How far would you ride on a bike without a frame?

Elena Sokolova, February 2nd 2021

During my Danish teaching practice, I read plenty of written assignments at various levels. I have always tried to understand why learners write as they write and what lies behind their pragmatical approach to completing a Danish written task. The knowledge of language and the topic of writing by a particular learner determine an assignment’s quality and correctness to a higher degree. However, these are not the only factors.

What seems crucial for a learner while writing an assignment in Danish?

You may think the most common conclusion I would draw, would be self-expression. And it’s even more logical to think, that if someone is writing about a topic which seems interesting, the assignment would even score a higher grade. Both factors are essential, but only partially. It may, of course, be a matter for a pedagogical discussion. Still, I would argue that there is a certain amount of motivation behind almost every written assignment to get rid of this assignment and hand it in.

I am not writing this blog post to express my annoyance with hastily written assignments, often containing chunks of Google translated word combinations. And it’s not because I am annoyed about correcting them. It’s because I want to speak out for the benefit of many learners and help them understand why the way to passing an exam turns out to be longer than they would wish.

You need rather to follow your short-term goal while doing a written assignment

Even in your mother tongue, producing any quality language output is not easy work, and even more demanding in a foreign language. It’s much easier to do any online or an application click-based exercise, where you have a multiple-choice task than producing a text on your own. And scoring points in a learning app gives a stronger feeling of reward, but often may lead to slower learning, especially if you are heading for an exam. I am not against these learning tools, but I would instead think pragmatically as a learner. What language output do I need to produce to meet my short-term goal in learning Danish? Learning a language decently and with attention to detail may take years, but let’s imagine your final short-term goal is to pass an exam, let it be Prøve i Dansk 3 or Prøve i Dank 2 or Studieprøven. And they all contain a free writing task. So basically you need to write to learn how to write! Avoiding writing or doing it for the sake of handing it in is the same as if you were clicking on the pictures of biking people, explaining the order of movements needed to ride a bike and then taking an exam in riding a bike.

What should lay behind your writing process?

Learn about the sentence structure once and forever, it’s like keeping the balance, while riding a bike. You will have hills and bumps, but you’ll ride and reach your destination. If you want to succeed during the exam, you should make it a goal to learn how to construct and complete a sentence from the elementary level, from the first days you learn Danish. Make it a habit to write simple, correct and completed sentence structures first. This may require rewriting or making corrections, but it’s better to write one good simple text than five ones full of mistakes. This will give you the confidence to extend a sentence structure to a more complex level.

Suppose you have already been studying Danish for a while. Even in that case, it’s never late to start from scratch and drop Google Translate, make 20 mistakes in three own submissions, reread a relevant rule or ask your teacher to explain you, rather than copy-paste again and again from Google Translate, say translating from English into Danish. Even if you write a short assignment that a teacher gave you about your last trip or a weekend, make it a goal to write less, but construct every sentence with ‘linguistic love’ and what is even more critical on your own, collecting a sentence brick by brick.

Take it as a mathematics course

You may think of a sentence as an utterance, or a complete phrase if it’s easier so, maybe like a maths equation. Analysing sentence structure is unfortunately often shorted to explaining a subject-verb-adverb word order, but actually is more interesting and complex and should be done by understanding the dependency relations in the phrase. For example seeing a subject always as a noun may be misleading or taking inversion for other cases then a verb may create confusion. I am not talking about becoming a linguist and analysing a phrase like for natural language processing algorithms. I mean that you need to learn to see the frame of the sentence in a whole. Understanding the sentence frame will give you understanding of the logical relations between the parts of a complex sentence, and thus will boost your text writing skills in general.

Imagine, you have learned plenty of new words and expressions watching Danish movies or doing app-based vocabulary training exercises. But still you have received a hardly passing grade during the exam, or your result is lower than needed for your professional goals. The core of the challenge lays 90% in your understanding of how to structure a sentence. A broken sentence structure puts the assessment of your assignment two or three grades lower.

You are smarter than Google Translate

Danish is, fortunately, one of the easiest European languages in terms of structuring the phrase, and you need to master a set of tools to complete a sentence correctly. When you know the sentence structure tools, you do not need Google to translate. You would be safe only having your level study books/teaching materials or the original article, for example, that you are writing a comment to. Your teacher would hardly expect you to write above your level.

Not to mention that Google Translate is not the best dictionary tool. If you write a word combination there to translate, it takes this word without context, and often confuses parts of speech, mostly when you translate from English, where conversion is a common word formation tool. As a result, you may think you’ve got a verb, but it is actually a noun, and then the sentence structure breaks down.

I studied translation studies, so I can often see the translation algorithm behind the result phrase in my students’ assignment, and that makes me feel like a spy! Funny for me, but sad for the student. Not to mention lexical mistakes… though it’s another story. Once I got a text message from a foreigner, where the English ‘Cheers’ in the meaning of ‘a greeting’ was translated as ‘Skål’, obviously by Google Translate. It took me a while to understand why a person who wanted to buy my bike said ‘Skål’ to me in a polite SMS.

A precise and correct written sentence will provide you with a good grade for the oral part

If you think that practising writing with an accurate structure is a tiresome exercise for the exam, image how much of your language ability you activate, and how it boosts your language production in general. I have never witnessed a student who was good at writing and bad in speaking. Moreover, to unveil the secret, the assessment criteria for the oral part of PD3, PD2, and even Studieprøven exams are structured around the same focus linguistic competences as the assessment criteria for the written parts of the exams. So when you polish your written sentence, it will pay you off in the oral part of the exam.

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