Planning to learn Norwegian? Here are some common things to watch out for as a native English speaker learning Norwegian.
‘Is Norwegian an easy language to learn?’ is a question I’m often asked. I have no clear-cut answer.
There are differences in how challenging it is for people to learn additional languages, but this relates to a myriad of factors like motivation, aptitude, age and learning environment, and to linguistic biography rather than linguistic complexity.
Rather than asking ‘is it difficult?’, you might ask ‘how similar is the target language to a language I already know?’
German, as an example, is often referred to as a ‘complicated language’ to learn – but it was a lot easier for me, a native Norwegian speaker, to wrap my head around German than Arabic.
Read more: The Languages of Northern Europe
To a native Somali or Farsi speaker, however, things might look entirely different. As with most interesting questions, a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer is inadequate. Shall we settle for ‘it depends’, and take it from there?
As a Norwegian instructor in an adult classroom, I have taught Norwegian to learners with a myriad of first languages; among them many English native speakers. Here are some things you guys get for free, and a few you seem to struggle with.
Freebies in Norwegian for native English speakers
English and Norwegian are both Germanic languages, which means they are relatively similar. Not as similar as Norwegian and Danish, sure, but infinitely more similar than Norwegian and Vietnamese. That’s a good start.
Add to that, many native English speakers learning Norwegian find themselves in private sector classrooms, where English is often used as a support language in teaching. That means some of the parallels drawn may be easier for you guys to understand than for your non-native English classmate.
In terms of structure and grammar, Norwegian and English are both so-called SVO languages, meaning the ‘default’ syntax is subject – verb – object. Jeg liker kaffe / I like coffee.
We also share a similar verb system, and Norwegian is blissfully free from conjugating compared to English. When you keep track of I say but he says, we simply say sier; jeg, du, han, vi, dere (I, you, he, you plural) sier.
The influence of English on Norwegian
Lastly, Norwegian is littered with English import words. I often say as a joke that ‘if you don’t know the Norwegian word for whatever you want to say, you can always try to use the English equivalent and ‘Norwegify’ the pronunciation.’ Lunch – lunsj. A gamer – en gamer. To join – å joine.
In fact, the rate of anglicization currently seen in Norwegian has caused enough concern to be discussed on national televised news as well as in papers, academic magazines and on a popular weekly debate show.
Not only words, but also grammar structures and language domains are affected, indicates recent research by Associate Professor Anne Mette Sunde of Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Where English speakers struggle with learning Norwegian
Anglicization aside, learning Norwegian is still considered useful to integrate in Norwegian society.
There are several issues that almost everyone struggles with when learning Norwegian. Pronunciation, of course, and the use of reflexive possessive pronouns (sin, sitt, sine) are two examples.
However, other things seem to trip up native English learners in particular. Here are a few things to consider as a native English student of the Norwegian language.
Lack of vocabulary to discuss formal grammar
I hesitate to generalize, but comparatively speaking, native English speakers are more often learning Norwegian as their first adult additional language. The rest of us have already learned English as an additional language to some degree.
This often means you have not been forced to externalize grammar as an adult, and need to re-learn basic terms like verb, noun, adjective and subordinate clause. This website is a good place to start.
The Norwegian V2 rule
The V2 rule means that in a descriptive main clause, the finite verb in present simple or past simple must remain in place number two of the sentence syntax. Here are some examples. The finite verb (place number 2) is marked in bold, while place number 1 is marked in red:
Jeg bor i Norge / I live in Norway.
I fjor bodde jeg i Oman / Last year, I lived in Oman.
Da jeg flyttet til Norge, var jeg ensom / When I moved to Norway, I was lonely.
Note that ‘place number 1’ is not the same as ‘word number 1’. In the Norwegian sentences, the finite verb is in place number 2 regardless of what fills place number 1, which means the placement of the subject (marked in italics) is flexible.
This doesn’t happen in English, and it is a challenge to wrap your head around – but stick with it, it gets easier with practice!
Linguistic false friends, words that are the same in two languages by sound of spelling (yippi!), but have different meanings (ooops…)
You’d think there weren’t too many of these, perhaps especially given the aforementioned anglicization but alas, there are. Here are a few examples of words whose spelling is identical, but pronunciation and meaning are different:
|English||Norwegian||Meaning of Norwegian word|
|gift||gift||poison / married (yes, really)|
False friends such as these often lead learners to jump to conclusions, thinking Han er travel means he is travelling, while it actually means he is busy.
False friends, in linguistics as in life, means you need to examine the context more closely to understand what’s going on.
High frequency expressions where English has one and Norwegian has two or more options.
I will write the text tomorrow. It will rain later this afternoon. Straightforward expressions, right? Not quite… Norwegian, confusingly, has two expressions to cover the same meaning.
Read more: How to Learn Norwegian Fluently
Jeg skal skrive teksten i morgen – I will write the text tomorrow. Jeg skal is used to describe something that will happen some time in the future. The event is intentional or planned, or you can control the outcome.
Det kommer til å regne i morgen – It will rain tomorrow. Det kommer til å is used to describe something that will happen sometime in the future. It is not intentional or planned, or you cannot control the outcome.
Similarly, ‘I think' grammar can be complicated: ‘I think' translates jeg synes or jeg tror in Norwegian. You can go ahead and add I mean to the first, and I believe to the second.
Jeg synes brunost smaker godt – I think brown cheese tastes nice – expresses your personal opinion. There is no objective right or wrong.
Jeg tror det kommer til å regne i morgen – I think it will rain tomorrow, on the other hand, is a belief. We use jeg tror about statements that can be verified/falsified, and about the future.
The lack of -ing verbs in Norwegian
In English, you differentiate between something that happens now – I am writing a text which I hope you like – and something that happens regularly – I write texts every day because that’s my job – by using present continuous and present simple respectively.
This is not the case in Norwegian. We use the same verb tense, presens (present simple) to express both contexts.
Jeg skriver en tekst som jeg håper du liker (I am writing a text which I hope you like), and Jeg skriver tekster hver dag fordi det er jobben min (I write texts every day because that’s my job).
English native speakers often produce sentences like Jeg er snakker norsk hver dag (I am speak Norwegian every day) on their path to learning this difference; but I have yet to meet someone who didn’t work this out before graduating from elementary level classes.
Resources for learning Norwegian
There you are; some freebies, some challenges. If you’re still on the fence about learning Norwegian, there are some great free online resources available to help you along:
- How to Learn Norwegian: All Life in Norway's articles on learning Norwegian
- NTNU (Norwegian University of Science and Technology) offers the online course Norwegian on the Web and the pronunciation tool CALST
- University of Oslo offers a free beginners MOOC at Future Learn
- Kirsti McDonald, author of several Norwegian as an additional language grammar- and instruction books, offers Exploring Norwegian Grammar online with open access