5 Things English Speakers Struggle With When Learning Norwegian

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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.

Native English speaker learning Norwegian

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.

Learn Norwegian speech

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.

You’re on home turf when learning the Norwegian alphabet, comparatively speaking. Æ,Ø,Å can throw the best of us and some vowel sounds are particularly tricky. Still, it could be trickier.

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.

Learn Norwegian Now: Norwegian Class 101 / The Mystery of Nils

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!

False friends

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:

EnglishNorwegianMeaning of Norwegian word
giftgiftpoison / 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).

Learn Norwegian Now: Norwegian Class 101 / The Mystery of Nils

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:

About Tone Delin Indrelid

Tone Indrelid is an anthropologist, interculturalist and language instructor who works in the intersection of language and culture. She has 15 years as a high mobility expat in India, Oman, Syria and on Borneo behind her, and uses her experience to improve communication by improving understanding. You can connect with her on Linkedin or through her website, www.toneindrelid.com.

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4 thoughts on “5 Things English Speakers Struggle With When Learning Norwegian”

  1. This and Life in Norway look interesting but need to know if it is part of Norwegian Class 101 as I am sick and tired of their daily sale advertisements.

  2. When folks ask, I tell them that learning a second language is hard. But as far as Norwegian, its one of the easier languages to learn. I’m still learning and practicing every day, but more travel to Norway would sure help my confidence!

  3. Very helpful. After years of living in China and Taiwan and struggling to learn Mandarin, I returned to Canada and chose to learn a language with similarities to English. What a breeze in comparison to Mandarin! The one area I’ve found difficult though is pronunciation. Apart from the Norwegian ø, u, and å, it has been difficult learning words with long strings of letters and syllables, many of them dropped, eaten, or ignored. With Mandarin I got used to strictly one syllable words with all letters (in pinyin) pronounced. In Norwegian I’m always worried about pronouncing too many of the letters. However, learners of English have the same problem, so I get it. Overall, Norwegian is a really fun language to learn. Someday I may even go there and actually speak it!


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