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Due to largely overlapping vocabulary and morphology, mutual intelligibility among the three Scandinavian languages is near-complete (and in spite of claims that “Danish is impossible to understand”, this is largely a matter of hyperbole and changing mores – even after the most drastic Danish phonetic changes occurred in the early–mid 20th century, participants at pan-Scandinavian events continued to each speak in their own language for decades).

Now, this situation is broadly comparable to the situation between the Bosnian/Croatian/Montengrin/Serbian languages, and for BCMS, there does exist an approach of trying to teach all four languages at once in a single programme. For example, in Alexander & Elias-Bursać’s BCMS textbook, dialogues and reading passages could be in any one of those four varieties, with commentary explaining how that variety differs from the others. My question is whether a textbook has been published, in any language, or a university course offered in which Danish/Norwegian/Swedish are all tackled at once.

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    Obligatory link to kamelåså nrk.no/video/humor/…
    – user6726
    Mar 24, 2023 at 19:39
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    I don’t know the answer to the question for sure – I’ve never heard of them being didactically treated as a singular language, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. I will, however, note that mutual intelligibility is not near-complete. It’s high, but far from complete, to the extent that it’s (increasingly) common to see Scandinavians resort to English when communicating because they just don’t understand each other (well… as long as one of the Scandinavians is Danish – it’s much rarer if it’s just Swedes and Norwegians). Mar 24, 2023 at 21:15
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    Also, doesn't the Nordic Council still speak each in its own language without normally an interpreter? Is this old information?
    – LjL
    Mar 24, 2023 at 23:44
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    As a starting point to these matters, I always recommend Nina Grønnum’s article “Why are the Danes so hard to understand?” in the Festschrift Take Danish - for instance: linguistic studies in honour of Hans Basbøll,, ed. Madsen & Thomson. That some of the sound changes she describes are recent, can be seen from mid-20th-century films or television, where the developments are still missing from some speakers’ speech. (Danes commonly, but mistakenly, assume that actors back then used a spelling pronunciation.)
    – user21126
    Mar 25, 2023 at 1:29
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    @LjL As far as I know, Nordic Council members still speak in their own language without interpreters, yes. That’s also still common enough in various other contexts/environments where speakers have (or can be expected to have) substantial exposure to the other languages. For instance, as a student I worked for a company that handled acute cases for travel insurance companies from all over the Nordic region. At the call centre, we were about 40% Danes, 30% Swedes, 20% Norwegians, 10% Finns, and everyone spoke their own language (the Finns either Swedish or Danish) as a matter of course when → Mar 25, 2023 at 10:32

2 Answers 2

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Short answer:

Scandinavian languages are taught separately as expected like almost all other languages, Serbo-Croatian is unusual.

A good test might be “Given a piece of text or audio, is it possible to definitively label the language or variant?”

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Long answer:

It’s generally hard to learn multiple standards at once.

Even for languages that are politically a single language but have multiple standard written variants, like English, Spanish, French, German, Arabic or Chinese, it is usual for courses to focus on a specific variant.

So it’s no surprise that Scandinavian languages, which are much more distinct than standard variants of English or French, are taught specifically, not together.

The question then becomes why the cluster of languages sometimes known as Serbo-Croatian is sometimes taught together.

Serbo-Croatian languages are even muddier than the variants of major languages listed above, which generally have a sea between them. Speakers within the same town may use different names for their common language (or just call it “our language”), based on societal and political factors. The standards themselves also allow for variation.

This is not to deny the variations within the West South Slavic continuum, nor the existence of distinct standard languages.

In the end, language learning is usually with a concrete purpose.

For example, a a citizen of Canada or Switzerland trying to learn other languages of his country, or a visiting student in Denmark is best served by focussing on the local variant. Adding Icelandic in the latter case just creates more work with no benefit.

But in the case of Serbo-Croatian, in many regions and popular culture a learner will not be functional without at least passive knowledge of the most common lexical, phonetic and orthographic variants.

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There is a broader generalization that covers not just Scandinavian, but all languages. In language classes, they generally teach the standard language, unless the class is specifically about a particular spoken dialect. A specific standard (US vs UK) has to be chosen for English, for "Chinese" it is Beijing Mandarin, for Arabic it is Modern Standard Arabic (although one might find a class in colloquial Egyptian or Levantine Arabic, depending on staff availability). Obviously one has to teach speaking in a spoken language and in the case of Spanish and Portuguese there are two available standards (Mexican / Brazilian vs. European) where in the US they tend to teach the dialects of the Americas in classes.

The standard versions of Danish, Norwegian (Bokmål, judging from what version is actually taught as a second language) and Swedish are different languages, in the way that Ukrainian and Russian, Hindi and Urdu, Tajik, Dari and Farsi, or Zulu and Xhosa are different languages. There is a pedagogical explanation why language classes don't try to blend together multiple standards in one course: it confuses students.

On occasion, rarely-taught languages are or were offered to those who have a certain level of knowledge of a closely-related language, for example Aramaic having a year of Hebrew as a prerequisite, and Polish / Czech having a prerequisite of Russian (a decidedly old-fashioned approach which I suspect is now extinct).

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    It’s not always the case that a specific standard is chosen. Anecdotally, I’ve never had a class that taught English or Portuguese as a non-native language which did not place more or less equal focus on the main variants. True, it was mostly a question of teaching UK/US English and European/Brazilian Portuguese – no particular attention was given to Canadian/Irish/Australian/South African/Indian English, nor to Angolan/Mozambican/Cape Verdean Portuguese. But apart from native-speaker teachers obviously speaking their own variants, no single standard was chosen. Mar 27, 2023 at 13:31
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    In contrast, every Chinese lesson I’ve ever had has been very monocentric and focused exclusively on the official standard, mentioning variation only as non-standard language likely to be heard. Mar 27, 2023 at 13:33
  • @JanusBahsJacquet English and Portuguese are both defined by the fact that the standard variant of the country of origin is being eclipsed by that of a former colony. Arguably the reason the same is not true for Spanish is because it was so overwhelmingly eclipsed. Apr 21, 2023 at 15:41
  • @Adam Has Spanish been any more overwhelmingly eclipsed by its colonial variants than Portuguese? Almost every Portuguese person I meet is almost shocked that I learnt mostly European Portuguese rather than Brazilian Portuguese; the same (mutatis mutandis) is not true of Spanish people. All my Spanish courses (admittedly only high school-level, but still) were taught through European Spanish because that’s the variant our teacher spoke, but he stressed that we were free to use a South American variant if we wanted to, and he did actively teach us seseo, voseo, yeísmo and so on. Apr 21, 2023 at 16:19
  • Maybe I’m wrong and Spanish is the same as the other two. By GDP it’s roughly the same ratio. What you describe sounds more like a cultural attitude though, for which there can be many reasons. Apr 21, 2023 at 21:12

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