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How (and Why) to Learn Norwegian

I just got back to Paris yesterday morning after ten wonderful days in Norway! The trip was everything I hoped it would be, and more. The winter landscapes were beautiful, the people were friendly and hospitable, and the food was delicious and plentiful. A big thank you once again to my friend Tina and her family for welcoming me so warmly into your homes! You were all so generous that I don’t even know how to repay you.

Traditional stone storage house on a mountainside. (I got a ride up here on a snowmobile!)

As you may recall, I began studying the Norwegian language one month before I left for Norway. I was a little concerned that there might not be many resources available for learning Norwegian, since it’s not exactly a major world language. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find quite a few great resources, most of them online and completely free!

1. The How

First I started off with one of my favorite resources for learning any language: Disney songs! I’m a big Disney fan, and I’ve seen my favorite Disney movies so many times that I know their scripts practically by heart. So I can watch them even in an unknown language and still be able to follow what’s going on. And what’s really great is that Disney fans from around the world have posted videos of Disney songs on Youtube, often including both the text of the song in that language as well as an English translation! I’ve made a playlist of such music videos in Norwegian here. (Note that some of them don’t include the lyrics in the video, but they’re there either in the descriptions or the comments.) I watched all the videos in this playlist several times, listening carefully to the sounds of the language. I find that music is a great way to learn to “hear” unique sounds, since they are usually pronounced more clearly in song than in speech. Vowel sounds are also drawn out, which is helpful because vowels are often the most difficult sounds to distinguish and reproduce correctly. After listening to these Disney songs several times, I was able to distinguish all the Norwegian vowel sounds (including similar ones like “i” and “y”, which often sound the same to English speakers).

I also watched several videos by Crienexzy. I would highly recommend her channel to anyone wanting to learn Norwegian, as her videos teach lots of useful phrases and explain pronunciation as well. I basically just watched her videos several times until I could easily understand the Norwegian phrases without relying on the translations.

Another resource I used, the NTNU “Norwegian on the Web” course, was actually recommended to me by a reader of this blog. (Thank you, BerginoDale!) This is a series of ten lessons (all online and completely free) each including 2-4 dialogues with audio, grammar and pronunciation notes, and exercises. Most of the dialogues don’t include English translations, but I simply put them through Google Translate to get the meaning. I listened to all the dialogues several times until I could understand them easily without looking at the scripts or English translations. I read through the grammar and pronunciation notes a couple of times, but I skipped most of the exercises except a few I thought looked particularly useful.

I also went through some of the Colloquial Norwegian book. I didn’t have time to finish the whole thing, but I read through about half of it. I think this is quite a good book, and if I had been able to learn and retain all the information in it, I’d probably be conversationally fluent in Norwegian… But I just didn’t have the time. I also prefer to avoid using written materials without audio in the beginning stages as much as possible, and the audio for this book seems to be difficult to come by. I was able to download the first twenty minutes of it from the Internet, though, and I did listen to that a few times. There is too much English narration in it in my opinion, but the dialogues are interesting enough and are recorded by native speakers at natural speeds. (If anyone knows how I can get the rest of it, do let me know!)

Finally, my last and most valuable resource was my Norwegian friend Tina. 🙂 She has been kind enough to chat with me quite a bit in Norwegian, and I found I could learn quite a bit just chatting with the aid of Google Translate. She also took the time to talk with me on Skype to help me with my pronunciation and attempt to converse a little bit in Norwegian. And of course, Tina was the one who invited me to Norway and gave me this opportunity in the first place! Tusen takk, Tina!

2. The Why

It may seem like a bit much to make such serious efforts to learn a language just for a short trip (especially to a country where people tend to have a very high level of English), but I was interested in learning it because of my family’s Norwegian heritage. I had also been intrigued by Scandinavian cultures for some time. Besides, I knew my experience in Norway would be enhanced from knowing a little Norwegian, even though I certainly wasn’t expecting to become fluent in just one month.

What I did expect was to be able to understand at least a little of peoples’ conversations and to use the language for simple, short interactions. And I was definitely able to meet those expectations! Although I was far from understanding every word people said, I often surprised them by correctly guessing what they were talking about. Every once in a while I even understood a whole sentence, and repeated it in English to confirm before Tina could translate it for me. I found that I understood even more of written Norwegian, which isn’t surprising since words tend to get slurred together a bit in speech.

