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Danish, Norwegian or Swedish?

July 8, 2012

Garden in Oslo

There are a number of languages in the world that are mutually intelligible.  Croats and Serbs can communicate with each other relatively freely, as can Macedonians and Bulgarians, Afrikaners and Dutch people and of course the Danes, Swedes and Norwegians.

Cristina – the Norwegian polyglot

This week I was stayed with another polyglot in Oslo.  Cristina participates on the How To Learn Any Language forum that I started writing on when I first got into the online language community.  She is an active member there and tries to help other learners where she can.  I have always admired not only her ability to use a number of languages to a very high level, but also her kindness towards others.

Going to Norway

OK, so I am in Poland, studying Polish…I know….but the invitation to spend time in Norway with Cristina was too good an opportunity to pass up.  With Wizzair tickets at a crazy low prices too, the deal was done! :)

I had been to Norway before and I spoke in Swedish there without any great problems.  The written languages in Sweden, Norway and Denmark are even closer than their oral forms, but people do often ask me…just how close are they?  And…which one should I learn first to best understand the rest?

My story with these languages

I went to The University of Hull, where there was a strong Scandinavian studies department at that time.  I wanted to study Icelandic, but the only way to do that was to take Swedish.  Luckily enough for me it was love at first sight.  I was involved in preparing for the Lucia Fest in December, learning all of the words to the songs.  My teacher, the co-author of Colloquial Swedish, promised that we’d be fluent in the IKEA catalogue by the end of the first year! :)

I studied Swedish for two years at university and thoroughly enjoyed it.  To be surprise university studies did not mark the end of the relationship.

Swedish from uni and beyond…

After university, Swedish was one of the languages I guessed I would never use.  That was true for a year or so, but then I started working with Scandinavians and I began to familiarise myself with the Danish and Norwegian languages, so I could better understand the slight differences to join in fully with conversations.  Whilst I never felt confident to speak Norwegian fluently because I found it too similar to Swedish for me, I could have a good stab at Danish.  I could also infuse my Swedish with Norwegian words to adapt it to native Norwegians.

I didn’t consider my choice in Scandinavian language as it was chosen for me by default.  In this video, Cristina and I talk about this topic and I get attacked by her roses! ;)

What has your experience been with these languages?

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26 Comments
  1. I haven’t actually started studying a Nordic language yet, but I would have loved to start with Icelandic. In terms of which I would learn first, however, I would have started with Danish, since it is probably closest to English and German, and used that as the base to learn Norwegian and Swedish, which are very close. Still plenty of time though! :)

  2. Elliot permalink

    If the languages are that similar, do people from the three countries invest in learning the other 2? Or is the general thought that each person can speak their own Scandinavian language in a conversation and there is no need to learn the others? If for example, a Norwegian person chooses to learn Danish and Swedish, can he then really call himself trilingual as there is such a great level of intelligibility?

    • Many don’t learn all three. It would be worth it for them to learn one of the others if they move there. I imagine that would be the most normal scenario to do this. It is extremely tough to speak all three fluently and to keep them separate. Combining Danish with one of the other two would be easiest combo in my experience. Speaking two mutually intelligible languages is definitely a challenge and it is often underrated in the online language community from what I’ve seen! :D

      • Kevin J permalink

        Hola Richard! acaso encuentras mas similares las lenguas germánicas que las lenguas romances? como por ejemplo español-portugués

      • Depende mucho de los idiomas en los dos grupos. Creo que en general es algo parecido en ambas familias, algunos idiomas del mismo grupo se parecen mas que otros…:)

    • Jeff Lindqvist permalink

      Unless there is a good reason to really learn one of the other languages, most people are happy with passive skills and mutual understanding. If anything, people adapt their accent and vocabulary to make the conversation easier.

      Apart from a few Swedish actors who really speak Danish (e.g. Jakob Cedergren and Thomas W. Gabrielsson), I’ve heard only two Swedes IRL switch to Danish and Norwegian respectively. One has a Danish mother, and the other has lived in Norway several years.

