Learning Danish: ’No cow on the ice?’

Some say that Danish is one of the moCow (by la vaca vegetariana)st difficult languages to learn. While I think that also depends on what your native language is (it is a lot more difficult for my Chinese friend than for me), research shows that Danish was the most difficult native language to learn out of the following seven languages: Danish, Swedish, Dutch, French, American English, Croatian and Galician (1). It basically takes Danish children longer to really master the language.

Too many vowels
Written Danish is not the issue – it’s all about the pronunciation. As I noted in my blog post One Year in Denmark, the Danes leave out many of the consonants and have up to 45 ways to pronounce their vocals. That is what Dorthe Bleses, a linguist at the Center for Child Language at the University of Southern Denmark who carried out the above mentioned cross-cultural comparison of how children learn to speak their native language, pinpoints as the ‘problem’ with Danish. These many ways to pronounce vowels and the swallowing of consonants makes it much more difficult to distinguish between words. That’s exactly what makes it difficult for me to understand conversations, especially between Danes. They just go too fast!

Is that a song from a warm country?
While I’m still wrestling with understanding the Danes, I did find a different way which has greatly enhanced my joy in language learning: Word of the Week. I posted a paper on my office door to learn a bit more of everyday Danish – expressions that are used, ways of saying things, commoDannebrog (Jacob Boetter)n replies etc. That has led to many interesting conversations with my colleagues about expressions that they use. I now learned that there is no cow on the ice in Denmark if there is no problem (ingen ko på isen!), that people can ask you if you have rats in your head if you say something crazy (har du rotter på loftet?), and that students offer many songs from warm countries to explain why they were unable to hand in an assignment on time (de kommer med en sang fra de varme lande). I think expressions and sayings are a very beautiful (and telling) part of a language, and it is great fun to get into that. And I think it is a great way to really learn the language. Do try this at home!

(1) The Danish language’s irritable vowel syndrome, The Copenhagen Post, May 2011

Photo of the cow by la vaca vegetariana and photo of the Danish flag by Jacob Bøtter (via Flickr).


About Marian van Bakel

I graduated in International Business Communication at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands. After my studies I was a Visiting Study Fellow at University of Oxford where I conducted a research on the adjustment of Dutch diplomats and their partners in London. In February 2012 I successfully defended my PhD thesis ‘In Touch with the Dutch’, in which I put expatriates in touch with a Dutch host to examine the effect of this contact on the success of the international assignment. During my PhD research I also worked as in house communication consultant at Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. I am currently a postdoc at the Department of Leadership and Corporate Strategy at the University of Southern Denmark (www.sdu.dk/en). Since 2004 I have done extensive voluntary work in the intercultural field for the Young Society of Intercultural Education, Training and Research (Young SIETAR). One of my projects was to co-edit and co-author A Suitcase Full of Discoveries (2008), an intercultural storybook for children.
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