Thursday, August 20, 2009

Kan du snakke norsk?

I've been a bit slack on the blogging for the last week, partly due to my lack of Nyquil and persistent illness (the hacking cough is starting to...umm... hack off those around me now). The main reason I've been lax, however, is because I have returned to work after the summer sabbatical. I am a professor at a business school, and, while the money is not great and the glamour even less so, it affords me summers off, which is worth more than a salary offers.*

This week marked the return of the students, and it meant this chick had to get back to work. It's a tough job sometimes as I feel I am quite low-brow most of the time, based solely on my love for tabloid newspapers and crappy gossip sites. I have had to get back into the swing of things and 'academic' myself up again. See you next summer, Perez Hilton!

Part of the back-to-school process involves meetings. Lots and lots of meetings. Usually by October I have reverted to my usual policy regarding meetings, which is to avoid whenever possible. But in my start-of-term exuberance, I try to show up for the biggies to be a team player. This week I have spent at least ten hours in meetings. That alone would normally be enough to make me tear my hair out, but added into the mix are the fact these meetings are all in Norwegian.

This would seem an obvious thing since I am, after all, in Norway.

But I have whiplash from transitioning from English to Norwegian, and have been ingesting headache tablets at an alarming rate as a result. Let me lay it on the table - I am rubbish with Norwegian. For the first year and a half I lived here, I avoided learning any Norwegian at all. It's so easy to do as 95% of Norwegians speak English beautifully. But when I took my new job, I felt a large chasm between me and the rest of the staff due to my self-imposed language barrier.

Don't get me wrong - everyone was and is so kind to me, always offering to translate the important things or help me when I look confused (which is more often than not). But I felt I was an outsider since there always had to be a break in the meeting for Boss to ask if I understood. I didn't want to be singled out and I didn't want to create any additional work for others, so I resolved to learn some Norsk.

I first signed up for a Norwegian course at a local learning center. It met for 3 hours one night a week. I made it through the first 45 minutes of session one and left, never to return. The problem was really ego. Those who teach are usually the worst at being taught.** So the following week I hired a private tutor and spent the next six months taking lessons twice a week.

Because it was one-on-one, I dictated what I wanted to learn. I spent hours with Tutor translating work emails, academic articles, and textbooks. The result is that I have a fairly large vocabulary of management-related words, but I have absolutely no idea how to string them into a sentence, as mundane things like grammar and tense bored me.

This means I can follow a meeting by picking up keywords and context, but I would be hard pressed to muster up much more conversation than a four year old Norwegian child (and that might even be over-estimating my abilities a bit). It also means that I am always five minutes behind and 50% off topic when in meetings as I take far too long translating things in my head.

Recently the Norwegian Directorate of Integration and Diversity (IMDi) published a study detailing integration results for foreigners living in Norway. In this report, they note that "Numerous studies... document the need for better Norwegian language skills among many immigrants who have been resident in Norway for some years. (p.19)"

I'm not surprised. I am pretty certain I am one of those immigrants they're talking about. In my own work as a cultural researcher and academic, whenever I speak about cultural integration in a business context, I always emphasize the importance of learning the local language, even if your own language is widely spoken. It's about understanding nuance and meaning and removing barriers to relationships. I am embarrassed to say I have not sufficiently done that.

This all boils down to the fact that I've got to sort it out and suck it up and find myself a classroom to sullenly skulk in to so I can learn properly. It won't be fun, nor easy, but I have to practice what I preach. Jeg må prøve, you know.
* I stand by this statement. I have worked for a lot more money and gained an ulcer, so working for less money but more freedom reaps its own rewards in my book. I certainly spend less on antacids and therapy now.
** I just didn't think smacking on the CD that came with the textbook and playing it for 20 minutes straight was a teaching technique with which I could get on board. I'm fussy like that.


  1. it takes years of fighting it before you realise you just have to give in and learn it - personally, i think that it gives you a better appreciation for the language after you've mostly mastered it!

  2. Dude--I'm totally in your choir! Me and the norsk just do not get along. I might be a teensy bit ahead of you...sort of like 2 minutes late and maybe 20% off topic...but still, I get where you're coming from. I've developed such a chip on my shoulder about learning norwegian that even now that I've finally committed to moving past it, I'm finding all but impossible to actually move past it.

