Denmark is a great place to visit or even to live – but it’s not super controversial to say that it doesn’t have the easiest language in the world.
This is why, if you’re considering heading there at any point, it can really help to know what people in Denmark speak. That’s especially the case if you speak any Swedish, German or Dutch, as you may find that this could give you a great boost.
Alternatively, for many of us, you may just be bringing your English along. Fortunately, as you’ll see, speaking English in Denmark won’t be a problem at all.
What do people in Denmark speak?
The official language of Denmark is Danish, with both Greenlandic and Faroese being minority languages that also have official status in Greenland and the Faroe Islands respectively. In addition, German is an official language in the Nord-Schleswig region of Denmark which borders Germany.
Danish descends from Old Norse, which was widely spoken throughout Scandinavia during the VIking times. Today, it is closely related to Swedish and Norwegian, and most Danes can understand these two languages, at least to some extent. That said, many other Scandinavians like to make fun of the Danes as “speaking like they have a potato in their throat”.
Here’s a great clip from a Norwegian comedy show making this exact point (warning: some adult language!):
As mentioned, the Faroese language is an official language in the Faroe Islands alongside Danish. This means that both must be taught in schools and both can be used in official contexts, except in court. On the other hand, in Greenland, the Greenlandic language is the official language there and there’s no requirement to teach Danish in schools or to use it for official purposes. Despite that, Danish is still widely spoken in both areas.
Finally, German is spoken in North Schleswig, also known as Southern Jutland, and is an official language in that area alongside Danish. As the only part of Denmark with a land border (with Germany), there are about 50,000 German speakers there.
How many people speak Danish?
It is estimated that around 6 million people worldwide speak Danish. The vast majority of these speakers (around 5.5 million) live in Denmark, with small pockets of speakers located in other countries such as Germany, Norway, Sweden and the US
Given the similarities, most Swedes and Norwegians are able to be understood in Danish. I even have friends from each country who speak to each other in their native languages and fully understand one another. While this means they’re not actually speaking Danish, they can certainly fully interact with the Danish locals in their mother tongue.
Back to basics: What Do You Call Someone From Denmark?
What are the percentage of languages spoken in Denmark?
Over 98% of people in Denmark speak Danish. In addition, approximately 1.3% of the population speaks the Faroese language, 0.4% of the population speaks German and 0.1% of Danes speak Greenlandic. Around 86% of Danes speak English as a second language.
The percentage of German speakers indicated above are those within the German speaking region in Southern Jutland. However, around 47% of Danes also report being able to speak conversational German, with 13% of Danish people also advising that they are able to speak Swedish.
Is Danish like German?
Danish is a Germanic language and so has some similarities to German, particularly in terms of vocabulary. That said, Danish is much more similar to Swedish and Norwegian than German, which itself is much closer to Dutch. In particular, Danish pronunciation and grammar are quite different from German.
It’s often said that you can see the most similarities when comparing words in Danish and German (and it makes sense when you consider how far Denmark is from Germany) but, in practice, they differ much more than you would first think. The spelling also isn’t identical – for example, the letter “Å” exists only in Danish, whereas “Ü”, “Ö” and “Ä” in German are equivalent to “Y”, “Ø” and “Æ” in Danish.
The video below gives a great summary of some of the basic differences and similarities between the two.
Do Danes speak Swedish?
Around 13% of Danes report being able to speak Swedish. However, in practice, most Danes can easily understand Swedish given the similarities between the two languages. It’s not uncommon for a Dane and a Swede to speak to each other in Danish and Swedish respectively without any issues.
Of course, there are differences and some clarification is needed in those cases. But, on the whole, a conversation can happily continue like that – and I speak from first hand experience here, having seen my Danish and Swedish friends in full conversation in each of their respective languages!
Can Danes understand Dutch?
While Danish and Dutch are both Germanic languages with similar roots, Danes will generally not be able to understand Dutch speakers. This is mainly because both the pronunciation in the two languages is very different, even if the words have some similarities.
Dutch and German tend to be much closer overall, even if there are also differences in pronunciation between the two. Danes also may find German easier to understand compared to Dutch.
What countries speak Danish?
Danish is spoken throughout Denmark, including in the Danish autonomous constituent countries of the Faroe Islands and Greenland. It is also an official minority language in Southern Schleswig, an area of Germany that borders Denmark.
There are also groups of Danish speakers in Sweden and Norway, as well as pockets in the US, Canada and Iceland. Overall, though, Danish is only an official language in Denmark and in the one region of Germany, which shares a border with the German-speaking region of Denmark.
Do they speak English in Denmark?
English is widely spoken in Denmark, with 86% of Danes reporting that they speak English as a second language. The fact that Danes are so comfortable speaking English is reflected in day-to-day life in Denmark, where it is very easy as a foreigner to get around without speaking Danish.
Of course, it’s always good when visiting a country to speak some of the local language, even if it’s just thank you (“tak”) or hello (“hej”). However, I wouldn’t bother apologizing for not speaking Danish, as almost every Dane will brush it off.
I’ve personally been told “Danish is useless, why would you bother” by more than one waitress or shop assistant and while I wouldn’t go that far myself, you can see how easy many Danes find English with that attitude.
Related: Danish vs Dutch: Are They The Same? (+ All the Differences)
Does everyone in Denmark speak English?
While not everyone in Denmark speaks English, it’s very close, with English being widely spoken throughout the country. In fact, it’s been ranked the country with the third highest proficiency in the world in speaking English as a second language.
You can see the survey results here, with only the Netherlands and Austria beating Denmark.
Why do Danes speak English?
Danes start learning English from a very young age, including that it is mandatory for Danish students to learn English by third grade in the country’s public schools. In addition, most TV shows and movies aren’t dubbed, so Danes are continuously exposed to English in their daily lives.
As mentioned above, there also seems to be a general understanding that Danish isn’t very widely spoken in the world. This means that if they want to get around outside of Denmark, whether that’s within the EU or even further afield, learning English is a must. And safe to say, they are very, very good at it.
Can you live in Denmark only speaking English?
You can live in Denmark without speaking English. Many companies have English as the first working language and even in those that don’t, you will generally find Danes being very willing and able to switch to English when their non-Danish colleagues are around.
I’ve personally lived in Denmark for many years and, ahem, my Danish isn’t great, shall we say. That said, I’ve had almost no trouble at all with this, with people being very willing to change to English and speak at what is basically a native level. It’s truly impressive.
Perhaps the one time it can be an issue is with official forms, which must be in Danish. You also have to live with the uncomfortable realization that you know you should be speaking Danish, and yet…
How do you say hello in Copenhagen?
To say hello in Copenhagen, the Danish word is “hej”. It’s pronounced very close to “hi” in English, with a shorter sound at the end. To make things easy for us foreigners, saying goodbye in Danish is simply “hej hej!”
Danes tend to be very friendly people, so if you find yourself riding your bike down one of Copenhagen’s many bike paths, feel free to practice with a “hej!” as you pass a fellow cyclist!