    • Alex permalink

      Elliot: I would call that person trilingual, yes. I’m Swedish but I’ve lived in Norway for a couple of years and took the opportunity to learn Norwegian. Initially I thought that the challenge wouldn’t be too tough since I felt I had understood most of the Norwegian language I had been exposed to previously. However, I now appreciate the variety of the Norwegian language, and I would go as far as to say that the dialects are more far from each other than dialects are in Swedish (with the exception of skånska, the dialect spoken in the south, which, due to the history of the region, has more in common with Danish in terms of linguistic properties).

      I think that it’s important to ponder the question why you want to learn a Scandinavian language. If you want to achieve a level of fluency which would allow you to access the other two languages, Norwegian could certainly provide you with a bridge, as it were, like Cristina pointed out in the video. However, if your goal is to master the language, the endeavour might soon become more complicated depending on your language philosophy.

      As to the Norwegian language, østlandsk is the dominating dialect on the radio and on television. If you’re learning Norwegian as a second or a third language and taking courses, the listening tasks are in østlandsk. Sure, you could master that dialect, but then you’ve only covered a small area of Norway, and the language (and culture) of other regions will most likely be less accessible to you. I’ve spent two years in the far north and people there have no trouble understanding østlandsk because they’re exposed to it all the time, yet people from the south sometimes struggle with understanding different types of nordnorsk (literally North Norwegian, the umbrella term for the dialects spoken in the north). Likewise, many Norwegians find it difficult to understand sognemål (spoken in the Sogne region, one of those “remote places in the mountains”; see video) because they’re not exposed to that dialect often enough. Or what about the dialects spoken in the Telemark region? I could go on and on about this; the words are different, the pronunciation is extremely different, even the grammar is different(!).

      My point is that yes, the Scandinavian languages are to a great extent mutually intelligible, but I would perhaps say that this is true only as long as we speak about the dialects of power, if I could put that way, i.e. the dialects perceived as “standard” dialects much as a result of them being spoken in the regions of power in terms of government (and business).

      If your goal is to learn one Scandinavian language to access the other two, sure, Norwegian could be a good bet. However, if you truly want to master the language, I would say it’s slightly naïve to think that Norwegian is as easy as it sounds in the video, unless you’re only interested in mastering østlandsk, but then you’re missing out on a great deal of the wonderful culture of Norway (one could also ask oneself if one has truly mastered the language if one understands only one dialect of the country).

      ps. That part about nynorsk vs. bokmål is quite a political issue, and I suspect that you wouldn’t have got the same answer had you asked someone from Vestlandet.

      ps2. About Cristina’s comment on Danish in the video, there was a report published only a few weeks ago which showed that Danish is developing faster than Swedish and Norwegian in terms of pronunciation, and whereas Swedish and Norwegian are going through a process of assimilation, i.e. the dialects becoming more similar to one another, the opposite is happening in Danish. The so-called “wet vowels” (what often makes the language difficult to understand for Swedes and Norwegians) are developing differently in different regions, and speakers of different dialects find it increasingly more difficult to understand each other. If Danes find it more difficult to understand each other, how could one expect Norwegians and Swede understand Danish with ease? (Unless we, again, only focus on the dialects of “power”, i.e. dialect group covering the Copenhagen region.)

    • Jan permalink

      @Elliot. In a typical situation, the Scandinavians just speakes they’re own language. I will say that for example if a Norwegian often speaks to Swedes, he will swap the few words that are compleately different. I have a colleague form Denmark (I am Norwegian) and he is easy to understand, he speakes Danish, but i have noticed that he has changed the way he speakes. For example the Danes would say for what are you doing, “Hvad laver du?” It is direcly translated to what are you making, and for a Norwegian/Swedish person it seems odd, so he in stead says whare are you doing in Norwegian whit a Danish accent, he knows some are beeing confused by this.