    Good luck on your quest to assimilate. Me--I'm just trying to decide if I'm clever enough to fake fluency enough to go back to school...but then if all the professors are like you....maybe not such a big deal after all....hmmmm


  3. Hey.. Believe me... when it comes to living in Norway... I can be the most negative person E V E R.. (depends on the days...) There are a lot of things I am not willing to bend on & say Screw Em if they don't like my "American-ess" however language wasn't one of them...
    The first thing I did when I moved here was hop into learning the language...
    Not because I am a clever person... I was just paranoid & wanted to know if people were talking about me... (I know, I need to get over myself) But look at it this way... You NOT learning Norwegian doesn't hurt anyone but YOU... :) If I can do it... YOU can sure as hell do it.. Good luck

  4. Anon@2.42, you're absolutely right - resistance is futile. I think I just needed some time to realize that!

    JEDA, if you're at the 2min/20% place, I bet you'd be fine in lectures. There are a lot of programs offered in English, and usually, even if the lectures are in Norwegian, you can ask to submit your coursework in English. I'm sure you are more than clever enough!

    American, you are most definitely smart for jumping into the language straight away. I think this is the biggest piece of advice an 'old' expat can give to new ones. I'm just sorry it took me so long to practice what I preach!

  5. Good blog J. I know what you are capable of... And if you are to communicate with my little boy along the way, you need some skills in the native tongue... :) Henriette

  6. Delighted by your explanation of meetings på norsk... dette var også det same for meg! Nothing more embarrassing than being treated like the disabled person when they stop to ask if you "got it". I usually would use that as an opportunity to say I understood the person speaking "fjord norsk" but not the gentleman to the side that was speaking "arktisk norsk" and that I was struggling with the lady pratering the "fjell norsk" but I think I understood her point. He he

  7. H, I figure little guy and I might be on the same learning level when it comes to Norsk. Never mind that he is only weeks old and I am just... old. ;-)

    EL, you are SO right about the dialects! Just when I feel I have a grasp on Stangerske, out come thirty two new pronunciations and slang. Cripes!

  8. I'm very impressed that you are brave enough to sit through meetings in Norsk. My breakthrough was having a baby, barselgruppe and barnehage plass - maybe not a method that would suit all ;) - but I would only now, after almost five years of self-teaching, using the newspaper and now daily conversations at the BH, start to feel confident enough to use it in a workplace. My accent is still dreadful, but Norwegians are easily impressed by foreigners who try to speak Norwegian it seems so getting to conversation level without major understandings has been great for my ego! You can do it and it really, really is worth it as it opens up a whole new world of genuine friendships.

  9. Don't be impressed, Oslo. My brazenness is borne more out of sheer stupidity and necessity than anything else. I agree that Norwegians are really appreciative when you try to speak, even when you sound like a redneck. (Who knew it was possible for that accent to translate to Norsk? I am living proof it does though!) I am going to press on with my snakkering as I think I am missing out on a lot if I give up. Hvis jeg kan gjøre det, alle kan!

  10. My husband is English (I'm Norwegian) and when he moved to Norway 20 years ago his biggest problem with learning Norwegian was that everyone here kept on speaking English to him! But he just refused to speak to people in English. He stuggled in the beginning but after a few years he was not onlt fluent - his vocabulary is better than most Norwegians! He holds a senior position now in one of the biggest companies in Norway. And I promise you, even though you can (slightly) hear that he might come from England, ALL his meetings are in Norwegian! Everything he writes is in Norwegian.
    One of the best ways to learn Norwegian is to not speak English when you are with Norwegian people. Not even when they speak English to you.
    Learn to say: SNAKK NORSK!!
    And read books. Books you've read in English before. It will make learning so much easier!


  11. Mrs, I have an English mann as well, and he had the same approach and now conducts most of his daily life på norsk. And you are so right about Norwegians speaking English back. I do believe it is done with good intent to help a struggling foreigner out, but it makes it all the more difficult to learn. I'm resolved, though, and apologies ahead of time to those poor Norwegians I shall practice on!