The next three months

Previously: Three months’ immersion in Norwegian

The TL;DR of intermediate-level Norwegian is that you spend basically 80% of your waking hours wondering where the adverbs go. I never realised how much I take adverbs for granted in English.

I take my Christmas holidays sure that I have earned the right to sleep like the dead for a week. But it doesn’t happen: I wake up going-to-work early nearly every morning. My brain wants its language fix. Crushingly, it doesn’t come: the Norwegian firehose has been abruptly turned off, and I am unexpectedly sad. Eventually I stumble on a thing to fill the hole, inhaling a season and a half of SKAM in the last couple of days before I go back to the office. I am unusually excited about returning to work.

This quarter is much harder; consolidation is not sexy. Being an intermediate speaker of a language involves much less immediate reward—and who doesn’t like reward? Now comes the slower learning curve. I’ve come far enough to be capable of constructing understandable (if often grammatically incorrect) sentences, so I don’t need to pay quite the same amount of attention just to communicate, and I worry that this is making me lazy. Also, during January and most of February, I am waiting for my Norwegian grammar course to start—and until it does, no visible structure feels like no progress. When the grammar course does start, it’s nowhere near as intensive or rewarding as the previous courses (and by the way, I freaking love grammar, so it’s not that). I desperately need to find reward in ways other than just going Mach 2 with my hair on fire, or whatever you kids do now.

Somehow, I do find ways. In early January I become suddenly fascinated by people’s accents and dialects. I start noticing that all my colleagues are from somewhere. By the UK standards, the range of dialects spoken in my office is inconceivably broad. In my first couple of months, the subjective experience of this was super-weird: when a collegue used words like ikkje instead of ikke and korleis instead of hvordan, it was still possible to follow their meaning, but by the end of the sentence the prevailing sensation was “I understood that, but I’m not sure why!” Identifying that two colleagues hail from the same area of the country feels like a big deal. And so my new hobby becomes trying to identify where in Norway my colleagues are from. It’s quite weird to see someone from our Bergen office, who I haven’t spoken to in a couple of months, and be hit over the head by how damn bergensk they sound, something I was barely aware of during our previous conversation. I find out that I am a sucker for accents from the west coast. People from the south sound kinda Danish; people from Trøndelag often have quite thick accents, and people from the north use the sound ñ a lot (something I only notice relatively late).

I haven’t yet mentioned that there are two forms of written Norwegian: Bokmål and Nynorsk. To the outsider, Bokmål and Nynorsk are pretty similar (example direct comparison of Nynorsk and Bokmål, with English translation). Everyone learns both written forms in school; which you write as an adult depends on, among other things, where you grew up, but also personal preference. The other orthography is your sidemål (side-language). Bokmål is the majority orthography, with corresponding dominance in Norwegian media, right down to TV subtitling. Oslo skews heavily towards Bokmål. I write in Bokmål and submit my homework assignments in Bokmål. I love it though when colleagues write Nynorsk in one of our many Slack channels, or when I find stuff on the web written in Nynorsk.

The delightful and baffling thing for a native English speaker is that there is not a predictable 1:1 mapping of spoken dialect to written orthography. The most I can say is that colleagues with stronger west- and south-coast accents seem more likely than average to write in Nynorsk, but it’s way more complicated than that. Interestingly, you find people with different dialects and who use Bokmål and Nynorsk in every walk of life — these are not necessarily class signifiers, as they probably would be in the UK. And I haven’t even mentioned Sami yet, which is also an official (though minority) language of Norway, and which is actually a group of several related Finno-Ugric languages having sufficient variation that they are not always mutually intelligible. You want variation, we got variation.

Never mind other people’s accents: I start wondering what I sound like. Am I very obviously British? The first time somebody comments around February, it’s to ask me where in the USA I come from. I get a couple of those, and a few other people guess that I’m from the Netherlands (shoutout to the guy who posited “somewhere Anglo-Saxon”). New hobby: deliberately pronouncing Norwegian in the most outrageous Scottish accent I can muster (short sample in this episode of our Small Differences podcast — link is timestamped). My attempts at Norwegian pronunciation are often thrown by having to pronounce an English word halfway through, which means I finish the sentence sounding way more anglo than when I started. Sometimes that goes the other way —like today, when I accidentally pronounced Cartman as Kartmann.

I also wonder whether I ought to have a Norwegian regional accent or dialect. Should I be trying to develop one? Norwegian dialects are staggeringly diverse, but my de facto accent is, I guess, kind of Oslo-ish, simply because that’s what I hear most often. My stretch goal would be to sound like a native, but I’m not sure I will ever be self-consistent enough to sound like I’m from somewhere specific. (My mum, who was Czech, but who emigrated to the UK in her 20s, mastered English pronunciation, but nobody — and I mean nobody—could ever figure out where in the UK she was from.) Of course, the whole accent/dialect gig only gets more complicated when I ask someone who’s not from Oslo how to pronounce a word, and they tell me: then I have to decide whether to mimic their pronunciation (and thereafter pronounce it inconsistently with how I would otherwise talk), or translate it into something more Oslovian (at which point they look at me funny, because that’s not what they said).

