Three months’ immersion in Norwegian.
Quick background: my husband and I spent the last few years learning Swedish, pretty casually, two or so hours a week, to intermediate level. So when we got to Norway we could kind of read Norwegian, and sometimes understand it being spoken :) I also put in a bit of time with Duolingo over the summer, and tried to work my way through a book on Norwegian grammar while commuting to and fro for two months. So by the time I started the new job, I had some Norwegian, but not a lot.
At the start of October, a little over two months after emigrating, I start my new job. Right from day one, I consume a lot of Norwegian language at work, because of course everybody is talking and writing in it all the time. Except when they speak to me, obviously. I can make it through some basic interactions, but I quickly run out of words and usually have to drop into English. Everyone is very patient with my mangling of their language. Nevertheless, hearing the language all the time quickly helps me get my ear in — it’s sort of like Swedish but a different set of sounds and rhythms, and of course many of the words are different.
I spend a lot of time just sitting and listening in meetings. At this stage I know very little about the company, the work we’re doing or the clients we’re doing it for, or my colleagues. I speak relatively little; as someone who can be a bit mouthy occasionally, I quite enjoy the enforced change of role. I do a lot of guessing of words from context, maybe a little more than I thought would be possible, but there’s still a lot I have to look up. The best advice I get is from someone who’s made this transition before. He tells me “Don’t let it get away from you. If you realise you’ve lost your grip on what’s happening, ask to switch to English. It’s okay, and it’s better you do that early than leave it too late and be embarrassed that you don’t know what’s going on”. Good advice: in the second week of work I manage the first two hours of a long meeting, then during the third, remembering my friend’s advice, I have to admit defeat and ask to switch, which everyone gracefully does. (My new colleagues are casually bilingual — some speak even more languages. I guess this is entirely unremarkable in Norway, but it knocks the socks off me.)
I keep a text file open where I note down new words and expressions; I don’t have much time to refer back to it, but the act of writing seems to help me remember. I always have a Google Translate tab open, though my phone’s dictionary app remains the authority. I check and look up words many, many times a day; initially I can’t even write a sentence without checking something. (We use Slack at work. It’s great for writing practice. But if you thought it was already hard keeping up with what’s going on in Slack, try doing it in a foreign language. In the first couple of months I do a lot of very low value skim-reading.) A lot of the first words I learn relate to interaction design. In fact, I am very lucky that a lot of my job involves pointing at screens and suggesting something be a bit bigger or higher up or that it needs more visual contrast — these are simple, concrete things that are relatively easy to describe, and you can point and gesture if you get stuck. Imagine being a theoretical physicist, though.
There is a great deal of frustration in those first few weeks. It’s not just my limited ability to convey meaning, but also that the enormous effort of searching for words means I have almost no bandwidth to spare for modulating speech or otherwise managing the other stuff that contributes to communication. I feel as though I am shouting all the time with the effort of expressing even simple ideas. I’m concerned that I’m coming across as someone who is angry, or stupid, or maybe both. I worry a lot that my colleagues are wondering why I got hired, or getting tired of listening to me committing crimes against their charming language. I’m impatient for the language thing to be largely frictionless. Words like frustrerende and irriterende join my vocabulary. Lunchtimes are initially a nightmare, with lots of people talking at once and some truly appalling acoustics. I mostly just listen and hope I don’t seem rude for not saying much.
The sheer lumpiness of the learning experience — the lack of consistency in my progress — is surprising in itself. Some days I open my mouth and nonsense comes out, and the best I can do is be embarrassed and apologetic and switch to English. Other days I can express more or less what I want to say. The first month is quite a weird time: at weekends I oscillate wildly between enthusiasm and ennui about the coming week’s linguistic challenges. Monday mornings come to mean the heavy grinding of gears as my brain switches from the weekend’s English to norsk modus. At the end of my first month, I manage an entire day and then a whole week pretty much entirely in Norwegian. And just like that, I have transitioned. My Norwegian is clumsy and error-strewn all the time, but I’m just about hanging in there.
I am exhausted. I’m also a bit lonely, because I don’t have the ear or the words yet to take part in all the tiny social interactions that form the glue of working in any office. Everyone is super-nice; I’m just missing the social grooming stuff which I took for granted in an English-speaking environment. But I can well imagine this being a temporary phase, so I deal.
Because I am a glutton for punishment, around the time I start my new job, I also enroll myself in night classes. It’s 6 hours of classes a week, plus homework assignments. This means there are sometimes days where I wake up at 6 to do homework, spend the whole day speaking Norwegian at work, then go to a 3-hour class. Initially this is utterly draining and I sleep like a dead person, despite frankly heroic amounts of coffee. Later it starts to get easier; halfway to Christmas I get a really good teacher who is funny and clever and a language nerd, and things begin to click. It turns out that in signing up for his class, I have accidentally skipped half a term (and the first half of the next textbook). But because almost nobody else in the class gets to work in Norwegian during the day, I can catch up. I do catch up. It is genuinely fun. And while the financial burn rate on tuition is painfully brisk, classes are clearly providing a structural scaffold for the largely ad-hoc language learning I get at work. We learn some of the rules of Norwegian grammar, I get my mistakes corrected systematically, and I also get to watch other people struggling with the language—I learn a lot from that.
