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I’m not dumb. I’m just not Norwegian

Norway

There is no better way to humble yourself – should you want to – than by moving to a new country and learning a new language as an adult.

And I am being kind when I say, “humble yourself”. What I really mean is “feel like a massive, bumbling, tongue-tied, dummy”.

To up the ante, I suggest moving to a country where the population are seemingly (and sometimes obviously) incredibly well-educated and intelligent. This is a brilliant combination. Place the linguistic-dummy in an intellectual environment and watch her go! The Romans may have had The Colosseum for their entertainment, but the Norwegians have me.

A duty to learn Norwegian

As a Canadian married to a Norwegian, I have a “familieinnvandringsoppholdstillatelse” (family residence permit – the Norwegians like to squish stuff into one word). As such, it is my “right and duty” to complete 550 hours of Norwegian classes, paid for by the state, and/or pass an exam in Norwegian proficiency. These are very recent changes to the rules.

Prior to 2012 you only needed 250 hours and prior to 2005 there was no language requirement at all. The changes are a response to the huge influx of immigrants into Norway in the recent years. The government are tying to better integrate us into the population – which I am sure is no easy task. In my class alone, there are 22 of us from 22 different countries (which, by the way, is the most amazing experience ).

Along with the language requirements, and as part of the integration process, we are obliged to take 50 hours of “samfunnskunnskap” (social/cultural studies). This must be completed before I can apply for permanent residency in 3 years. I haven’t done the 50 hours yet but I will keep you posted. I’ve heard it involves knowing national holidays and all the names of the royal family (for real). I’m just looking to parlay this into an invitation to the palace (Slottet) and cocktails on King Harald’s yacht. We’ll see how that goes.

Learning a new language in 3 years shouldn’t be such a massive challenge, but the difficulty is that almost everyone here (especially in Oslo) speaks English. I try to practice Norwegian with my husband but his English is perfect (in fact he likes to challenge me on what certain English words mean – and in turn, I like to remind him he can’t always pronounce “w”s properly – it’s all I’ve got) and so we revert back to English without even realizing. Plus, it’s probably awkward for him to feel like he’s married to a 5 year old. Our conversations are something like this:

“Hvordan går det? Bra. Er du sulten? Ja. Vil du ha en kjeks med ost? Greit.”

“How are you? Good. Are you hungry? Yes. Would you like a cracker with cheese? Okay.”

I am instantly transformed from a relatively intelligent woman to a below-average, slightly boring toddler. I remember actually saying to someone once “you know when I speak English, I’m really quite interesting”. And when you need that kind of disclaimer, you know you’re not doing well.

One sentence at a time

When I head into a new situation (perhaps an appointment with one of the various government agencies an expat comes to know), I practice my opening line repeatedly. This is often done out-loud, walking down the street – another challenge to blending in as a local, I assure you. By the time I get to my destination, the Norwegian phrase rolls off my tongue like an actor in one of Henrik Ibsen’s plays – confidence exuding from every foreign-language-pore. The recipient of such splendour assumes I speak perfect Norwegian and responds in kind, rapidly.

Oh oh.

I listen attentively praying that I will recognize enough words to make sense of the response. Mostly, though, it doesn’t work that way. I am left with no idea what has been said to me. I stand staring like a fool, in silence. (I imagine the other person looking at me – my eyes wide, my cheeks red, my mouth hanging open with the slightest bit of drool forming as I struggle to glean some meaning of what has been said). Mostly, I have to gather myself and respond with the same old standby:

“Unnskyld. Jeg snakker bare litt norsk. Kan vi snakke engelsk?”

“I'm sorry. I only speak a little Norwegian. Can we speak English?”

“Yes. Of course”, they always respond. (They almost seem happy about it. I’ve been told many times that Norwegians love speaking English). They then seamlessly, and without the slightest effort, shift into perfect English and I shift into shame, frustration and dismay. I’m convinced I will never improve. The upside is we are now speaking my first language so I am no longer 5 years old and can structure complex sentences. Small miracles.

