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.