During my first few months in Norway, this was a question I found myself asking quite often, a question that was, and is, almost always greeted with a polite and obliging ‘Yes, of course’.
Perhaps with the exception of older generations (though I am frequently surprised), most Norwegians can speak or at the very least understand English. The simple reason for this is that English is introduced and taught in schools from an early age (as early as five years old), which is then bolstered by the popularity of British and American television shows, films and music.
English is rife in Norway, and the two languages seem to coexist in day to day usage. English can actually be said to be Norway’s second language. For an English speaker who is new in Norway, this can be rather comforting, and it is often amusing when an English word or phrase appears without warning in the middle of a conversation between two native Norwegian speakers.
For the most part, Norwegians love to speak English, not least because they are very good at it. To begin with, this can be very helpful, but it can pose a challenge to anyone with a genuine desire to learn Norwegian. I remember finding it sometimes frustrating when, having successfully ordered my coffee in Norwegian, a follow up question would come back in English. This was rarely due to being misunderstood, it is simply that Norwegians relish the opportunity to show off their language skills and in most cases are only trying to be accommodating.
Prior to making the move here, I had no real skills in a second language to speak of, save for a smattering of German, and a few words and phrases in Italian and Mandarin that I had picked up during my year working in hospitality.
Although I had attempted to learn some Norwegian through apps such as Duolingo before moving here, I had no real conversational abilities, and my vocabulary was limited to a handful of verbs in the present tense and items one might find around the home (there was no doubting that I knew the Norwegian words for plate and spider before moving here).
There was only one thing for it. If I was really going to learn, I had to dive in, head first. Moving to Norway gave me the opportunity to fully immerse myself in the language, but crucially, it gave me the need and therefore the impetus to learn. I didn’t want to rely on the fact that English is so widely understood in Norway. I realised that if I was really going to flourish here, I needed to learn.
I assumed a sponge-like state, and I opened my ears and eyes wide to the beautiful and mysterious language in which I had been immersed.
Norwegians are very proud of their language and are genuinely impressed when even a small effort is made to speak it. After all, this is a language that is used almost exclusively within Norway, a country whose entire population is appreciably smaller than that of Greater London alone. In my early days here, I found that even minute efforts to speak Norwegian were greeted with a warm and enthusiastic ‘Så flink du er!’ (‘So clever you are!’). I am actually convinced that my progress in Norwegian owes a great deal to the encouragement and even gratitude with which my attempts to speak it have been greeted.
I also noticed quite early on that Norwegians are most obliging and patient teachers when it comes to their language and will very often take the time to help someone doing their best to learn. This extends even to children, and I have lost count of the times my pupils (some as young as 7 or 8) have helped me with a word or pronunciation point.
Admittedly, things are made a little easier for the English speaker learning Norwegian by the fact that so many words are not only very similar, but in some cases identical, all owing of course to a shared Germanic root:
Snow = snø
Winter = vinter
Tree = tre
House = hus
Hand = hånd
Ski = ski (Okay, the Norwegians did invent this one)
Norwegian might not have the music or the passion of the Romance languages, but it is charming and beautiful in other ways. For instance, the language has a unique melody that rises and falls in particular places, which can make for delightful listening when two native speakers are in full flow. Not only that, the Norwegian language has some words that, when translated into English literally, are really rather poetic:
Butterfly = sommerfugl or “summer bird”
Outer space = verdensrommet or “the world’s room”
Daffodil = påskelilje or “Easter lily”
But then there are those words whose literal translations become rather comical:
Kakespade = cake slice or “cake spade”
Stinkdyr = skunk or “stink animal”
Grønnsaker = vegetables or “green things”
Potetgull = crisps or “potato gold”
Pålegg = sandwich spread or “on-lay”
My first breakthrough with learning Norwegian came a couple of months after I moved here, during a train journey from Sandefjord to Drammen. As the ticket inspector approached me, she asked: ‘Skal du til Drammen?’ (‘Are you going to Drammen?’). ‘Ja, til Drammen!’, came my reply, perhaps a little too enthusiastically. I had just had my first solo interaction in Norwegian, and although it was a simple response to a simple question, I felt as though I was making progress!