Tina’s grandmother very generously gave me this card and pair of traditional earrings as a Christmas gift. The card is written in a dialect, but I was able to understand all of it except two words Tina had to translate for me.

The only thing I regret is that I didn’t make the effort to speak as much Norwegian as I could have. I’m sorry to say that I ended up speaking English almost all the time, because everyone understood and it was just so easy! I did have some very brief exchanges in Norwegian, but never spoke more than a short sentence or two at a time. My longest Norwegian conversation was with two cashiers at the bookstore where I bought some postcards. It went something like this:

Cashier 1: That will be XX kroners.

Me: Can I give you a hundred?

Cashier 1: Yeah. (Goes to get change)

Cashier 2: Hello.

Me: Oh, I’m waiting for her.

Cashier 2: Okay.

Cashier 1: (Comes back) Here’s your change.

Me: Thank you!

On the day I left I also managed to use Norwegian to ask a bus driver if I needed to pay my fare right away when I got on the bus, and I also asked a train station employee whether or not a certain train was headed to the airport. So my Norwegian-speaking experience wasn’t exactly extensive, but all the same I’d like to note that every time I made the effort to speak Norwegian, people replied in Norwegian. A lot of people seem to think that “there’s no point learning to speak Scandinavian languages because people will always reply in English”, but based on my limited experience it seems that this is simply not true. It may have helped that I made an effort to learn the correct pronunciation and did not speak with a typical American accent, although I’m sure people could tell I was a foreigner. But at any rate, everyone I met was also very encouraging and supportive when they found out I was trying to learn Norwegian!

It’s also not entirely true that “everyone in Norway speaks English”. Yes, it is undeniable that the general level of English there is very high compared to most non-English-speaking countries. I approached several strangers to ask questions in English, and all of them at least understood me and were able to reply, though some of them spoke better English than others. Most young people, in particular, seem to speak it quite well. However, with most people it was still apparent that English was not their native language. I also met a couple of people (Tina’s grandmother being one of them) who could hardly speak any English at all, though they did seem to understand a bit. Anyway, I think the most important thing to realize is that Norwegians all speak Norwegian with each other, and it is obvious that they, like anyone else, are most at ease in their native language. Tina’s friends and family did try to speak English for my benefit, but often they ended up reverting back to Norwegian in spite of themselves. It’s like Nelson Mandela said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Ultimately, if you really want to get to know Norway and its people, you have to learn Norwegian. The same reasoning applies to any country or culture you want to get to know well.

I definitely felt like my experience in Norway was better than it would have been without knowing any Norwegian, but it would have been even better if I’d known more Norwegian. I did feel slightly distanced from people by not being able to communicate with them in their language. I also really loved Norway, and got excited about the possibility of returning to visit the town my ancestors came from and possibly even meet my living Norwegian relatives! So, even though I still plan on continuing to learn Russian and had intended to focus solely on that language for a while, I’ve decided to continue to learn Norwegian and try to visit Norway again this summer.* I’ll still be devoting the majority of my study time to Russian, since Russian is much more difficult and simply requires more time and effort. Even so, I think it’s reasonable to expect to become conversational in Norwegian by this summer. (Actually I was thinking of writing a post on the subject of learning two languages at once, but my friend Luca just wrote this one that’s so good I don’t have anything to add to it! I pretty much agree with Luca on this, so give his post a look if you want to know what I think.)

So I certainly do have my plate full for the next several months! I’ll be busy, but it’s the good kind of busy– doing only things I really want to do. When I think about all I have ahead of me, I feel not overwhelmed but really excited! I think that must be a good sign. 🙂

*Update (March 2013): I ended up not following through on this plan, and after France I went straight back to the US to work on my music project instead. I still would love to go back to Norway someday though!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Great post Jana! Norwegian as well as some of the other languages that are spoken in Scandinavia are definitely languages I look forward to knowing. Thanks again. 

  • Aly Yurkova

    now i want to learn norwegian…
    u know what is my biggest problem?
    too many languages i want to learn…
    some i dont want to learn but i have to – like Azeri)
    oh well…
    miss you, Jana

    • Haha… Sorry for tempting you! ^^; But yeah, I have the same problem of wanting to learn too many languages! We just can’t learn them all though, unfortunately.

