5 Things About Language Learning I Learned from Norwegian

Gratulerer med dagen! (Congratulations with the day!)

While Norwegians and their various expatriate / heritage communities the world over celebrate today (May 17th, the Norwegian Constitution Day) with parades, traditional costumes, hot dogs and ice cream (and much more!), here I am in rainy Brooklyn wondering how I can bring (1) exciting new motivation to learners of Norwegian and (2) an interesting perspective as an outsider that will be insightful to native speakers.

Norwegian was actually the first major European Language that I became fluent in and still is my favorite European Language. Contrary to what you may hear, there are VOLUMES of resources to learn it and even MORE to engage with the language even if you’re nowhere near Norway or any native speakers at all.

17 May 2018

 

(1) Norwegian Taught Me to Reflect on What English Was Throughout the Ages (And What It is Now)

 

With some noteworthy exceptions, English’s sentence structure is Norse in origin. One of those noteworthy exceptions is the fact that Norwegian (like almost all of the Germanic Languages) has verb-second construction. (To explain this: if a sentence begins with something indicating time, manner or place, put the verb right afterwards. In English you would say “today I will play a game” but in almost all of the other Germanic Languages you would say “today will I play a game”. Same if it were “Slowly” or “in Oslo” at the beginning of a sentence instead of “Today”).

In teaching languages of Scandinavia, I have to teach students how to recognize words from English as well as how to piece together words from pieces they already know. “Gjenskinn”  may not be familiar to you without this training, but once you learn to recognize it as “(a)gain + shine”, you can piece it to mean “reflection”.

Other Norwegian words use pieces of words that have fallen out of usage in English but survived in compound words. “Homestead” and “instead” use the word “stead” (which is a direct relative of the Norwegian word “sted” meaning a place).

«Å skade» means «to hurt» or «to damage», which you may recognize from the English word «unscathed».

The most common question I ask when going over a Norwegian text is “do you know what this looks like in English?”. Once you see exactly how similar the two are, it doesn’t become scary at all. In fact, Norwegian (and its relatives) are a lot less scary than the Romance Languages are (in my opinion). Consistently I have seen English native speakers of Norwegian as a second language be SIGNIFICANTLY more confident that English native speakers of Spanish as a second language. Yes, the pronunciation in Norwegian is harder to master, but the grammar is simpler and even the complicated aspects thereof feel intuitive for an English native speaker.

Norwegian is an excellent first choice for your first foreign language if your only language (right now) is English.

 

(2) Norwegian Gave Me a Glimpse Into the Reality of Heritage Speakers

Many a Midwesterner has had Norwegian-speaking grandparents who didn’t pass on the language to their children. As a Jew I hear often stories of Yiddish-speaking grandparents who did the exact same thing.

Especially in the United States, cultural erasure happens but sometimes the erasure only happens for one or two generations (with one of the future generations seeking to re-attach themselves to their roots).

In comparison to many people who I’ve met who learn languages to, in vague terms, “speak with many people”, the heritage speakers I’ve encountered approach language learning with an almost holy determination. Many of them see the Norwegian-American experience as truly incomplete without a language component, others want to communicate with their distant relatives from the small village from which their ancestors immigrated.

These people make me think about what motivation can do and how a genuine desire to become an “honorary” member of a community can make the heaviest obstacles in language learning seem passable.

Several of my students said that learning Norwegian enabled them to experience an alternate universe version of themselves in which their ancestors didn’t immigrate and / or passed down the language rather than replacing it only with English. With my heritage languages I would say that it is very much the same.

 

(3) Once You Learn a Smaller Language, You Actually See Its Influence in Contemporary Popular Culture Everywhere

American folk music has been deeply influenced by Norwegian airs. If you listen to Norwegian party songs like those written by Robin and Bugge or Staysman & Lazz, you’ll notice a clear similarity to American country music. Obviously the influence also happens in the other direction as well (as Americanization is something I’ve noticed in literally every country I’ve ever been in, although it was probably the weakest in Jordan).

Norwegian songs that have become ultra-famous in the greater world, like “Take On Me” and “What Does the Fox Say?” (despite both being songs in English), do have a distinctly Norwegian touch to them.

The city layouts of the Midwestern United States will give you a heavy dosage of “déjà vu” if you been to anywhere in Scandinavia at all.

Product names and idiomatic similarities are also some added bonuses you’ll get to recognize.

 

(4) The Norwegian Language Has Layers, as Do Many Languages Throughout the World.

At its base, Norwegian has Old Norse as its ancestor and primary influence. However, later on, there were other influences that entered the picture. The Denmark-Norway Union changed the language significantly. French and German influence also contributed loads of vocabulary to the language, not also to mention Latinate loanwords that Icelandic does not have. These layers also influenced regional accents. Now there are English loanwords as well and more of them entering the language by the year.

Do keep in mind that, with some exceptions, most languages are layered in a similar fashion. To be an adept language learner, be aware of the various influences in your target language and learn to tease them apart and note if you see any patterns as to where you see French loan words / Latinate words / German words etc. It will also show you that a language is a history map, something you can’t unlearn (in the best of ways).

