to the most refined display of rhetorical mastery, but it’s a surefire way of provoking an immediate, colloquial response it seems. Feelings other than anger might work just as well, but I have no anecdotes to illustrate this.