Danish: Do you speak English?


Senior Member
English (US)
In much or most of Europe, English seems to be the first choice for communication between a tourist who doesn't speak the national language and a local resident.

In countries corresponding to the major languages of Europe, like France and Germany, I can imagine natives being a little annoyed (tho resigned) at foreigners who simply address them in English without making any attempt to speak the local language, or even, out of politeness, asking, "Do you speak English?" or "May I speak English?"

Now let's turn to Scandinavia, where English is so widely studied, and so well spoken, that I wonder if the situation might be somewhat different. If I ask a Dane, "Do you speak English?", or "Taler du engelsk?", might s/he not take offense? ("Do you think I'm so ignorant than I don't speak the international language known by every educated person here?") Should I then, if my Danish is inadequate to the task at hand, simply walk into a shop in Copenhagen and launch into English, ("Hello, do you sell...") as tho I were in New York? Or might a good compromise be to ask, "Hej. Må jeg tale engelsk?", implying, "I'm sure you speak English, but since I'm in _your_ country, I'll ask permission before using _my_ language"? If such an introductory phrase would indeed be welcome, is my choice of words correct and appropriate for Danish, or would native forum members suggest something else? (So this is both a "socio-linguistic" and a word-choice question.)

Thank you!
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  • I don't know about in Denmark, but in Sweden that would only seem polite to ask Do you speak English?, or Is it ok if we speak English? Many people don't like to speak in English, they are maybe ashame that they don't speak better, have bad experiences from school, and there are also many immigrants that seem swedish enough but don't speak English. And if they would like to speak in English they are only glad that you didn't take for granted that you could speak in your language when they probably express them self better in Swedish.
    Is it just me who has a hard time speaking to taxi drivers in English in Copenhagen? But other than that, I've had absolutely no problem speaking English anywhere in the city. No need to ask them if they speak English (I'm sure many of them will take offence, for sure)

    Sure they will appreciate that a tourist or a short-time visitor speaks their language but they know better than others that their language is nearly impossible for outsiders to understand, much less master. :)
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    I have found that it I am better received if I ask "May I speak English?" than in asking "Do you speak English?". When asking "Taler du engelsk?", I've had some misunderstand my intent and think that I was asking them if English was their first language! Since your intent is to seek permission, starting with "May I" would seem more appropriate.
    According to my experience with Copehageners the problem is the other way around. Yes, you walk into a shop and simply speak English. Except when it is your Turkish corner store. Yes, taxis that are driven by immigrants, which they often are. The real problem is that Copenhageners very, very often address people in English when they seem the least bit foreign to them, or sense the slightest accent in their Danish. That, without even giving it the least bit of thought if the person speaks English better than he speaks Danish, or if he speaks English at all.
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