So, language difficulties firmly in place, we move on to the next hurdle. How do you tackle sounding like a drooling toddler/dummy when you are surrounded by intelligent people who value education above all else (except cross country skiing ) and who aren’t all that predisposed to small talk?

For some context, education in Norway, including college and university costs 350NOK (about $60) per semester. So, let’s just say it’s free. This might partly be the reason for a highly educated population. Even as a foreign resident, I can attend Oslo University for free. I have an American friend here (North Americans have to band together – we meet up and off-loud our hours of pent-up chats) and she is doing her PhD – but not just for free, folks. She is getting paid. PAID!

“The philosophy is that higher education should be available to all those who qualify, and not be dependent on access to funding in the form of your parents’ income” – Dr. Karin Pittman, an expat Canadian, and professor at the University of Bergen

An alternative career path

I’m pretty sure the excitement I feel about free university tuition scares my husband a little. I mean, really, why find a job when I can get my Masters in “Viking and Medieval Norse Studies”? Well, one reason might be because the hamburger I just ate cost $30, but I digress…

It is one thing to engage in small talk in a new language: I could happily discuss my favourite pizza toppings (everyone in Norway swears by their personal pizza dough recipe – and the first words I learnt were “skinke og ost” – ham and cheese). I could even chat about the events of my day or my take on the current weather. But it never seems to go that way. First of all, the conversation often starts with, “Are you going to work? What did you study?”. What did I study!?

I graduated from university over 20 years ago. I barely remember that I even went. But in Norway, this still holds weight. It says something about who you are, in a way that I don’t think it necessarily does in North America. In response, I have to launch into a long explanation of having studied Political Science.. but then working in marketing… and then owning a Pilates studio… and then moving to France… but now I’m a writer… blah blah blah… and by then the Norwegian is so horrified and disgusted by my lack of career path that there is no recovery. And my vocabulary has long since run out.

When someone from home hears the diverse and twisty-turny career path I have taken, it may sound interesting, but not necessarily so unusual. In Norway, it is met with some degree of confusion and reservation. What might be seen as an “entrepreneurial spirit” in Canada, may here be seen as a bit strange and perhaps even flighty or lacking in direction. Norwegians tend to take a more linear approach.

Of course in North America, I can wax on about how I “feel” and what my “needs” are, and about spending years “finding myself” and discovering my “true path”. If I say things like that here, I can actually feel a collective eye-roll of the entire Nordic population. Or as my husband would say: “Oh North America. So many feelings”.

The dreaded quiz book

The Norwegian interest in education and knowledge is highlighted in one simple example: their love for The Quiz. Almost every bar and pub in Oslo (and other small towns) has a quiz night. People meet up with friends to drink beer and challenge other teams on everything from world history, to football, to music and geography. It is intimidating. All the national, regional and local newspapers have a quiz on their back pages – every day. And, to make matters worse, most Norwegians have quiz books at home – dozens standing menacingly on their bookshelves, waiting to eat me alive.

The first time I went to my husband’s family cabin or “hytte”, the dreaded quiz book made it’s appearance right after dinner. Not only was I trying to speak Norwegian (and also understand the west coast dialect – there are hundreds of dialects in Norway) but I was being presented with The Evening Quiz Session.

“Yes!”, said all the family in delight (in as much as restrained Norwegians can express delight). “Quiz time!”.

May I also point out that a Norwegian hytte night often involves drinks – several drinks. So now I am speaking Norwegian, knee deep in “Akevitt”, and I’ll likely have to answer questions about Spain’s GDP, or the length of the Nile or the name of the goalkeeper of Manchester United.

My husband’s dad, a delightfully kind man, is settled in his chair, glasses perched, quiz book open. He couldn’t be happier. I brace myself.

“Okay, Jill”, he says excitedly (in Norwegian). “This is for you! There is a whole category on Canada! Great!”

No, guys. It’s not great. It’s not even close to great. It's terrible. It's actually the worst thing that could possibly ever happen.

And so it begins: “What is Canada’s 2nd largest export to the USA?”

