The Scandinavian languages are all quite similar, so the normal approach is to learn only one of them properly. But which one should one go for?
Here are the options:
- Swedish: Swedish is spoken by 10m people, so it’s by far the biggest Scandinavian language. It’s the language of August Strindberg, Selma Lagerlöf and Astrid Lindgren — and Stieg Larsson, of course. Many Finns know it reasonably well, because it’s one of the two official languages of Finland. Also, Norwegians tend to be relatively good at understanding Swedish, whereas many Danes find it difficult.
- Danish: Danish has less than 6m native speakers. It’s spoken by a minority in northern Germany, and the Greenlanders and Faroese know it well, and it’s also an obligatory foreign language in Iceland. It’s the language of Hans Christian Andersen, Søren Kierkegaard, Karen Blixen and Peter Høeg, and many Norwegian writers before WWII (such as Henrik Ibsen) wrote in a language that was closer to modern Danish than to modern Norwegian. Norwegians are very good at reading Danish, but they might find the spoken language difficult to understand; Swedes find it even harder.
- Norwegian (Bokmål): There are about 5m Norwegians, and they tend to speak their local dialect rather than one of the official written language, Bokmål and Nynorsk. Appr. 80% of them them write Bokmål, which is very similar to Danish. However, both Norwegian languages allow a lot of variation, and spelling reforms are frequent, which can be confusing to a learner.
- Norwegian (Nynorsk): Written by less than 1m Norwegians, this is by far the smaller of the two Norwegian written languages. Very few internationally known authors write in Nynorsk. However, Nynorsk is arguably a better basis for understanding the Norwegian dialects — if you learn Bokmål, the Norwegians will understand you, but you might find it very hard to understand them. Also, Nynorsk is closer to Swedish and Icelandic in many regards, so you might find it more useful as a basis if you’re planning to learn Icelandic (or Old Norse) and Swedish later.
- Icelandic: Icelandic is very close to Old Norse in its written form (although the pronunciation is quite different from the one reconstructed for Old Norse) — it has preserved all the nominal and verbal inflections — so it is useful if you plan to move on to Old Norse and the sagas. However, given that it is only spoken by a third of a million people, and given that it isn’t mutually intelligible with Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, it really isn’t be most useful language to pick from the list.
- Faroese: Sorry, but I can’t see any good reason to learn Faroese, unless you’ve got Faroese family or are into Faroese dancing. Because the Faroe Islands are a part of the Danish Realm, all Faroese speak Danish well, but linguistically Faroese is much closer to Icelandic.
- Old Norse: If you’re not really interested in modern Scandinavia but love the sagas, you might as well learn Old Norse instead of one of the modern languages. However, it would be a bit like learning Old English without having any knowledge of Modern English.