      I also find it’s true that some languages just don’t “click” with some people– like Azeri apparently doesn’t with you. When you’re forced to learn a language you’re not particularly drawn to, it’s really hard to make progress. =/

  • That’s not dialect.. that’s a form of Nynorsk, which is also perfectly correct. Norwegian has two written forms, as you may or may not know – Bokmål and Nynorsk, which again have a few options each for how to write various words.

    Else, congrats with the experience and thanks for the blog post :>

    • Oh, I see! I was told it was a dialect… But thanks for clearing that up.

      • Pakt

        At the risk of sounding pedantic, I would say that it’s the (officially recognized) written form that they choose to transcribe their oral dialect.
        So it’s understandable that they use the shortcut ‘dialect’.

        (From what I understand the written forms can be a touchy issue!)

        • Thanks for the explanation! That makes sense.

        • tinamalen91

          And actually it is dialect. It might be correct nynorsk at the same time, but my grandma has intended to write how she talks and this is how halling sounds. 

          And actually some dialects is more similar to bokmål than nynorsk. So to say that nynorsk is more like dialect than bokmål is wrong. It is true that nynorsk is based upon the similarities in the dialects. 

          But you can take an suck as easy thing as the word I, jeg in bokmål and eg in nynorsk. It can be said like; Jeg, Jæi, eg, æg, jæg, æ, I and many more… And eg is not more similar to all the others than jeg. 
          Oh, I just spotted and error, if this where nynorsk it would say handverk, not håndverk.
          I think the only thing you where correct about was the part about it being a touchy subject^^, Not that it matters so much if it is the either or the other, I’m prefere bokmål myself and i think it is rather idiotic having two written versions of the same language. ( With the wto of them, and the recent easing up on the rules, kids are mixing them up and spelling is horrible..)  We would have just one a long time ago if people would just stop fighting and and choose one. 

          • Okay everybody, we have the input of a real Norwegian here! Case closed. =P

  • I’m so happy 🙂 I just came to think about you and wondered how your jul went 🙂
    It has not been much snow this year, but I suppose that was only good for you 🙂 Enough snow to know you’re in Norway 😀

    • Yes, it sure did seem like plenty of snow to me!

  • Thanks so much for sharing the journey with us.  It is always so helpful an inspirational to hear what others are doing to learn language mixed with the real life stories of the journey.  Great stuff!

  • Tomasz Cieńciała

    Thank you very much for links to online learning resources  🙂

  • Pakt

    Bonus: you can visit Copenhagen and read almost everything there, since written (Bokmål) Norwegian and written Danish are pretty much the same thing.

    • Indeed! The problem is, though, that you can hardly understand anything they say. =P

  • Ruthven Gzell

     Hei! Hvordan har du det?,,I’m beginning with the Norsk too, kinda hard get some material to begin, but I got this one: Teach yourself Norwegian Conversation + Audio 3CD’s, Teach yourself Norwegian + mp3, Ny i Norge + mp3, Colloquial Norwegian + mp3, and thanks for your advices and youtub playlist. So if you need something give a shout :). Ha det bra.

  • Rolf

    Hei Jana, håper alt står bra til. Jeg besøkte siden din hovedsaklig fordi at i artikkelen “Is Learning a Language Difficult?” la jeg merke til at du hadde lært deg japansk, som er noe jeg har drømt om i lengre tid. Jeg må innrømme at det var da ekstra morsomt å se at en person som har lært seg så mange forskjellige språk også har valgt å starte med norsk, med tanke på at det ikke er det mest nyttige språket hvis man tenker på hvor mange som bruker det. Jeg regner med at du allerede vet om norsk kurset de har på livemocha.com, men jeg har en bok som kanskje kan hjelpe deg hvis du fortsatt er interessert i å lære norsk. Det hadde vært veldig interessant å høre om dine erfaringer med å lære japansk og om du kanskje kunne gitt meg noen gode råd. Er du interessert så er det bare å kontakte meg på mail: rolficole@hotmail:disqus .com 
    Med vennlig hilsen

    •  Hei Rolf! Thanks very much for visiting my site and for commenting. =) I’m interested in the book you mention, so I’ll send you an e-mail! I’m just going to delete your address from your comment so others can’t see it. =)

  • Caroline

    Thank you very much for the links! I’ve started to learn Norwegian this month and I think they are going to help me a lot! I also love to listen to Disney songs to learn new languages! It’s so cool to know that you do this too!!! It’s a great and fun way to learn indeed! I love your post, very helpful. Thank you very much!!!

    • You’re welcome. 🙂 Good luck with your studies!