Norwegian for Dummies

Learning to talk Norwegian is one of the hardest things oops, I mean, is the hardest thing I ever did!

I’m sure you heard the old saying –you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Well, you can its just going to take years to do it.

I landed in Norway with three young children in 1989 and the only words I knew were: takk for maten, which means thanks for the food and a few curse words (for some reason we always learn those first). We moved to a small town called Egersund and with the nearest International school miles away, I enrolled the children in Norwegian school. It didn’t take long for their young minds to absorb the Norwegian language. Meanwhile, as her whole world turned upside down, their poor mother struggled to clear the cobwebs from her head. I now had my eleven-year-old daughter reading my mail and translating cooking instructions for me.

I was living in an area where there were few expats, I didn’t even consider myself to be one. I wasn’t there because I had a job to do, or had a company supporting me, I was there as the wife of a local. I had no choice, but to sink or swim. At first, I really tried to swim; I took classes, read books and listened to language cassettes. The only thing I didn’t do was practice. I felt foolish speaking this foreign language, in which there were three extra letters in the Alphabet (Æ, Ø and Å) and all nouns were classified by gender.

Meaning, I had to learn the gender of every noun in the whole Norwegian language!

There were other problems as well; I was being taught proper (Bokmål) Norwegian, but the good people of Egersund were speaking in dialect. Help!

Years passed, and I began to understand the native tongue spoken around me, yet I still spoke English myself. It seemed like the perfect compromise; I talked my language, they talked theirs and everyone understood each other. The only thing is I stuck out like a sore thumb in the little town. I would try speaking to children, but always felt as if I were met with questioning eyes. When I tried speaking around the house to my own family I was either corrected or laughed at, (not in a mean way) but it still didn’t help matters.

I would spend hours rehearsing and planning what I would say. It sounded perfect inside my head, then something would go awry and I’d end up feeling dumb. What was wrong with me and why couldn’t I learn this damn language?! I was sinking.

Six years after moving to Norway and desperately wanting to fit in, I signed up for another Norsk course. The instructor informed the class that the only way to learn the language was to practice. “Drop your own language and speak Norwegian all the time,” he said. What did I have to lose, my humility? That was already long gone.

I threw myself out there and didn’t let my limited vocabulary or American accent stop me. I was tired of feeling bad about myself and was determined to conquer the language barrier this time!

That was seventeen years ago and guess what? I speak fluent Norwegian, with an American accent, and the occasional mistake thrown in every now and then for good measure.

So next time you meet someone speaking with an accent remember, they’re not thinking with one.

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About maggiemyklebust

I grew up on the Jersey Shore and now live in Norway. I have also lived in Houston and the Netherlands. I have written a memoir called Fly Away Home.

Posted on April 10, 2012, in all things Norsk and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. This is really interesting. I don’t think I’d do that well learning a foreign language. I would try, and I always do when I travel, but I don’t think I would ever be able to do more than make myself understood on the very simplest matters. (Yes please, no thank you, Where’s the restroom?) I know someone who worked in Normway and understood the language but never spoke it. He broke his leg, came to in the hospital, and in his drugged stupor, spoke fluent Norwegian, and has been speaking it ever since.

  2. I wish I knew that sooner, because it would have been much easier to break my leg than to take Norwegian lessons for six years! 🙂

  3. Well that was not an easy row to hoe, but you did it! Strength and perseverance, you are naturally good at those! ~ Lily

  4. I don’t know how much strength I have, but I definitely have perseverance, or in my case I think its called stubbornness!
    Thanks Lily 🙂

  5. I had a similar experience when I married into a Pakistani family, they advised me to learn Urdu, but could only speak Punjabi, so understanding one another was still a hit and miss affair! http://wp.me/p1J9Lk-MB

    • Great post, but it did seem you were a little more open to learning Urdu than I was to learning Norwegian…
      I think because everyone here understood English, I was lazy. I wanted to talk Norwegian, but didn’t want to do the work.
      Its funny after all these years I still have to concentrate hard in Norwegian, then I’ll go home to the US for a visit and the language just comes so pleasantly natural.

  6. This is fabulous, it’s especially great to read it in conjunction with your book! I’m very impressed, Scandinavian languages are notoriously difficult to learn – go you! 🙂

  7. Kim Amundsen

    My grandmother immigrated to the United States in the 1920’s from Norway and always had an accent I lived with both my grandparents from age 18 to 20 my grandfather was also born in norway but because he immigrated in 1910 as a boy he didn’t have an accent anyway I came home to there house one day and my grandmother was on the phone she calls out its for you come to find out my friends loved her accent so much they would call her a couple times a week just to talk and here her accent. She never did teach any of us grandkids how to speak Norwegian good for you for learning how and making mistakes along the way.

  8. My Grandparents and father live in America and talk with Norwegian accents, to which everyone thinks is cute. I only hope when I talk Norwegian with my American accent it sounds just as cute…
    Thanks for stopping by 🙂

    • Don’t worry! American accents are just about the cutest possible way of speaking Norwegian, in my opinion. Whenever my American friend speaks Norwegian (which is rare since he is like you used to be and mostly just speaks English, even when the rest of the conversation is in Norwegian) I have to work hard to contain my laughter and can’t help but smile because its just so darn cute. 😀 He’s fluent in Norwegian.

  9. I love this! Learning a new language can be a massive lesson in humility. Been there done that. It’s so freeing once you realize that it is ok to stumble through it. When I read this, the first thing I thought was where in the world are those wacky letters on my keyboard??? ;). You are a rockstar gorgeous girl. I love your spunkiness!

  10. I loved this post, my mother being in the exact same situation, she moved from England to Norway after meeting my dad, and had to learn it, i know she was still taking courses at the time i was born. I remember when i was young she would always talk english to me, and around the house, and it wasnt really until she started working that she started to talk norwegian to me, (that and the fact that my much younger brother refused to listen when she spoke english to him)

    This year she celebrated living in Norway longer than her Native country, she now speaks perfect Norwegian, though with an English accent, (and yes, it is very cute, and my friends love talking to her because of it)

    Now the circle is complete and i have this “problem” with my boyfriend, who is english, but trying to learn Norwegian, he speaks it so well, but refuses to speak it in public or with anyone but me.

    But i did enjoy this post so much, and will definitely show him this!

    • Thanks for commenting, I really appreciate hearing other people’s stories. In just five years I too will celebrate living in Norway longer than in my passport country. I have no problem talking Norwegian, but still talk English to my children (Norwegian to my grandchildren). Norwegian is a difficult language to learn, especially for us English speaking people, because we know most everyone understands when we talk English…
      Good luck to your boyfriend. Maggie

  11. HI I just came across this while googling ‘Norwegian for dummies’. I find this very inspirational and thank you for sharing your wonderful story. I began my journey to learning Norsk few months ago. I’m moving to Stavanger for work next year so need to have a head start on the language. So far tis’ been fun. I hope to one day have native fluency. I love languages. Like you, its been very difficult for me to grasp languages but I never stopped. My stubbornness for 11 years allowed me to become fluent in 7 languages. Soon to be 8. Hadet bra. Tusen takk!

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