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.
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.
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!