Watching myself living through this process is interesting. Earlier on, nearly all the effort of speaking and listening is very conscious and deliberate and therefore very hard to sustain. There are occasional brief bursts of just being in the moment and understanding the Norwegian being spoken around me. Most of these terminate abruptly with a sort of knee-jerk self-awareness that either I have stopped understanding, or that Wow, I’m listening to Norwegian! I work in Norway! With Norwegians! Thanks, brain. Over time I come to achieve longer moments of unconscious competence, though the reflexive realisation is still often there afterwards — you’re only aware of having experienced the flow state after it stops.
It’s hard to notice progress day by day or week on week, but when I pick up Marsboeren (The Martian, translated into Norwegian) after a few weeks of not feeling up to it, it demands way less dictionary referencing than before, which feels like an improvement. Another small language milestone comes when I realise that I can casually overhear other people’s conversations while I work. It’s more distracting than before, but I don’t mind. And I know I’m getting somewhere when I want to thank people for taking the time to speak more clearly around me, when in fact they are just speaking normally.
At some point I start dreaming in Norwegian as well as in English. Initially it’s just crude rehearsal of the day’s learning, but by degrees it becomes more naturalistic. A lot of the time I’m crashing so hard that I don’t remember whether I dreamed at all. If I ever can’t sleep, I just read my Norwegian grammar book. The effort required to keep on doing all this slowly ratchets down in the face of 50-odd hours a week of Norwegian language input. I know, because I’ve done it before with other things, that I can keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep showing up.
I’m still surprised by the lumpiness of the learning experience — it’s not always gradual. Some days I feel that this should be hurting more than it is, that I am somehow freeloading on the basis of genes or luck or whatever. Other days, by the time I go to bed, I can barely extract meaning from words in English. One day in class I suddenly grasp the distinction in word order between main clauses and subclauses. This feels like a genuine step change in my written, and to a lesser extent spoken, Norwegian. (It also makes me unexpectedly conscious of sentence structure in English — while I’m writing this piece, I’m aware of correct placement of adverbs.) However, even after this revelation, I still screw up word order all the time; I’m just better at knowing when it’s happened. Most of my Slack messages have (edited) after them, so I change my username to Chris (edited) Atherton.
Around this point, maybe two months in, I enter a period of what feels like infatuation with the language. I want to speak it all the time, sometimes to the point where I’m impatient for the weekend to end so I can go back to ‘school’. And as I become more confident in Norwegian, it somehow feels okay again to sneak in the odd English phrase where it’s funny or more useful, something my colleagues do unselfconsciously all the time. The bit that feels most crucial is that I can be more me. I’m able to speak more carefully and express ideas in more moderate ways, and to make people laugh, sometimes even on purpose. I don’t feel lonely anymore because I have enough Norwegian for small social transactions. The relief is extraordinary. The experience of having fallen abruptly out a flow state is gradually becoming rarer.
My colleagues remain patient. Man, did I luck out with my colleagues. I thought, everyone back home thought, that the biggest challenge would be persuading a roomful of people very comfortable talking in English to please, please speak Norwegian with me. I don’t know quite why, but somehow, that problem never materialises. I think I only ask everyone once, no more, and they just patiently let me try. After a month of transacting more or less full-time in very clunky Norwegian, I ask for more feedback, and find several people willing to correct my mistakes, which they do kindly and with humour. I work with many language nerds, and a couple of them really go out of their way to help me, especially Knut. It is incredibly touching, and quietly but significantly, it begins to help. One very late night after the office julebord (Christmas party, but more so) I end up in conversation with my team lead and I’m like “I don’t know how this happened. Can you imagine what today’s workshop would have been like if I didn’t speak any Norwegian? Can you imagine everyone spending the whole day talking in English for my benefit? Because I can’t. I have no idea how we got here; I’m just very, very grateful.” And yes, we have this conversation in Norwegian.
How did I get here? It seems kind of crazy when I stop and think about it. But in a way, it makes sense: for most of these three months I spent more hours a week hearing and speaking Norwegian than I did English. And while Tim Ferriss is not really someone I’d want to hang out with, I agree with him when it comes to total immersion language learning being very effective:
Make it your goal to screw up as often as possible in uncontrolled environments.
This. It works. You have to not mind falling on your face, but trust me, doing that gets easier with time, so just go with it. Det lønner seg. My efforts are rewarded just often enough for me to keep trying really hard, and when they pay out, it’s totally worth it. One day in a meeting I go on a rant about use of a particular software tool. Another time I manage to use the conditional in the middle of an impassioned Slack diatribe, while slightly drunk. A milestone I only recognise in retrospect comes when I spend an hour with one of our clients, just me and them in a room, chatting about the project background. I mean, I’m not saying I expressed myself elegantly, but it was functional.
Just before Christmas, I change my LinkedIn profile to include “Bokmål, Norwegian — limited working proficiency”. At this point I can talk about and understand most things that matter. I’m able to express fairly complex concepts in short bits of writing with only a few errors. I still often forget words, more so when I’m tired, and I’m still making mistakes everywhere in speech (where it’s nearly impossible to fiddle around with a draft version before publishing), but there is definitely a sense of progress. I can do this. In your face, 2016.
Things I haven’t talked about here: the crazy variety of accents and dialects in Norway; the fact that Norwegian has two different official written forms; the serendipitous background that helped me learn Norwegian. I’ll get to those. In the meantime, if you’re interested in the experience of moving to Scandinavia from the UK, check out the Small Differences podcast I’ve started doing with my colleague Knut Melvær, where we get our language and culture nerd on every week. And at time of posting, our latest episode is all about language :)