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11 rules to tame the glottal stop (and other Danish dragons)


You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who gave up on Danish as many times as I did.

I struggled so much that at some point I decided to take some time off to really figure out what I was doing so wrong. I turned to science, and dozens of books and academic papers later, I earned my “aha moment”. As it turns out, I was doing lots of the wrong things and none of the right things. 

And as it also turns out, I am not that special (bummer); pretty much everyone is making the same wrong things and not making the same right things. So if you are new to Denmark, early in your language journey, or just about to start studying Danish for the 17th time, this is for you!

Let’s start with the wrong things. Language learning myths and common mistakes:

  •  Self-sabotage. My number one excuse was to tell myself I wasn’t good at languages, in a rather illustrative example of the old adage “whether you believe you can or you can’t, you are probably right”. Sure, being good at languages must feel nice (I guess), but you don’t need it. Talent marks the starting line, not the finish line.
  • Not having a routine. You are busy, right? Work, kids, gym, hobbies, cleaning the house, dirtying the house… you probably feel like you have spent half your life in Denmark being nummer syvogtyve i kø on the phone queue of some public service. And they always know English, so learning Danish naturally takes the back seat…
  • Language schools. Schools are great for meeting people, getting you out of bed, and practicing PD3 exams if you need them. But in order to really learn a language, there are better ways to use your time. Apparently, scientists have known this for 40 years, but they didn’t tell anyone. 
  • Duolingo. Companies exist to make money, so they have an economic incentive to make their stuff addictive *and* ineffective because if it actually worked, you would stop using it. Your goals and Duolingo’s are not the same. (Also, you can guess that a smartphone, the most distracting artefact ever conceived by humankind, can’t really be the best way to *focus* on a high-cognitive skill like learning Danish, isn’t it?)
  • Vocabulary/grammar drills. Science has known since 40 years ago that repeating grammar tables and word lists for days on end doesn’t lead anywhere. So, unless you are a Chat-GPT robot disguised as a human, don’t memorize words “by category”. You know, today the clothes, tomorrow the fruits, then “things you can find at a teenage party”, and so on.
  • Speaking from day 1. Speaking in Danish with a teacher in a safe environment is great! Speaking Danish in a real-world situation much before you are ready is not so great. First, when you speak, you can’t learn; you can only use what you know already (using circumlocutions *is not* learning). Second, your focus will inevitably be on managing the situation, not learning Danish. Third, the goal of your interlocutors isn’t that you learn a language (you’ll be lucky if they are aware that you don’t understand 90% of what they say). All this will lead to very stressful and frustrating experiences, with no real learning. A perfect recipe for burnout. 

So quick summary: no excuses, no drills, and no gamified apps (with or without a green owl). Also, don’t worry too much about speaking at the beginning, and don’t overestimate schools. 

Now, for the to-do parts. How do you actually learn Danish? How do you come to terms with so much gutturalness?

Here are 11 rules to tame the glottal stop and other Danish dragons:

  1. Lay the foundations first. Learning a language doesn’t require insurmountable amounts of brainpower. Everyone can understand what any one word means even if it doesn’t exist in their mother tongue, like  “hygge” for a famous example. But to understand Danish, you need to know another 10.000 words plus a good bunch of sounds (40 vowel sounds alone), quirks, grammar rules, and nonsensical comma placements. So it is a *quantity* challenge. Build strong habits as you start and refine them slowly. This is the single most important thing you can do.
  1. Forget fun. YouTube alpha-polyglot-gurús will tell you to have fun, and they are right; definitely try to have fun. But don’t expect to always have fun. When something takes so long as learning Danish, inevitably it will be fun, boring, challenging, frustrating, surprising, confusing, interesting, anxiety-inducing, nerve-wracking, throat-threatening, and everything in between. You need to be prepared for the lows, because there will be lows. Motivation for doing something needs to come from the actual *doing*, not from an external “fun” reward. Fun is in the eye of the beholder anyway. So get to work and embrace the pain (like a marathon runner that just keeps running, even if she’s not having much fun).
  1. Forget Pilou Asbæk. Do you want to be fluent? Well, it doesn’t matter. Sorry, someone had to tell you. As a matter of fact, whatever you want doesn’t matter. What it does matter is what you settle for. So, if you want to sound like Pilou Asbæk (I guess in Borgen, not in Game of Thrones), but you are fine with ingen kvittering, tak, that’s all that you’ll manage because when you reach that level you won’t have enough energy to keep pushing. So don’t think about what you “want”, but about *the minimum* that you accept: that’s your true goal (and I hope it’s not ingen kvittering, tak level, but hey, your choice).
  1. Be meaningful. Five minutes of Duolingo over here, some ingen kvittering, tak over there, a podcast in the background while making dinner… There is nothing wrong with that kind of immersion to fill gaps in your day, but you won’t learn much with that alone. You need to find long chunks of time, ideally every day, for deep and high-effort study. 
  1. Practice reading, listening, writing, and speaking (but speaking last). Simply put, what you don’t practice, you don’t improve. All said, consuming language is more important than producing language. Seek content that is difficult, but not too difficult. Ideally, you understand about 85% of it. This way, you can learn new words by context alone without having to look them up.
  1. Prioritize learning 3.000–5.000 words fast and largely ignore grammar until then. Much of the grammar is descriptive anyway; it doesn’t have a “why”, it is just the way it is because people speak like that. You’ll learn a lot from exposure alone, and even better, you’ll learn things that can’t be explained by grammar: idioms, oddities, and particular ways of communicating. Danish grammar is not particularly difficult, so don’t worry. As for vocabulary, always, always, ALWAYS learn words in context. Even a simple Danish word like “bare” might be easy to translate, but it is used somewhat differently compared to (e.g.) English. That nuance is not to be found in textbooks or dictionaries; you need to see it in action many times.
  1. Practice both extensively (reading and listening) and intensively (reading, listening, and writing). Extensive practice is about focusing on the message instead of language. It requires you to consume content for long stretches of time with as few interruptions as possible. Be comfortable with not understanding everything, keep calm, and move on. Intensive practice is when you read and look up words you don’t understand, listen and repeat, write something you don’t know how to write and figure it out, make summaries of texts you read, etc. The more beginner you are, the more important intensive practice is. As you level up, switch gradually to extensive practice. Always do extensive or intensive, but don’t do half-way each. 
  1. Get a private teacher. We all learn from mistakes, but for that to happen, we need to recognize those mistakes in the first place. Until then, a private teacher is your best bet. Be proactive, and take to them all the questions you find during your intensive study sessions. Focus on comprehension and pronunciation. A teacher is more expensive than a classroom, but a good one is worth your money. You can find teachers on platforms like Italki or ask online for recommendations.
  1. Develop phonemic awareness. Be acutely aware of how sounds are produced, and focus on sentence intonation. A good exercise is “shadowing”: it’s like “listen and repeat”, but instead of listening and *then* repeating, you do it almost at the same time with as little delay as possible. Record yourself, compare with the original, and repeat until you nail it (this is a kind of intensive practice, by the way). 
  1. Use Spaced Repetition. If you don’t know what this is, check the link at the end of the article. If you know what it is, always create your own cards. Use card creation as a way to explore Danish, taking sentences from the materials you are already consuming. Review them as a form of hyper-targeted exposure. Don’t obsess too much about memorization, and don’t torture yourself with low intervals. Just make an effort to recall and move on. Remember, language is a quantity challenge. 
  1. Vary your practice. Do things a little differently every day, get out of your comfort zone, surprise yourself, combine different techniques, etc. There are many ways to study Danish other than doing the homework that your teacher sends you. As a matter of fact, your own study program will be more fun and effective due to a powerful psychological phenomenon called the “generation effect”.  As the legendary Richard Feynman said, “study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent, and original manner possible.”

Phew, that was long! But no guide for anything is ever complete without a resources section, so here is the one you won’t find anywhere else to wrap it up:

  • “Atomic Habits”, by James Clear. The one about laying strong foundations. Start here!
  • Olly Richard’s “short stories in Danish” (link, not affiliated), both in text and audiobook format. A fantastic resource to get you past the B1 level in the CEFR ladder (that’s PD3-ish).  
  • “How I learn languages”, by Kató Lomb. Anecdotes and tricks from one of the most impressive polyglots the world has ever seen. 
  • “The Culture Map”, by Erin Meyer. Not a book about Danish or languages, but if you come from a very different culture you will learn a lot about how Danes (and other cultures elsewhere) communicate. A fascinating read.
  • “The Courage to Be Disliked”, by Ichiro Kishimi. Another book not about Danish or languages, but a great one if you fear speaking in public and it costs you a lot to put yourself out there. Consider it a self-help book recommendation from someone who hates self-help books.
  • “Peak”, by Anders Ericsson. The book on Deliberate Practice that explains how the experts do it.
  • Swap Language (link, not affiliated). A company that makes courses for companies but also has lots of videos available on its website for everyone (very kind of them). Free, no ads. 
  • Mic’s Languages YouTube channel (link). Good channel to learn some Danish tidbits. Free, YouTube ads.
  • More than 100 actionable recommendations for effective language learning based on modern research, all dutifully linked, by yours truly. If you got lost on the Space Repetition part, here you’ll find everything you need to know. Free, no ads.   

Hopefully you found some useful ideas! In the end, there are many ways to learn, but the best way is *your way*: try something, see if it works, and if not analyse why and change it. 

Now it’s on you, you got this! 💪

Happy, learning.

Juan Álvarez
Juan Álvarez
I'm born and raised in Spain, currently living in beautiful Copenhagen with my wife and 2 kids: a 6 years old who likes jumping, climbing, and playing board games, and a 2 years old who likes edible food, non edible food, and breaking board games. I am a software developer by trade, and a life-long learner with way too many interests to juggle.

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