 

(5) The Norwegian-Speaking Community Has Been Firmly Supportive of My Efforts and Those of my Friends

You’re welcome to share your stories to the contrary (and some of my students did have one or two people saying “I’m really impressed, but to be honest, why bother?”), but Norwegian speakers have been nothing but supportive of my journey and those of my friends. This was true even when I was an ABSOLUTE BEGINNER.

They provided honest and meaningful constructive criticism and made it very clear that they were happy with my efforts and curious to hear why I fell in love with this musical language. At no point did I feel that they were deliberately intending to show off their English skills at the expense of learners (as many people, regardless of native language, can tend to do).

Norway sadly has a reputation for legendarily unfriendly in some circles, but with the Norwegian language you’ll experience this culture in a way that you can deeply connect with it. And believe me, Scandinavians are not unfriendly—they’re just different from what you may be used to in regards to social norms.

 

NOTE: When I refer to “the Norwegian Language” in this piece, I am strictly referring to Norsk Bokmål. I have not studied Nynorsk yet but my reading skills in it are good.

Have YOU had any experiences learning Norwegian? How will YOU celebrate May 17th? Let us know!

Learning Similar Languages: What Can Go Wrong and What Can Work

 

One of the biggest issues I’ve seen with most novice language learners (and, being completely honest with all of you, most language learners, especially in the English-speaking world or with languages that are not English, stay novices permanently for a number of reasons) is the issue of learning similar languages.

Specifically, the issue of the Romance Languages comes into play often, and people scramble the vocabularies of Spanish, Portuguese and sometimes even Italian sometimes quite often.

To be fair, I’ve haven’t been COMPLETELY immune to this (for example, between German and Yiddish or between the Scandinavian Languages or similarly related Creole Languages). However, I found myself better equipped to handle this issue than most.

And there IS an easy way around it, and it has to do with emotional attachment to your target languages.

For most people, Spanish is an easy, useful language closer to English and Portuguese is an easy, useful language close to that one. But I’m curious if you asked them about what sort of native-speaker material or culture they genuinely associate with either of these cultures, what would you get?

I’ve put Portuguese on pause for the time being (and have for about a year now), but Spanish (despite my guarded antipathy towards popular languages) is something I associate with spunky YouTube channels and my experiences with my Spanish friends during my year in Poland. Sometimes the occasional Juan Magan song comes to mind as well. The language has a distinct flavor in my mind that I anchor with particular things, not phrases in Duolingo.

Here are some other anchored flavors for languages that are HEAVILY related to other languages that I know:

  • Danish: my time in Greenland, Rasmus Seebach, a host of ancient traditions and experiences I’ve had with Danish-speakers, Denmark’s animated film industry, THAT PRONUNCIATION OMG.
  • Tok Pisin: fiery opinion pieces in Wantok Niuspepa, Daniel Bilip, my Dad’s memories of Port Moresby, documentaries involving the police and the “raskols” (truly heartbreaking and 100% the fault of colonialism and aftershocks from World War II)
  • Trinidadian Creole: Proverbs, Calypso Music, my neighborhood, very memorable comedic sketches and talk shows, notable Indian influence in comparison to much of the Caribbean.

Most people don’t have any emotional reasons for learning and usually have an abundance of logical reasons or, worse, choosing a language because it is a combination of easy and/or useful.

Yes, it is possible to develop an emotional connection after the fact, but don’t try to bend your desires to what the world wants (the world is crazy enough as is and it doesn’t need another follower, please!)

Even if you do choose to pursue something for logical reasons, you’re going to be more drawn and put more time into things that make you feel better. I really, really like Swedish and Tok Pisin, French or Spanish not so much. Until that changes (if it ever does), improving my Swedish or Tok Pisin is going to be the path of least resistance and not only would I put more time into it but more of it would stick (which is even more important).

So you’re probably wondering what this all has to do with learning related languages?

If you have distinct flavors for each language, the possibility that you mix them up is going to be minimal. I don’t associate Norway’s country-music-infused pop hits with any other place, and Stockholm beats only belong in one place, regardless of how similar these languages may be. I’ve associated these languages with very different feelings and places in my brain and this is why I, at this juncture, virtually NEVER mix them up.

To not mix up languages, you need to collect experiences with them and anchor them in that language.

Interestingly, concerning the creoles of Melanesia, Bislama material on YouTube tends to involve a lot of Ni-Vanuatu flags, and Solomon Islander material uses the Solomon flag even MORE, thereby ensuring through a natural mechanism that I can anchor my material in Bislama and Pijin with their appropriate categories.

When people mix up languages or speak something like “Portuñol”, it’s a sign to me that they haven’t anchored their experiences in enough real-world happenings (or entertainment, for that matter). And that’s okay, as long as you take concrete steps to fix it.

I think that parents of twins may have no problem keeping them apart by virtue of the fact that they have different emotional attachments to each twin. You’ll have to do something similar.

Don’t be discouraged! Keep working!

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