  3. Johan Colmenares permalink

    Hola Richard! Soy Johan, bueno hace unos días escribí en tu muro porque quería saber tu opinión sobre los cursos de Colloquial. He encontrado varios cursos de Colloquial para aprender Hebreo, Italiano, y Ruso. Como también tengo cursos de Assimil, tengo entendido que puedes llegar a un nivel intermedio, hasta un nivel B2 si aplicas bien los métodos de estudio. Mi pregunta es: ¿es posible llegar a un nivel intermedio usando Colloquial?

    • Hola Johan,

      Gracias por tu mensaje. Depende mucho del idioma…per en general con Colloquial hay que utilizar otras cosas para llegar a B2. Mi profesor de sueco en la universidad escribio el curso Colloquial Swedish y nos dijo que hace falta utilizar otros recursos para apoyar el aprentizaje. :)

  4. Hi Richard,

    I am focused on Danish and I will be so in the coming years, but beyond this I am also interested in the other Scandinavian languages and their relationships. I am short of money and my father does not support my learning of Danish anymore, so I have to calculate to continue my Danish course at the VHS. Fortunately I was able to pay for it this month. But there is another very interesting course offered ath the same VHS which is called “Interskandinavisch” and in this course for learners of one Scandinavian language the reading capacity and pronoucation rules of the other two languages are trained. This course is offered for the very first time, but I cannot attend it because my finacial situation is too tight.

    Kaerlig hilsen fra Tyskland,

    Fasulye

  5. Just managed to enrol for a Swedish course!
    I thought about choosing Norwegian first, but there wasn’t any offer at my university.
    By the way, I’m glad that finally someone unveiled wonderful Cristina!!!

  6. Sitar permalink

    Witaj Richard. Widzę, że nikt nie komentuje po polsku :) Nie byłem pewny czy mogę bo przecież Twoja notka jest w języku angielskim, ale jak znalazłem kilka komentarzy po hiszpańsku to pomyślałem, czemu nie? Ogólnie jestem Twoim fanem od długiego czasu, oglądam Twoje filmiki oraz czytam bloga. Sam też mam podobnego. Teraz dopiero odważyłem się skomentować jedną z Twoich notek bo przecież ja nie mam co się porównywać do Ciebie. Uczę się języka angielskiego, hiszpańskiego i niemieckiego, ale w żadnym z tych języków nie jestem biegły. Co do notki powyżej, sam też rozważałem aby rozpocząć naukę jednego z języków Skandynawskich, ja jednak postawiłem na Szwedzki ponieważ kultura i ogólnie kraj bardzo mi się podobają. Co do języka Duńskiego to czytałem o nim bardzo dużo i ma on w Polsce etykietkę języka, którego jest bardzo trudno się nauczyć ze względu na wymowę. Ty jesteś ekspertem od języków, a więc do Ciebie kieruje pytanie czy to prawda?

  7. Witaj Richard. Widzę, że nikt nie komentuje po polsku Nie byłem pewny czy mogę bo przecież Twoja notka jest w języku angielskim, ale jak znalazłem kilka komentarzy po hiszpańsku to pomyślałem, czemu nie? Ogólnie jestem Twoim fanem od długiego czasu, oglądam Twoje filmiki oraz czytam bloga. Sam też mam podobnego. Teraz dopiero odważyłem się skomentować jedną z Twoich notek bo przecież ja nie mam co się porównywać do Ciebie. Uczę się języka angielskiego, hiszpańskiego i niemieckiego, ale w żadnym z tych języków nie jestem biegły. Co do notki powyżej, sam też rozważałem aby rozpocząć naukę jednego z języków Skandynawskich, ja jednak postawiłem na Szwedzki ponieważ kultura i ogólnie kraj bardzo mi się podobają. Co do języka Duńskiego to czytałem o nim bardzo dużo i ma on w Polsce etykietkę języka, którego jest bardzo trudno się nauczyć ze względu na wymowę. Ty jesteś ekspertem od języków, a więc do Ciebie kieruje pytanie czy to prawda?

  8. Anders permalink

    Heisann Richard. Jeg kom nettopp over en av videoene dine på YouTube, og den ledet meg hit. Så kult at du har tatt turen til Norge for å lære mer norsk! Velkommen skal du være! Dét er det ikke mange som gidder, siden vi er et så lite land hvor de aller fleste i tillegg snakker tilnærmet flytende engelsk.

