Danish is Denmark’s national language. So it shouldn’t come as too much of a shock that newcomers to the country are expected to (and many want to!) learn it once they make a commitment to live here. However, Danish is not what many would call an easy language to learn* – at least if you are talking about the difference between the written and spoken language. For example, how many people with no knowledge of Danish would guess that the word spelled ‘M-E-G-E-T’ (which means ‘a lot’ in English) is pronounced ‘MAHL’? Around zero, perhaps? Which is why it’s a good idea to study the language formally – at the very least to get a grip on the basics…
Conscious that Danish language ability helps foreign residents integrate, look for jobs, and study and work in Denmark, the Danish government has been financially committed for over two decades to helping foreigners learn their language. All immigrants and refugees to Denmark have the right to study Danish at a state-authorized language school at no cost. While the effort to make Danish learning accessible to foreigners has evolved over the years – from an ad-hoc system run by the regional governments in the 1980s to a more professional and formalized program organized now by the local authorities – the same pledge has held: ‘Danish officials want to help you read, write, and speak their language.’
Aalborg Sprogcenter runs the municipality’s language program. When it took over Danish language training for area residents in 2005, teachers gave instruction to 500 students. Now 1400 people study at Aalborg Sprogcenter, 600 of whom started just before the Christmas holiday last year, days before a new ‘Danish language training law’ went into force on 1 January 2014. Thus, the school currently coordinates two language teaching systems running simultaneously: the module test program (applicable to all who began before January 1, 2014) and the new labor market-oriented Danish program.
The module test system is based on students, placed in one of three tracks, advancing from module 1 (beginner) to module 5 or 6 by passing several module tests as they go. The three tracks are based on level of educational attainment – people who are illiterate or barely literate (Dansk 1); people who have some formal education (Dansk 2); and people who have at least 12 years of schooling, which often means some higher education (Dansk 3). The majority of students at Aalborg Sprogcenter are enrolled in Dansk 3, somewhat fewer in Dansk 2 and about 40 in Dansk 1.
The module test system is being joined by a new program as the new Danish language training law (which applies to all who began instruction after 1 January of this year) is implemented. Under the new law Danish instruction will be aimed at two distinct groups: 1) refugees and the family members who join them; and 2) foreign workers, their accompanying spouses, students and au-pairs. Those in the first group will study in the established module test program while the second group will learn ‘labor market-oriented Danish’. As Aalborg is no longer a refugee hub, Aalborg Sprogcenter will offer Danish lessons to only the second of these groups. Those in the labor market-oriented group will receive 250 hours of instruction (divided into 5 modules of 50 hours) within the first 1.5 years of receiving their letter of invitation to study from the municipality. If, however, they would like to continue to study after completing the 5 modules and an exam, they will be able to switch over to the module test system for up to three years after they began.
I have been a student of Aalborg Sprogcenter since January 2013. While I started in the day program, I switched to evening classes in September of that year to better accommodate job search activities. The average class size is around 18-22 students, although numbers fluctuate as students drop out, return after (sometimes prolonged) absences, or switch from one class to another. The system is bottom heavy – many more classes at the lower level are offered; by the time one reaches the upper levels, class sizes tend to be smaller. In the past there were complaints about the length of time one had to wait to get into a class; now the waiting list is virtually non-existent and the school is committed to placing new students in a class within a month of their placement interview.
Overall I’ve been pleased with the experience I’ve had at Aalborg Sprogcenter – the teachers are good, the materials available are plentiful (there is a library at the school full of books, computers and volunteers available to help with homework and speaking practice), and the camaraderie with classmates really nice. However, as with anything, what you get out of it depends on what you put into it. A large number of my fellow students have Danish spouses, significant others or work colleagues. This does not necessarily make it easier for them to pick up the language but they do have easier access to Danish if they wish to practice. For those of us without this advantage, one must be proactive to use and improve one’s Danish. This necessitates practicing while shopping, when going to the doctor, when meeting Danish friends, etc. I try to do this but admit to slipping back on my English with Danes when I’m tired or feel frustrated with my limited ability; after all, the vast majority of them speak excellent English. But I’ll keep trying – jeg vil gerne lære dansk!
1) * How long does it take to learn Danish?
The answer to this depends on many factors, including your native language (Germanic and other Scandinavian language speakers have an advantage), level of education, whether you’ve studied another language, level of motivation, opportunities to use the language in daily life, and inherent talent for learning other languages. Although the government provides up to three years of Danish instruction, very few of those in Dansk 3 need the full three years to pass the final national exam (called Prøve Dansk 3), unless they have taken time off from studying. In general, students in Dansk 3 who make a consistent effort in class need around 1½ years to complete the program. (This does not mean, however, that you will be fluent in Danish when you finish – only that you qualify as proficient.)
2) When do classes take place at Aalborg Sprogcenter?
There are four shifts of classes at Aalborg Sprogcenter. The day class shifts are from 8:30 to 11:45 and from 12:15 to 15:30. If you opt for evening classes you will either have class from 16:30 to 18:40 or 19:00 to 21:10. You can discuss your preferred shift when you have your intake interview, although you might not necessarily get your first choice.
3) Where do my classmates come from?
Students at Aalborg Sprogcenter hail from over 40 countries. While there has been an ebb and flow of nationalities over the years, a large number of students currently enrolled at the school come from Romania and Bulgaria.
4) What training do instructors have?
Danish teachers at Aalborg Sprogcenter have one of two types of training: either they completed a university degree in languages or Danish or they went through a folkeskolen seminar-based system of training. However, teachers hired now must have completed a Master degree in Danish at the university level.
5) Are there other options for me if I cannot attend Aalborg Sprogcenter or would prefer to take private lessons?
Aalborg University used to offer Danish to foreigners; they have since discontinued this program as all efforts are now being concentrated in the state-authorized Sprogcenter. For students who would like an alternative, AOF (adult education school) offers some Danish courses that focus on writing. Students who complete the Sprogcenter program can opt to further their language learning at VUC. If you want to attend university classes in Danish, you must receive a score of at least 10 out of 12 on Prøve Dansk 3 (which is the final national Danish proficiency exam, taken after completing all modules in Dansk 3) and then continue in the ‘Studieprøven’ course at Aalborg Sprogcenter. There are currently around 22 students enrolled in this program. Private lessons are an option as well but students must pay for them on their own. I know one person who has gone this route recently – she received 40 hours of one-on-one instruction at a cost of DKK30,000.
6) How do I get started at Aalborg Sprogcenter?
Once you have registered at Aalborg Kommune and have a CPR number, you will receive a letter that states you have the right to enroll in Danish classes at Aalborg Sprogcenter. (Incidentally, it is from this time – when you receive this letter from the commune – that the clock starts ticking. In other words, the beginning of your 3-year period to study Danish starts when this letter arrives in your mailbox.) You will then receive a letter from the Sprogcenter inviting you to an information meeting at which you learn about the Danish language program. At this meeting you will sign a paper confirming your interest in enrolling. Next you will receive a letter inviting you to a placement interview at which you will describe your educational background, your motivation for learning Danish and your availability. Finally, you will receive a letter telling you when you will begin and in which class you have been placed.
7) What are the language requirements for people who want to immigrate to Denmark under the family reunification program or gain permanent residency here?