Opinion | How to learn to speak Danish

In his most recent column in The Copenhagen Post (“Two more years of this? Nej, tak”), news editor Justin Cremer made comments about language schools and the entire Danish as a second language (DSL) system. Cremer completed ‘DSL programme 3’ and later enrolled in the continuing education programme FVU, yet he is dissatisfied with his Danish level. He still finds it difficult to carry on a conversation in Danish and that Danes start speaking English with him as soon as he opens his mouth. In his opinion, FVU hasn’t helped him. The class focuses too much on passing an exam. It’s boring. It’s useless. He poses important questions about language schools and gets at the underlying issue: what’s the best way to learn how to speak Danish?

It’s worth remembering that Danish as a second language programmes and FVU are two different things. DSL are introductory courses offered to recent immigrants. Students can sit the final exam within three years of starting a course. FVU was originally created as a writing and reading class for Danes, but it is also an excellent way for foreigners to build on their DSL courses and continue learning Danish. 

Is FVU boring? Do you learn to speak Danish in an FVU class? One thing is for sure, class participants are in for a disappointment if they think they’re going to learn something that isn’t on the syllabus.  No matter whether you are a Dane or a foreigner, the FVU course focuses on the same thing: reading and writing. There is no getting around topics like spelling, suffixes and a dizzyingly complex system of vowel sounds. Good teachers use whatever tricks they can to get their students to learn it all, and many of them wind up learning a lot. Many also find that improved reading and writing skills carry additional benefits, such as new responsibilities at work and greater self-esteem. 

Will an FVU student learn to be better at speaking Danish? Not necessarily – at least not directly. Students will improve their Danish skills, which also have an effect on their speaking. But good FVU courses are those that meet the prescribed requirements and attain the curricular objective: to improve reading and writing skills.

“Many people have difficulty in gaining the required level of Danish in the three-year limit they have today,” Cremer quotes Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen, an MP for Enhedslisten, as saying. A proposal has been put forward to extend this period to five years. I can imagine that there are some who are daunted by the prospect of having to go to school for an additional two years and trying to learn a tongue-twister of a language like Danish. No-one expects that an educated person is going to use three years (let alone five) of their adult life in language school. The three and five-year periods are the maximum lengths of time people have, and they have been laid down as a way to give people the chance to plan out their courses so that they have time for other things. For most, the best option is to take all their Danish courses without pause, but it isn’t the only way. Some might want to be more flexible. Seen in that light, the proposal to give people the right to take Danish courses for five years gives people even greater leeway when planning their courses.

Employment Minister Mette Frederiksen is cited for a frequently repeated misconception. She claimed the high truancy rates among language school students amount to a waste of resources. This must mean that she’s misinformed about how DSL programmes are funded. Schools are compensated based on the number of students that pass a ‘module’. Half the funding is disbursed when the module begins, and the rest when the student passes. If they don’t pass, schools don’t get paid. And just because someone doesn’t complete the DSL programme (five or six modules) does not mean they are absent or have dropped out. Students, you can only assume, make an informed decision and enrol in as many modules as is either possible or necessary for them.

One of the benefits of the current system is that each module builds on the previous one, which prevents people from having to spend more time than necessary on Danish courses. Because, let’s face it, even though language schools bend over backwards to make their courses interesting and fun, there’s more to life than learning Danish. The best thing we can do for our students is get them to learn Danish as quickly as possible and as efficiently as possible, so they can continue their education or career or spend more time with their families. 

That leaves us with the $64,000 question: how do you learn to speak Danish? Language schools do a lot with incorporated special learning materials, computer technology and goal-orientated second-language teaching. We focus heavily on pronunciation and spoken Danish at all levels, but on the Danish 3 programme the emphasis is on precision, and that means a lot of time will unavoidably be spent on writing and grammar. 

You can’t learn a language just by going to a language school. That may not be what you’d expect to hear coming from a language school, but what students learn in the classroom is mainly theory and tools for how to learn the language on their own. You can’t learn how to speak a language fluently and confidently by attending class six, 12 or 15 times a week. Language schools can teach vocabulary and structure. Teachers can correct mistakes and clear up misunderstandings. But everything you learn needs to be trained over and over again out in the real world. 

Language schools are well aware of how difficult it is to learn a language – especially in a country like Denmark, where most people gladly speak English whenever they get the chance. Whether that’s out of friendliness or laziness makes no difference: in the end the result is equally bad. Danes need to be better at inviting foreigners into the language.  We need to speak a little slower, enunciate and not get impatient if repetition is needed. We encourage foreigners to sign up for Danish courses to learn the rudiments of the language, but family members, friends and co-workers also need to be aware of their role in giving people the chance to practise what they have learned. Because unless you speak Danish, you’re never going to learn how to speak Danish. 

The author is a department head with language school Københavns Sprogcenter.