    Angående dillemmaet norsk/svensk/dansk så er jeg enig med Cristina; norsk ligner dansk i vokabular men svensk i uttale, så det er et bra “mellomspråk”. Mer om dette kan du lese her(http://nordenibio.org/resources/files/pdf/Sprogene_i_Norden_NO.pdf) og her: (http://eplads.norden.org/nordenssprak/kap2/2a/14.asp). Som du ser har vi nordmenn lettest både for å forstå og bli forstått av både dansker og svensker, noe jeg tror skyldes at vi er det minste landet, og dermed det folket som har hatt mest innflytelse utenfra. Blant annet er vår generasjon vokst opp med svensk barne-tv, både originale filmatiseringer av Astrid Lindgren sine bøker og svensk-dubbet importert tegnefilm, samtidig som at Danmark er favoritt-ferielandet til mange norske barnefamilier. Med den språkkunnskapen er vi i tillegg også flinke til å justere språket vårt når vi snakker med våre med-skandinaver, og vi bytter lett ut norske ord mot svenske ord når vi prater med svensker. Selv kommer jeg fra Stavanger og har en ganske annerledes dialekt enn på Østlandet, og dermed må jeg ofte prøve så godt jeg kan å snakke svensk eller dansk for at de skal forstå meg. Et alternativ ville vært å snakke Østlandsk, men det føles veldig rart og vanskelig for meg, og da er det faktisk enklere å snakke svensk.

    Når det kommer til skriftspråk så lærer vi også bokmål på skolen i de største byene på Vestlandet, til tross for at dialekten vår ligger nærmere nynorsk, som i min oppfatning er et fabrikert blandingsspråk som et resultat av nasjonalromantikken på 1800-tallet. Det er vakkert og flott, spesielt i diktning, men i bunn og grunn unødvendig og kompliserende. Selv skriver jeg stort sett på dialekt når jeg chatter, skriver e-post eller sender meldinger, mens jeg skriver bokmål i mer offisielle eller upersonlige sammenhenger.

    Jeg håper du får en fin opplevelse av Norge og det norske språket, og at du forstår hva jeg skriver her. Om du skulle ha noen spørsmål om norsk eller dialekter, så er det bare å sende meg en e-post, så svarer jeg med glede. Jeg vil også gjerne si at jeg ble vanvittig imponert av videoene dine og din språkmektighet. Selv snakker jeg bare engelsk, tysk og spansk (i tillegg til svensk og dansk), men ble veldig inspirert av deg til å lære meg bedre fransk og italiensk. Til å begynne med i hvert fall! :D

    – Anders

  9. Marianne Senoj permalink

    If you are going to study a Scandinavian language (one of the three), it is probably best to choose Danish. This language is hard to understand as the spoken language differs significantly from the written language whereas the other two are close to the written language. If you choose Danish therefore, you probably have more of a chance to understand the other two, whereas the same may not hold true if you choose Swedish or Norwegian. You therefore get three with just one!

  10. MattM permalink

    I’d love to learn Norwegian, but I’ve had to weigh up the pros and cons before I spend time learning it, when I could be using that time learning other languages:

    Pros – it’s a gateway to Swedish and Danish (three birds with the one stone), it’s apparently the easiest language for native English speakers to learn (alongside Afrikaans but meh), Norwegian literature is awesome, and the language just sounds so damn cute with the sing-song intonation!

    Cons – limited options for using it (I live in Australia), most Norwegians speak English like native speakers so less practice (not to mention it’s easy to revert back to English if you get stuck), small population therefore few speakers

    I’ve been using the Pimsleur set for a couple of weeks so I’ve managed to get the basics down.

    C’mon Norwegians, inspire me! :)

  11. Ken Westmoreland permalink

    I’ve managed to pick up a bit of all three Scandinavian languages through Dutch and German, and even English – pleasantly surprised how many words in those languages are cognate with English. I suppose Norwegian has been overlooked for historical reasons in favour of Swedish and Danish, and then there’s the whole business of Bokmål vs Nynorsk, although not that many people learn the latter as a foreign language. Icelandic is more of a challenge because it’s been kept free of Latin and Greek loanwords.

