Learning Danish in a year: the strategies I used for fast progress

This April, it’ll be one year since we arrived in Denmark. We left the UK while it was still in lockdown (which we could do as we were moving for Iain’s work) and it took at least a month or two before we were ready to even start thinking about learning Danish properly.

We’d ordered a few books back in the UK before we moved and tried to make some progress every day (mostly with Complete Danish Beginner to Intermediate from the Teach Yourself series), but we were still very much beginners.

We also knew it was going to take a conscious effort. While Danish grammar wasn’t going to cause many headaches, pronunciation absolutely would. We had watched Borgen. We had loved watching The Killing but were absolutely baffled by the slurred nonsense coming out of the actors’ mouths. “How was this a coherent language?”, we lamented.

But the thing is, the more you’re exposed to a language, the more the words slow down. Soon enough, you can actually distinguish the individual components (or, most of them) and make some sense of what’s going on.

Also, you soon realise that Danes also love saying “Hvad siger du?” (“What are you saying”) to each other every other sentence.

Nearly a year on, I’m definitely not fluent in Danish by any stretch of the imagination. But I can now talk comfortably, understand most of the time, and have had a Danish book on the go from about six months in, when I started with Harry Potter of Fangen fra Azkaban. I think I’m probably about CEFR B1, but we haven’t done any official exams.

Here’s what my process to get here has looked like, with a quick look at what helped me make the quickest progress.

In this post I’ll cover:

  1. Learning Danish at KISS Sprogskole
  2. Switching to private classes with Berlitz
  3. Focusing on speaking from the beginning
  4. Increasing listening input
  5. Reading every day
  6. Boosting vocabulary with spaced repetition
  7. Shadowing accents you like
  8. Remember your motivation

My strategies to learn a decent level of Danish fast

1. Learning Danish at Kiss Sprogskole

After we’d settled in at least somewhat here in Copenhagen, I researched which language lessons I could take in the city. I knew you could access free lessons paid for by the government, but feedback on those was mixed.

Instead, I came across KISS Sprogskole – an ex-public language school that now ran private courses. It also prided itself on being the most effective way to learn fluent(ish) Danish in just 8 months. Whaaat? There was a Level 1 course starting very soon, so I sent an enquiry and got myself signed up.

If you read anything about KISS, you’ll find out that it’s intense. It’s really intense. For three mornings or evenings a week, you’ll sit in a classroom and repeat what the teacher says – over and over again.

For homework, you’ll memorise 15 sentences of Danish, as well as how to write them – with all of the correct glottal stops and resting points intact. You’ll then be picked on in class to narrate specific paragraphs, prompted by just a single word or two. Jeez. You’re told you need to dedicate at least 10 hours a week for homework, but I needed more like 15.

KISS is the most military bootcamp-esque way to learn Danish by a mile, and it does work. It has a huge focus on pronunciation, because it knows that Danes are typically very bad at understanding non-native accents. You’ll leave KISS with a solid accent from the beginning, but one piece you will lack is spontaneity. In all of those bootcamp drills, you miss the chance for actual fluid and spontaneous conversation in Danish.

As our teacher warned us, you need to supplement your learning at KISS with conversation and interaction with locals otherwise you’ll just be a Danish robot parroting “Jeg arbejde på en fabrik i Vanløse” (what’s with the obsession with working at factories in Danish learning materials?)

I completed Levels 1 and 2 (out of 10) at KISS, found myself getting all high and mighty with my beginner’s accent compared to Iain’s, and then decided to take a break as our current teacher was leaving – and, most importantly, I was able to join the private lessons that Iain’s work was very conveniently paying for.

2. Switching to private classes with Berlitz

Berlitz is a well-known language school that has been honing its immersive teaching method for 140+ years now. You can find their schools all over the world, including right in the heart of Copenhagen, where we show up – often in our rain gear drenched from cycling – two evenings a week.

Unlike KISS, Berlitz is totally focused on natural conversation. A core part of their philosophy is speaking the target language from the beginning – so we were discouraged to switch to English in classes unless we really needed to.

To begin with, I found this really disorienting. I didn’t feel ready to start creating actual sentences in Danish, and often I just sat there feeling frozen and out of my depth. But with time, it got so much easier and I feel like I’ve made so much progress.

Here are the textbooks we’ve worked through during our classes:

3. Focusing on speaking from the beginning

Although I have a first-class undergrad degree in English Literature & Spanish, I managed to avoid speaking Spanish almost entirely during that time (and since then, I’m embarrassed to say).

How is this possible? I focused on exactly what I needed to do to get good grades – and completely ignored the actual social aspect of learning a language.

I never got in the habit of speaking the language and being willing to make mistakes. The same thing happened during my four years living in Switzerland. This is a big reason why I wanted to do things differently with Danish, and focus on speaking from the beginning.

Private lessons with Berlitz have been my main way to achieve this, but italki has also been incredible. This is probably the best way to find native speakers online and book cost-effective 1-1 classes to focus on your language goals.