I start wanting to use the Norwegian language to the full. Norwegian, like German, has three ‘genders’ for nouns, but it’s possible to collapse masculine and feminine together (like the Swedes do) and just use two forms — way easier for a novice learner. But after a few of months in a Norwegian-speaking workplace, surrounded by people who mostly seem to use all three grammatical genders (except, notably, people from Bergen), I suddenly have a huge urge to use them myself, and start saying ei bok (a book) instead of en bok. I also start imitating my colleagues who use the colloquial pronunciation of vi snakket (we spoke) and say vi snakka — and although I mostly stop short of writing snakka, I could, legitimately. If you’re getting the sense that Norwegian language variation is out of control, you may be right.

With increasing fluency, it’s tempting to be more ambitious: speak faster, communicate faster, get results faster. So of course I want to do what I do in English, and just launch into a sentence without always having a clear idea of where I’m going. But what actually happens is that sometimes I bite off rather more than I can chew, and everything ends in a horrible pile of broken verbs and mutual confusion. And although becoming more practiced has bought me extra thinking time during conversations, I’m still spending way too much time considering where in the sentence I should put the adverbs (especially ikke, ‘not’).

It’s surprisingly hard to be consistent when you’re still getting to grips with what everything sounds like. When it comes to pronouncing the letter r, I default to the Oslo-typical rulle-r, which is rolled or trilled, like in Scotland or Spain. But some mornings my brain wakes up wanting to employ skarre-r ,the r-sound they make in Germany, France and Denmark. (NB: this would be like a person from New York going to work one day and suddenly sounding like they were from Chicago.) My commitment to rulle-r starts to slide a bit when I spend any time with people from the west coast, or my one Danish colleague. I also start inadvertently saying me (for ‘we’) instead of vi. It did not occur to me that having a good ear might make speaking a language harder.

I should probably stop being surprised that learning is lumpy. Yeah, there’s progress, but then I stumble on a list of the many Norwegian homophones that are only differentiated by tonefall, and I lose a chunk of confidence right there. (If you haven’t grown up hearing/speaking a tonal language, that stuff is hard.) I also go through a weird phase where words from the wrong language sometimes break through and seem to block the word from the correct language — and yes, this happens in both directions. A thing I am too slow to learn is that if I spend two days talking and listening intensively, and fill the evening in between with more talking and listening, then on the second evening I am properly knackered, and start losing my grip on the conversation and on words generally. There are many days when I don’t seem to know the gender of any Norwegian words or what the various conjugations of common verbs are. I spend a confused afternoon not being sure whether det handler om … means it concerns or is actually something about shopping. Still, I guess some of the repetition must be paying off, because I know it’s et treff not en treff or ei treff, without thinking about it (in fact, when I start thinking about it, I only get more uncertain).

I work hard at this stuff, but boy does it repay the effort. I work 40 hours a week in Norwegian, and pretty much only listen to Norwegian language podcasts (except my own, obviously). I also talk to myself in Norwegian when I’m at home on my own or out by myself. I still write down lots of new words and phrases every day, although I will never, ever remember them all. It sounds a bit intensive, but it’s actually fun, and it really helps. Which language I wake up with begins to be a bit of a coin-flip: one night when I’m staying in a hotel, I’m woken by someone erroneously trying the door to my room, and the first words out of my mouth are hva i helvete, so I guess I was dreaming in Norwegian.

In other words, progress does happen, just in different ways than before. At the 3–4 month mark I feel like I get a bump in fluency, which is nice. The “hyper-aware of accents” period is a complete riot. In the months following, I get better at skim-reading, and my typing speed increases. My listening comprehension continues to improve, even though there are still loads of words I don’t know. I have lunch with a Norwegian friend who I haven’t seen for 6 months. It’s the first time we have ever had a conversation together in Norwegian, and it’s delightful. Conversations generally are a joy; the best times are when I’m just talking to someone and a few minutes go by without my consciously having to search for a word or think about adverb placement. Not being able to express myself or talk about interesting things was one of the toughest aspects of the first few months. One of my most treasured pieces of feedback comes from a colleague who says “you are exactly the same person when you speak in Norwegian as you are when you speak English”. I’ll take that, thanks.

It might be a while before I write another update, since the rate of change feels like it’s slowed down. But if you’d like to hear more about the experience of being new in Norway (with a decent chunk of language nerding thrown in), you can listen to me and Knut Melvær in our Small Differences podcast.