    I would veer towards Danish, even though, like Dutch, it gets ridiculed as sounding like a throat disease. Norwegian Bokmål is not that different in written form, despite and Swedish, the most notable difference (for me at least) is the orthography.

    By the way, not all Afrikaans speakers are Afrikaners, about half of them are of mixed race, and some people now talk about being ‘Afrikaans’ rather than ‘Afrikaner’. And while the Flemish are Dutch speakers, they’re not Dutch. :D

    Afrikaans is only easier than other Germanic languages because it has dropped genders and verb inflections. Word order is only slightly closer to English than Dutch is, for example, dit is wat ek wil hê (it is what I want to have) rather than het is wat ik hebben wil (it is what I to have want)

    Scandinavian languages seem to be a bit closer to English in terms of word order, so Jeg vil lese en annen bok in Norwegian is literally ‘I want to read another book’ while in Afrikaans Ek wil ‘n ander boek lees is ‘I want another book to read’

  12. Curious to see what comes out of your Polish adventure. It might be quite a challenge crossing over to Slavic languages for somebody mostly focused on Germanic and Latin-based ones. But you’re sure to have a blast.

    With Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, it’s a bit like with Polish, Czech, Slovak or, maybe even more so, Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian. They are very closely related and the difficulty might lie actually in how similar they are. This is potentially confusing and discouraging.

    Confusing because with differences being so small you can easily get lost which language a phrase or structure belongs to. Discouraging because you can easily get by mixing these languages.

    Looking forward to more of your posts.

  13. My advice (based in my experience) is to learn Swedish. It’s by far the most spoken Scandinavian language and it has not so many dialects as Norwegian. I’d never choose Danish because I don’t like how it sounds.
    Regarding intercomprehension: you’ll be able to understand texts in Norwegian and Danish (once you know false friends, different words, etc)., You’ll be able to talk to and understand Norwegian (more or less easily depending on their dialect). You’ll have to put your N senses to get to understand what people are speaking in Danish though :)

    Lycka till / Good luck!

    • Michael permalink

      Swedish is the Scandinavian Language with the most speakers but Danish is also widely spoken in Greenland(Kalaallit Nunaat), Iceland, Faroe Islands, and Southern Schleswig in Germany.

  14. James permalink

    I have found after learning 6 foreign languages, that learning languages that are similar to one another (in my case Afrikaans and Dutch) seems to be more difficult because I got use to using the one and now I confuse the one with the other..and the accents are also totally different which makes it even more difficult.

    Of course understanding both languages is not the problem, the problem arises when I have to speak for example Dutch (when I have already studied Afrikaans first)

    I would think the same thing would happen to me if I would start learning Swedish and then after I can speak Swedish near fluently will find it difficult to pronounce words in Danish and Norwegian. I think I would have no problem understand Norwegian and Danish but would always have problems pronouncing the words correctly in Norwegian and Danish because I got use to speaking Swedish first. Is this a common problem for other foreign language learners too?

  15. I have only recently started learning Swedish and the problem I’ve found with learning any “unusual” language is the lack of material to study from. Plus when you do find a course many don’t seem to go beyond a basic level.

  16. Edgar Ortiz permalink

    I’m fluent in English and Spanish, and am currently learning intermediate Franch and Italian. That being said, I don’t get much exposure to unique pronounciations, scince three of those languages are Romantic. I’m in a battle of learning either Norwegen or Swedish. I like Norwegian because pronounciation is more simple to me, and also because there are no verb conjugations according to person or number, yet, the dialects scare me. I like Swedish because it’s a little more common, and because the vocabulary seems to “stick” to my memory, |et, pronounciation appears very difficult to me, and that’s always been my number one problem with learning languages. Which should I chose???

    • Jeff permalink

      Edgar – Swedish and Norwegian have roughly the same phoneme inventory, so pronunciation shouldn’t be too different. Which language do you like the most?

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