Want to learn Norwegian? Forget everything you learned in Danish classes.

A Frog in the Fjord: One Year in Norway Book


So I’ve been in Norway for a few weeks now, and all my colleagues keep asking me “so, how is your Norwegian?”. Well my Norwegian does not exist, I don’t understand anything at all so please don’t ask me to say anything. Oh yes maybe “Gouuyyuul” that everyone has been saying to each other over Christmas.

I’ve already tried learning a Scandinavian language (and failed). It took me one year of living in Copenhagen to understand that cashiers at the supermarkets were not suggesting me to take a sausage “pølse” but a bag “pose”. When coming out of a Dane’s mouth, both words seemed exactly the same to my delicate French ears. So how could anyone expect me to start speaking Norwegian after such a short time? I can only guess that it will take years before I can have a conversation in Norwegian, and that is if it is half as hard as Danish.

I wasn’t supposed to stay long in Denmark, so for the first 4 months I didn’t bother learning the language. And that’s quite easy, believe me, Danish is not a language that you just pick up. The sounds that come out of these people’s mouths are out of this world. I tried to learn the survival sentences such as ordering a beer, but even that was unpronouncable and very hard to remember. But after some months there, I got tired of looking like a fool not speaking a single word while actually living in their country, so I started Danish language classes. 2 months of intensive course in Nørrebro, the so-called guetto of Copenhagen. Danes obviously have no idea what a guetto really looks like, it is not defined by a few drug dealers, graffitis and immigrants who are neither tall nor blond like other immigrants (Swedes?).

Anyway, the course was for beginners and focused on pronunciation. It turns out Danish is one of the most difficult languages to learn for foreigners because some of the sounds you need to make don’t exist in any other language. For example the soft “d” that you make by making the “L” sound but putting your tongue behind your lower teeth instead of your upper teeth. For example in “gade” the d is a soft d (it means “street”). And the glottal stop, seen in many words in Danish, which involves stopping breathing in the middle of the word. It is much harder than it seems and the word is not pronounced right if this glottal stop is not respected, like in “bil” (glottal stop between the i and the l – means “car”).

So I spent 2 months of my life repeating sentences in front of a big class of foreigners, none of us understood what we were repeating, but the point wasn’t to learn Danish but to prepare ourselves to pronounce whatever we would learn later. You need to be really committed to move here. After this course I could pronounce the name of my street “Kildevældsgade” but still had a hard time with numbers. Counting in Danish just seems so irrational, just like in French but harder. I was so proud of myself, because although I was nowhere close to being able to communicate in Danish, I could actually read the names of the streets on a map as well as other words. I couldn’t understand what I was reading, but it was some kind of a start.

And then I found a job in Norway. Damn it, I’m going to have to un-learn Danish pronunciation and learn a whole new language: Norwegian. Both languages seem similar (and they are, in the written form) but the proncunciation is so different that looking back I don’t even know whether learning Danish did help me in learning Norwegian.

If you don’t feel like learning Norwegian, you can keep it to English, as most Norwegians speak and understand it. But you might find yourself looking very stupid after a few years of living here without having made the effort of learning. My boss in Copenhagen was from the US, never bothered learning a word of Danish after 10 years spent in the country. Her 4 year-old daughter had to translate conversations for her when meeting strangers. You don’t want to get to that stage do you?

5 thoughts on “Want to learn Norwegian? Forget everything you learned in Danish classes.

  1. På beløbet?

    Before I went to Denmark, I got this idea to learn Danish using a Audio CD, where one has to repeat sentences. Here is the first dialog I learnt, which I find “culturally interesting”:
    – Goddag Marianne,
    – Goddag Mikkel
    – Vil du have en øl?
    – …

  2. Well I come from southern norway, and here we use the soft “d”s. The rest of the country says we speak Danish.

    1. Nei, det har dere ikke. Hun snakker om en nesten ikke-eksisterende d, som i ordet “gade” på dansk, som uttales mer i retningen “Geedh”. Faktisk helt umulig å skrive…

  3. “And that’s quite easy, believe me, Danish is not a language that you just pick up. The sounds that come out of these people’s mouths are out of this world. ”

    These sentences you wrote make it sound like learning Danish is like learning to sing opera lol.

    When I first heard Danish and saw the accompanying text, I was like, “Whoa! what happened there?!” *twists head*

    Their number system fascinates me, because of it’s inconsistency. Before 50, the numbers are in base 10, but after that, till 100, the numbers are in base 20.

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