Why am I learning Norwegian? Why not?!
The last 12 months have been something of a downer, but as somebody with alarmingly little going on that could serve as a distraction from the Covid-19 bad-news jamboree and the never-ending restrictions of lockdown, last spring I decided that I’d need to do something – anything – with all this free time spent at home. That something, it turned out, would be to learn a new language. I know that’s very cliché, but I’m never going to learn the clarinet or how to sew, so it had to be a language, okay? I’ve always felt like a bilingual person trapped inside a monolingual person’s body (I know that doesn’t really work but you know what I’m ham-fistedly trying to say), and if I was ever going to do something about it, now seemed like the time.
But why Norwegian? Why a language spoken by only five million people, almost all of them in just one country (guess which one)? Why not Mandarin? Why not Russian? Why not Spanish, a language spoken not just in Spain but throughout the Americas? Why not French, the one language other than English I have some basic knowledge of?
The truth is, I could have chosen any language, but having been to Oslo and learned a handful of basic beginner phrases and rather liked the sound of it, I decided to take that tiny leg-up and run with it. And why not? One day, I’ll go back to Norway and the feeling of being able to speak even a little bit of the language will make it seem worthwhile. Not only that, but Norwegian’s closeness to Swedish and Danish means it’s a good head start should I wish to try and pick those languages up too. After almost a year of learning Norwegian, I can already understand basic written Danish and Swedish, although not their spoken versions.
For a native English speaker, there is much that makes Norwegian quite an accessible language. As a Germanic language, there is plenty of cognate vocabulary, while its grammar is generally quite familiar, at least in the early stages. Indeed, there is very little verb conjugation in Norwegian to wrap your head around. Take the verb å være – to be:
I am = jeg er
you are = du er
he/she is = han/hun er
it is = den/det er (depending on the grammatical gender of the “it”)
we are = vi er
you (pl.) are = dere er
they are = de er
Notice how am/is/are become er all the way through.
Unlike German, there is also no grammatical case system to grapple with in Norwegian, although there are three grammatical genders, masculine, feminine and neuter. That said, the feminine form is somewhat optional and can be substituted for the masculine.
However, for all the similarities that come with learning Norwegian, it is categorically not mutually intelligible with English, and there are plenty of challenges too. To begin with, learning any language is difficult unless you’re especially gifted. Norwegian adjective forms must agree with the grammatical gender and number of the noun they’re describing. Norwegian prepositions are notoriously difficult for learners to get right, as they don’t correspond easily with their English equivalents. I’m not sure I will ever master Norwegian prepositions. As well as this, pronunciation varies wildly depending on which part of Norway the speaker is from, which makes learning to understand the spoken language quite a hurdle.
There is no standard form of spoken Norwegian, which means there is no equivalent of Britain’s Received Pronunciation or Standard American English. Instead, all dialects are of equal standing, and when two Norwegians from different parts of the country meet, they speak in their own dialect to one another. There is no standard language to turn to for help if it gets difficult. In practice, this doesn’t cause too much difficulty for native Norwegian speakers, as they are quite well exposed to most dialects, but it can be tricky even for natives, especially where very rural dialects are involved.
There are, however, two written forms of the language, Bokmål and Nynorsk, and most spoken dialects are closer to or more distant from one of these written forms. Bokmål is comfortably the most commonly used, and is very similar to the Danish written language. Nynorsk was developed when Norway gained its independence and is based on traditional Norwegian dialects in an attempt to pull the language further away from that of Denmark. Nynorsk is more common in western Norway, while Bokmål has a stronger presence around Oslo and eastern Norway, as well as being prevalent to some degree throughout the country. Neither written form is a spoken language, but most non-natives will learn one of these forms – usually Bokmål – before attempting to master a dialect. Were that student to then speak using their knowledge of Bokmål, they would be understood anywhere in Norway, but they can categorically not expect to be responded to in Bokmål. The response will come in whatever dialect happens to be the speaker’s local form. This is not rudeness, this is the Norwegian way, and every single dialect form carries equal weight. This, arguably, is the hardest element of learning the language, especially when outside Norway.
Fortunately, in the 21st century, the internet helps language learners bridge these gaps in ways that were barely imaginable when I started school in the early 1990s. For a start, the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK has made lots of its content available overseas, which is great for creating an immersive environment. As well as this, there are now numerous apps for language learning – some free, most not – of varying quality and usefulness. And perhaps above all, websites like italki mean it’s possible to access native speakers for language classes and conversation practice from anywhere in the world with an internet connection.
I very quickly found that, although apps can be very useful for absolute beginners, they all have deep flaws and, once you reach a certain point, outlive their usefulness. This is not to say I don’t still use language apps – I do. But I quickly realised that what I needed was greater immersion in the language so that I could absorb it and actually reproduce it myself when called upon. For me, there’s no substitute for speaking practice, and I’ve had lots of it, but it’s not just about speaking. It’s very easy with speaking partners to continually reinforce what you know without actually expanding your ability in the language. As such, I also try to consume news in Norwegian, and I cannot stress how important I have found it to read in Norwegian. It’s never the case that I understand everything, but the bits I do understand help me piece the meaning together and introduce new elements of the language and show me how things are structured. I also try to listen to podcasts, radio and other sources, but I’m also careful not to choose material that is not too far beyond my level. I try to gradually increase what I’m able to understand and stretch myself just a little. There’s no doubt that understanding the spoken language is the hardest part due to the wide variety of accent and dialects, so I accept that I may never be great at this.
I’ve also found creating flashcards helpful. I like to have an image on one side and the Norwegian word on the other. I avoid English on my flashcards as much as possible. That way I learn the Norwegian word from its association to a picture, which helps me get out of the habit of constant translation and creates more vivid memories and neural connections that improve recall. I’ve recently begun to focus more on expanding my vocabulary at the expense of grammar study. It’s not that grammar isn’t important, but it’s definitely easier to make yourself understood if you know more words. It’s that simple. I’m still absorbing grammar through my study, but I’ve found that building on my vocabulary is the single thing that speeds up my ability to actually speak and understand.
In nine months, what have I achieved? Well, I can sit and read simple Norwegian texts, especially those aimed at non-native speakers. I can listen to slowly-spoken Norwegian and grasp the meaning, even if I don’t fully understand. And best of all, I can hold simple conversations with native speakers in which I can describe myself, my work, my hobbies and how I’ve been spending my time, and can even stutter my way through higher concepts such as expressing opinions or giving explanations. At times I’ve felt frustrated, sometimes very frustrated. Norwegian is said to be one of the easiest languages for an English speaker to learn, but this certainly doesn’t make it easy. However, I’ve managed to stick with it and form a positive new habit. I have plenty still to learn. Indeed, with language-learning, there is always more to learn. But when the chance to travel returns and I can take my new skills to Norway and put what I’ve learned into practice, all of the frustration, the hours of creating flashcards and the stilted stumbling Skype calls will seem worth it.