Italki is especially useful if you want to build your confidence speaking your target language in a safe, low-pressure environment – the tutors are so non-judgemental and unphased by any of the mistakes you make. (And they won’t instantly speak to English with you, like many native Danes.)

If you want to try italki, here’s a referral link to give you $5 credit when you spend $20.

Even though I know I’m making mistakes, I’ve now had enough practice with and reinforcement from native speakers that I know it’s not a big deal at all – a milestone I never got to in Spanish or Swiss German.

4. Increasing listening input

It wasn’t until month 8-9 of learning that I started taking my level of exposure to Danish seriously. Until then, I’d been attending our 3 hours of classes every week, doing the homework, and not really doing anything else. I was making progress, but it absolutely wasn’t optimised.

This is where podcasts, TV, film, radio, and audiobooks come in. To learn Danish in the fastest and most effective (and enjoyable) way, find ways to encounter it as much as possible.

Ways to increase your Danish immersion:

  • Find Danish YouTubers who cover topics you’re interested in (e.g. lifestyle, interior design, fitness, beauty)
  • Browse DR podcasts and listen to them on walks, while tidying the house, or during your commute (Genstart is one of my favourites, covering current news topics in an accessible way)
  • Fall in love with Danish crime drama (I love The Bridge and Borgen, both of which I watched on Netflix, and also The Killing). For a bit more comedy, Rita is also popular.
  • Listen to audiobooks while following the words in a paperback or Kindle edition at the same time

But what about if I can’t understand anything?” you might be asking. Make it easier for yourself until you’re more comfortable.

Relatively pain-free ways to improve your Danish listening comprehension:

  • Listen to Danish YouTubers with English subtitles
  • Watch Danish Netflix with English subtitles
  • Use the Language Reactor Chrome extension to display Danish and English subtitles at the same time on Netflix and YouTube, which also allows you to save key phrases or new words (and even import them to your Anki flashcards to learn later).

5. Reading every day

Another fantastic way to improve your Danish is by reading – and it’s easier than you might think to find books you’re interested in.

I love reading Danish books on my Kindle – with the built-in dictionary I can instantly look up words in Danish and save what’s unfamiliar as a highlight. There’s also a tonne of audiobooks too, which you can even listen to at the same time as reading the Kindle version.

Books I’ve been reading in Danish:

If you’re living in Denmark, I’d also encourage you to sign up for your local library as soon as possible! I didn’t do this until recently, and wish I’d done it earlier.

You can signup with your yellow health insurance card, which then gives you instant access to check-out books from your chosen library – and best of all, access the eReolen library app. This gives you so many ebooks and audiobooks, so you’re sure to find something on a topic you find interesting.

As another option to improve your reading, why not find Danish blogs on topics you’re interested in? I follow a few Danish adventure and travel blogs, which makes my learning time far more enjoyable than just scrolling the DR news website.

6. Boosting vocabulary with spaced repetition

If I have some time where I don’t feel like working and just want to scroll on my phone, I let myself do that… and work on my Danish. I used Duolingo for a bit right at the start of my Danish learning, but have never got past how robotic so much of it feels.

For a language with as much disconnect between the written and spoken language as Danish, I knew I wanted to hear native speakers in natural environments. That’s where Memrise comes in.

I used Memrise to learn a huge amount of vocabulary during my Spanish degree, and the app has gotten even stronger in the ten years since then. My favourite part of Memrise is the “Learn with Locals” feature, through which you can hear native speakers saying the phrases you’re learning in a natural, conversational way.

It’s from this Memrise feature that I’ve managed to familiarise myself with the strange, potato-in-mouth qualities of Danish and start making sense of it. It’s also a fantastic way to help you with…

7. Shadowing accents you like

The more I used Memrise’s Learn with Locals feature, the more I found myself parroting exact phrases when I was speaking Danish. I’d repeated these phrases so many times during the learning process – and paid so much attention to the sounds of each one – that I was basically pretending to be the native speaker I learnt it through.

You can make this work in your favour. How do you actually want to sound when you speak Danish? Maybe it’s Sidse Babett Knudsen playing Birgitte Nyborg in Borgen, or a particular presenter of a DR podcast you love.

Listen to their voice as much as possible and hone in on key phrases that you can practice imitating. This is what’s referred to as shadowing.

8. Remember your motivation

Why do you want to learn Danish? There needs to be a compelling reason for you to put in the hours and keep going when you’re feeling unmotivated. Especially when it feels like everyone in Denmark (or at least Copenhagen) speaks English and would prefer to speak that then deal with your beginner’s Danish.

One of my top motivations to learn Danish is so I can stop responding to Danish conversations with a) a blank face and / or b) asking to immediately switch to English. I also just want to prove to myself that I can do it. And feel like I’ve achieved some sort of integration here in Copenhagen.

What about you? How can you get clear on your motivation and keep it front of mind during your learning journey?

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Lucy Fuggle
I'm Lucy – an adventurer, writer, author of Mountain Song: A Journey to Finding Quiet in the Swiss Alps, and creator of Live Wildly.