Learning one language helps you learn another

A couple of days ago, my fellow blogger Stefan talked about the etymology of different words in Danish. Being a bit of a language geek myself, this kind of information is right up my street. I’m fascinated by the interrelationship and development of different languages, and I enjoy discovering examples of one language’s influence on another.

As a French speaker, one of the things I have noticed whilst learning Danish is, as Stefan pointed out, the number of words that have a French influence. Words like paraply (umbrella), elev (school pupil), roman (novel), billet (ticket) and niveau (level) are all difficult-to-guess words for English speakers…unless you happen to speak French as well, in which case they’re easy-peasy!

I have also been helped with my understanding of various grammatical rules in Danish, such as the concept of agreeing adjectives (for example, using the right choice of smuk, smukt or smukke), or using have or være to form the past tense according to the verb that follows (i.e. it’s jeg HAR spist but jeg ER kommet) by my knowledge of French, which has similar language patterns.

As well as this, the fact that English, like Danish, is part of the Germanic language branch (English is West Germanic, Danish is North Germanic) has been really helpful for my comprehension of numerous other items of vocabulary, as well as assisting my general understanding of Danish sentence construction, which on the whole is pretty similar to English.

Between them, I think that my knowledge of French and English have been extremely helpful for my Danish language studies, and have helped me to ‘hack’ Danish that little bit quicker than might otherwise be the case. According to Stefan’s article, it seems that if only I spoke German too, I’d be laughing!12392049_10156307517330109_504846864994046502_n

Some examples of similarities between Danish and other languages

What about you? I wonder if you have also found your native or second languages a helpful influence in any way whilst learning Danish.

Whilst we’re on the subject of language hacking, I’ve just finished watching the third series of The Bridge (and can I just state for the record here that I thought Henrik was an excellent replacement for Martin! Please let there be a fourth series…). One of the basic tenets of this show is that the Danish and Swedish police can work together so easily because they can keep talking their own languages and still understand each other. (According to this article from Wikipedia, mind, it appears that it’s the Malmö and København police in particular, rather than the Swedish and Danish police in general, that might have this facility for working with each other.)

This series, my level of Danish, although still fairly basic, was developed enough to be able to start spotting some of the similarities between the two languages – for example, the Danish jeg gik til dit hus (I went to your house) becomes the Swedish ‘jag gick till ditt hus’. So similar! And not only that, I did a little research and it appears that the same phrase in Norwegian is ‘jeg dro til huset ditt’. A little more different but still recognisably similar. All of which makes me feel that, although I’m currently learning Danish, my studies might also eventually end up giving me a handy head-start on any future Swedish and/or Norwegian studies – giving me, in effect, a sort of three-for-one deal on my current efforts!

So, with the new year upon us tomorrow, I think that this is a good thought to keep in mind for the year ahead. We may be studying Danish at the moment, and it may be tricky sometimes (or even often!), but the time and effort we put into it now will eventually reward us with the fluency we seek…and, as a bonus, the ability to understand a fair amount of Swedish and Norwegian into the bargain.

On that note, may I finish by taking this opportunity to wish a godt nytår til alle / gott nytt år till alla / godt nytt år til alle*!

(* The Danish / Swedish / Norwegian for ‘happy new year to everyone’)



3 thoughts on “Learning one language helps you learn another

  1. Hi, I just discovered your blog through a Facebook group Speak Easy Prague which linked to this article. I’m learning Danish myself, so I’m very excited about this blog and definitely will read the other posts as well.

    I’m Czech and Czech language belongs to the Slavic family, but it has been in a close contact with German for centuries; therefore, there are loads of loan words from German. Most of them have been changed to fit Czech grammar and the written form is hardly recognizable, but the pronunciation often remains pretty close to the original. Only thanks to that property I was able to immediately understand Danish word “rygsæk”. It’s obviously a backpack. Czech has its original word “batoh” but an informal synonym is “ruksak” – German has “Rucksack” and that’s not a coincidence. I didn’t pursue it further – did it originate in German and then spread to Danish and Czech, is it a word from some older Germanic language (highly unlikely given the meaning), or does it come from yet another language?


    1. Hi Štěpán, thanks for your comment! If you’re studying Danish, I’m glad you found us and I hope you find the blog interesting and helpful for you as you study. I know I’m personally learning lots about Danish and Denmark from reading my fellow bloggers’ posts. 🙂
      It’s really interesting to hear that there are lots of links between German and Czech, I’m sure that must help you some with your Danish. I’m interested – what made you start studying dansk? Are you studying Danish from abroad, like me?


      1. Hi Catrin, thank you for your reply. I’ve already read roughly two months of articles and I’ve enjoyed them.
        Czech lands, Bohemia, or whatever was the appropriate name of the area currently known as Czech Republic have been in close contact with German speaking countries for centuries. Just looking at a map, hlaf of our borders are with Germany and Austria. Going back to history, Bohemia was part of the Holy Roman Empire for long stretches of time. Apart from the first Bohemian royal dynasty, the Přemyslids, we were ruled by the House of Luxembourg and the Habsburgs for a very long time. Czech language existed alongside German, which grew more and more prevalent in business and government. Only during the Enlightenment a group of nationalists resurrected Czech language during Czech National Revival. They put a lot of work into it, codified the grammar and everything, wrote dictionaries and produced literature and plays. They combated Germanic words and invented crazy original Czech words (some of them actually took of, but most are just funny), too.
        Given the time period, most of the Germanic words have been in Czech for a very long time and had assimilated perfectly. They have been transliterated phonetically, some root morfed to fit Czech endings and so on. Moreover, a lot of the vocabulary is now obsolete or very rare (I found a master’s thesis which includes a nice list of such words and lot of them are names of tools for crafts and military). Therefore, it’s not that often we realize the Germanic origin and a relation to Danish is even more rare.
        My reason for studying Danish is pretty simple. I once spent a vacation in Denmark and fell in love with the country. I’d like to try to live there in the future and one cannot do it (properly) without dansk, so I bought a textbook, then got into the Duolingo course as soon as possible and I have been trying to learn ever since :-).


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