“You know they all speak English over there?” This was the response I was often got when I told British friends I was learning Norwegian. They were right. Norwegians generally speak excellent English. Jesus, on many language exchange sites Norwegian speakers offer English tuition, because they’re so good at it. With native speakers numbering only five million-ish and no huge demand for the language, it’s not the most accessible one you can choose.
That doesn’t mean you can’t learn it. It’s been my first self-guided foray into learning a foreign language and I’m not Benny Lewis, nor am I fluent yet, but here’s five things I wish I’d known when I started out a couple of years ago:
Get creative early on
Having learned languages at school, I figured books and audio materials were what I’d need to get a decent grasp. Starting out with Pimsleur’s largely audio course was great! You listen and repeat. You hear conversations, you respond to questions. Language poured into my ears and anchored steadfastly in my brain. Then Pimsleur ran out of Norwegian. From nice doses of aurally administered Norwegian, I fretted about where to go next.
I figured I’d get a text book, but on a trip to London’s biggest bookstore I was like a kid with a burst balloon as I viewed the paltry Norwegian section on the language shelves. You see, I wanted my hand held. I wanted spoon-fed, manageable chunks of language.
Looking back, I could have sought other sources of learning material earlier (YouTube, the entire internet, films, music etc.). Even if it felt beyond my skills at the time, the terror of being on my own when I’d exhausted learning materials could have been less daunting.
Would a tutor have been helpful? Yes, I’ll come to that. Becoming a creative, independent learner sooner would have been no bad thing.
Grammar is your buddy. Or at least an acquaintance you don’t hate
Yeah, I've dropped the G-bomb here, but fuck it. I wasn't excited about grammar, but if you’re on your own learning a language, it’s not your mortal enemy. For example, when you speak with native speakers, start asking,
“Hey, Bård, why did you use ‘den’ instead of ‘det’?” And Bård might not know exactly. It’s just what’s done. And he’ll ask me,
“Hey, Heidi, why did you use ‘whom’ instead of ‘who’?” And I might not know exactly. It’s just what’s done.
Generally, we use our languages like cars; they do stuff for us, but we have little idea how they go together or work. A grammar book can be your Haynes manual here. Even better is a tutor who can explain stuff like, well, an informed human.
That tutor does exist, but you might have to search
It was a bloody nightmare finding a tutor. For a while I felt quite despondent. Paid tutors were booked up, didn't respond or were over my £25 an hour budget. On language exchange sites, I had little luck. In the “got, got, want” of language trading, there were not a lot of Norwegian “wants” for my English.
Finally, I hit upon language treasure trove, Italki. There’s a host of tutors who will impart their knowledge for very reasonable prices. For the first time, I was able to use the language on actual living Norwegians.
Point is, even if you’re interested in a less-commonly learned language, the internet makes that possible. I think this is improving all the time, thanks to sites like Italki. Also, don’t limit yourself to language sites; one of my best tutors was a lady I found via Gumtree.
Don’t limit yourself to learning from native speakers
Starting out, I was convinced I should speak Norwegian with native speakers — they’d know the language best, have authentic accents and so forth. After a while, a woman also learning Norwegian asked if I wanted conversation practice together. I braced myself for a stilted Skype convo. What followed was one of the most rewarding conversations I’d ever had! She knew no English, I knew no Serbian (her native tongue). With a combined nine months’ Norwegian between us, we chatted for over two hours (with some hand gestures and lots of giggling). It was mind-blowing to communicate so effectively so soon.
And another thing! Non-native speakers are brilliant at explaining stuff native speakers don’t realise you’re struggling with. The former have often fallen into the same pitfalls and can tell you how to climb out or even avoid the pitfalls in the first place. Moreover, if something’s pissing you off or frustrating you, it’s easier to vent at a non-native, because a) it feels damned rude to diss someone’s mother tongue and b) the non-native speaker can probably sympathise.
You can learn quickly
Sure, there are people who learn a language in months or even a week! I figured because it took me seven years to get reach A-level German, I’d be looking at least three before I could feel comfortable with Norwegian. It was much faster. I've not sat exams and there’s no objective measure of my leaning, but going on how confident and comfortable I was using the language… It took just a year to reach what felt like a similar level.
I reckon there’s two main reasons for that. Firstly, it’s amazing what you can do when you enjoy it. An hour a day spent learning was a joy, not a chore. Secondly, the internet has made it so easy to learn a language. Don’t know a word? Google it. Need some help? It’s out there.
So, to summarise. Next time I learn a language, I’ll take a flexible approach. I’ll talk to whoever I can. I’ll have limitless expectations on what I can learn. Most of all, I’ll just keep enjoying it.