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Which Scandinavian language would be best to study, if you could only pick one?

Hi all, I am going on the RS Scandinavia tour in 2015 (happy happy!) I love languages and am comfortable in several of them. I like being able to do simple greetings and read signage in a new country. I know that English is widely spoken in these countries, but would like to spend the next six months having a go at Swedish, Danish or Norwegian. Which do you recommend? Thanks!

Posted by
12040 posts

Danish is supposedly the easiest to learn for English speakers, because it's grammar is fairly similar, their cognates haven't drifted as far apart, and verb conjugation is rather simple. On the down side, Danish is tonally quite distinct from English, which means it's harder for an English language speaker recognize individual words in the spoken language. For example, I know a little (not much!) Danish and Swedish and I watch a lot of the TV programs from both countries. To my untrained ear, a lot of Danish sounds slurred and garbled, whereas Swedish words sound much more distinct. I could make a reasonable attempt to spell out what I hear in Swedish, but not a chance in Danish.

Swedish has the advantage in that there's probably much more resources available for a foreign language student.

Don't even bother with Norwegian...too many dialects and the written and spoken language sometimes only loosely intersect.

Posted by
4498 posts

If you really want to spend time learning some of the language, I don't want to discourage you. But realistically, you won't be able to "use" much of anything you learn. First, they REALLY know English and almost everyone I've spoken with (going well beyond the standard tourist interfaces) speak it perfectly (most with a strong British accent). There isn't even a need to politely inquire in their native tongue if they speak English. I learned it's best to just to start talking in English, even though everywhere else I make an effort to be sure a person speaks at least a little before I roll into it. This might not be as true in some more remote areas, but should hold for just about any city and tourist interface.

Second, I know an American living for several years in Denmark. By most second language standards, he speaks Danish pretty fluently. Almost no one will converse in Danish with him. He just hasn't mastered the idiosyncrasies of the language and pronunciation. And since everyone speaks English so well, they just automatically revert to English whenever he tries speaking Danish.

So if you do decide to do it, pick one and have at it for your own personal interest. And enjoy your trip; I love that part of Europe, which is often overlooked by American tourists.

Posted by
353 posts

Rick recommends people study history and art over languages. This is even more relevant in Scandinavia, where almost everyone speaks perfect English. That being said, if you are interested in languages and want to study one, you should pick the one that interests you the most. Either Norwegian or Swedish would probably be the most useful, as they are more similar than Danish in the spoken form (Norwegian and Danish are more similar in the written form). If you speak one, you can usually understand the other. I speak some Swedish (not fluent, but I can get by) and can understand Norwegian much better than Danish. I look very Scandinavian, so whenever I go to Sweden locals will often speak to me in Swedish at first, but once I start speaking and they hear my accent, they almost always switch to Enlgish. It can be frustrating because I want to practice my Swedish, but in the end, their English is always better than my Swedish, so we just end up speaking English.

Posted by
4438 posts

Do you have a family connection to any of the countries? If so, I'd go with that language. Otherwise, I'd choose based on the one that has the most convenient class time (or materials). There are many good Swedish resources. If you have an Ipad or Iphone, the Norstedt professional dictionary is excellent. The website has articles written in simple Swedish and is a good site for practicing reading and you can also listen to the news there (select "lyssna på lättlista nyheter").

I speak Swedish (not fluently) and find I can often understand Standard Norwegian, but can't comprehend spoken Danish. I agree with Rich. Swedes start studying English at a very young age, movies and tv shows are generally shown in the original language, and as a result most Swedes speak fluent English. I worked in Sweden for several years and even though I was working on a project for a Swedish company, we conducted business in English because the project team was international.

When you are first learning Swedish, Swedes will often respond to you on English. Both Swedish and Norwegian are tonal (pitch accent) so it can take a bit of practice to pronounce words with the correct pitch. Thus it is pretty easy to recognize beginners. But if you enjoy learning languages, I'd still go for it. I think you learn a lot about the culture when you learn the language.

Lycka till!

Posted by
15 posts

Thank you all for the excellent, thoughtful responses. Great advice, I really appreciate it! Language is an awesome aspect of our shared humanity. Blessings to all!

Posted by
1 posts

I just went to Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. ( July 2014) I did use Rick's guides and had a great time. Almost everyone does speak English and very well. I never met anyone who could not speak English, even when I traveled to the geographical center of Sweden to visit family. I learned how to say Please and Thank you in each country. I was a little embarrassed to be from the US and belong to a country that has created this dominance of languages. Snapshot - I was in a bar and was talking to the owners, who were 2 young men of Iraqi heritage. Their parents were from Iraq. They did not go to college. They both spoke Arabic, Swedish and almost perfect English. I'm guessing that they spoke other languages as well. I was impressed.

I would recommend Swedish because not only is it spoken in Sweden, but also in parts of Finland. Finland has a Finnish-Swedish bilingual policy officially. It should also be easier to find material for Swedish than the other Scandinavian languages. I think Danish is the hardest because it isn´t phonetic. In other words, you can't tell the pronunciation from the spelling (like English, for example). Good luck with your studies!