Another milestone came when my girlfriend called me on the phone one day to ask what we needed from the supermarket, but she had elected on this occasion to use only Norwegian. Although my responses had been limited to single words (mostly yes or no), I had understood nearly everything she had said. After we hung up, my girlfriend had texted me excitedly to say: ‘We just had our first conversation in Norwegian!’. It was this along with countless other tiny achievements that gave me the confidence to keep going, and to put into practice what I was learning at home.
As with anyone learning a second language, I have made more than a few mistakes of varying degrees of hilarity and embarrassment along the way. My first job in Norway was as a waiter in a local restaurant, and one day I decided that I would attempt to use only Norwegian when talking to customers. This was a massive learning curve for me, but it boosted my confidence immeasurably. I knew fear of making mistakes would prevent me from applying what I was learning, so I decided to throw caution to the wind and just ruddy well go for it.
Whilst Norwegian is not one of the most difficult languages for an English speaker to learn, pronunciation can be a challenge to begin with. An early stumbling point for me was the difference between the y and u sound. I remember one shift at the restaurant, when my pronunciation was still far from perfect, I had walked over to a table, coffee pot in hand, and had confidently asked my customers: ‘Vil dere ha en påfugl?’.
Little did I know at the time that I had just asked my customers if they would like a peacock. My slightly confused but nonetheless patient customers simply asked me in English if I had meant refill (the word I had wanted was påfyll, not påfugl).
Norwegian is a characteristically efficient language, using only as many words as are necessary. When I first began learning Norwegian, I learnt to speak in full, grammatically sound sentences. For example, I learnt that if I wanted to say ‘Can I have a beer, please?’, the proper thing to say in Norwegian was: ‘Kan jeg få en øl, vær så snill?’. Once I began working with the Norwegian public, however, I quickly discovered that almost nobody orders a beer like this, and I was caught more than a little off guard the first time I was presented with ‘Få en øl?’ (literally, ‘Get a beer?’).
How fantastically to the point, though I doubt the average barkeep in England would appreciate such succinctness (‘What, no chit chat? And where are your manners?’). On a related note, if your Norwegian conversation partner doesn’t quite catch what you just said, don’t expect a polite, British style ‘Oh I’m sorry, what was that?’. Oh no. Prepare yourself for ‘Ha?’.
Again, why use six words when a simple ‘Ha?’ will do the trick?
Norwegians are, by and large, direct people, and this is reflected in the language. If one is unprepared for this directness, it can come across as being blunt, almost to the point of being rude. This is not the case. It is simply that Norwegians do not see any practical value in “going round the houses” (or as the Norwegians would say: “Å gå rundt grøten” – “to go around the porridge”), and would much rather just get to the point of what it is they want to say. This becomes abundantly clear when comparing, for example, English and Norwegian written correspondence.
When I first began sending out prospective emails for teaching jobs in Norway, I composed a somewhat lengthy and articulate statement about who I was, going in to some detail about my experience and eligibility with the sort of formality of tone and language that would have flown back in England.
The responses I received had all been to the point, but I remember that one in particular had simply read: ‘No teaching opportunities here. Regards’.
Feeling a little disheartened, my girlfriend reassured me that this was quite typical of Norwegian written communication, and that I ought not take it too personally. It wasn’t just my emails that were on the verbose side. My C.V., too, required some serious trimming to make it more palatable for my prospective Norwegian employers. Having only ever applied for jobs in England, I had to throw out what had worked for me in the past and embrace a new Scandinavian philosophy of communication: cut to the chase!
Norwegian is efficient in other ways, too. Among native speakers, one of the most curious features of the language is speaking on an in breath. It is not unusual, for example, for one’s conversation partner to express their agreement by producing the word ‘ja’ at the same time as breathing in. Sure, this can sound odd to begin with, but after a year of listening to and conversing with native speakers, not only has it come to sound quite normal to me, but I will often catch myself doing it. I can only conclude that this is an inevitable part of my cultural integration, perhaps along with saying ‘Skal vi se’ (literally, ‘Shall we see’) before undertaking almost any task, and ‘Sånn!’ (like saying: ‘There!’) after having accomplished it.
Although I still have a long path ahead of me to becoming fluent, I have surprised even myself at the progress I have made. One year ago, I never thought I would now be at the stage where I could watch and understand a Norwegian T.V. show, or make a joke in Norwegian, let alone be able to teach in the language.
Perhaps most importantly, I am pleased to report that after one year of living in Norway, I have at least moved beyond asking people if they would like peacocks with their coffee.