(What?! Oh shit, I think. Shit. Shit. Shit. What the effing eff? Who the hell would know this?! NOBODY I KNOW WOULD KNOW THIS!)

The whole family is looking at me eagerly. I feel my mouth start to hang open, and the first drop of drool forming. I look at my brother-in-law, in panic. Not only does he likely know the answer, but he could probably name the top 10 exports and he's never even been to Canada. And he's had at least 10 beers. And he’s 14 years younger than me. I take a sip of wine, I feel my face burning. I have no idea. Dummy is freaking out.

“Umm, I'm not sure”, I whisper, almost inaudibly. “Can I have a different question?”.

This truly is the Colosseum, and Claudius (my formerly sweet father-in-law) is holding the quiz book. The spectators will decide if I am to be spared.

Claudius continues, smiling (but I’m convinced he’s silently wondering why his son married such a simpleton).

Next question: “Which Canadian singer was born in Charlemagne, Quebec in 1968?”

“CELINE DIOOOOOOOOOON!” I screech, almost falling off my chair and scaring the dog from his fireside stupor. There’s no stopping me now. I’ve got this. I’m in my element. Emotions are running high and I channel every bit of it into my finest rendition of Celine’s greatest hit…

“Yooooou’re here, there’s noooothing I fear, and I know that my heart will go oooooon… We’ll stay foreeeeeeever this way… you are safe in my heart and my heart will go oooooooon and oooooooon…”

I'm up on my feet, one hand raised in a classic “Dion” fist, the other hand gripping the empty Akevitt bottle, now doubling as a mic. The spectators can’t believe their eyes, they're leaning in for more…

Dummy's not a dummy anymore. She’s Canadian. And she's smart. And she'll entertain the hell out of this cabin Colosseum.

And the Norwegians are, dare I say it, impressed. Finally.


This post was first published on Jill's Norway Times blog.

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About the Author: Jill

Jill is a Canadian expat living in Oslo with her Norwegian husband. Born in South Africa and raised in Toronto, she now writes sporadic observations on Nordic life on her blog Norway Times.

31 Comments

  1. Brilliant Jill!

    As an expat in a similar situation I can thoroughly empathize! Except I used do a quiz night once a week back in Australia, so think I’ll survive here.

    1. Thanks Matt! I’m envious of your quiz skills. One day get I’ll get it 🙂 Thanks for reading! Feel free to subscribe to “Norway Times” if you want future posts. No pressure, of course 😉

      1. Excellent post Jill! I was “made in Norway but produced in the US” I spent my summers as a child in Norway visiting my grandparents but I never heard of quiz night. My dream is to move to Norway but my American husband wants no part of it. My family,husband included, are going to Norway again in August and I can’t wait. It will get easier for you. My grandmother taught me to read and write in Norwegian though my writing skills equal a 3rd graders skill. I can speak fluently and enjoy every chance I get.

        Don’t feel to bad about having multiple skills. I l ow a few Norwegians who have had several careers.

  2. A brilliant article – both witty and perceptive. The best I have read on being a foreigner/outsider in Norway, read by a foreigner/outsider in Norway! It’s good to know that we are not alone…I look forward to the next article, Jill 🙂

    1. Thanks so much Kris! We are indeed not alone 🙂 You can subscribe by email at “Norway Times” to get future articles… if you like 🙂

  3. Hi Jill
    Great article.
    All about living in a country whose language is alien to you.
    I went through a quite similar experience in the UK. One day I was very angry and could not express my feelings as I did not have the words for it.
    Back to France looking for batteries I was shown drums. I had forgotten the french word for batteries.
    The joys of expatriation
    Cheers Catherine

    1. Thanks Catherine! It can be so frustrating, and luckily we can l laugh at it. I remember going into a store in Mexico and asking in Spanish for a “comb” except I later found out I had asked for a “penis”. Whoops! Anyway, I left empty handed 🙂
      Go expats!

  4. Great article, and so “akkurat” 🙂

    Reading, (and smiling) at the part where you talk to someone, and pray that you can even remotely understand 1/3rd of the response, and then breathing a sigh of relief (amidst slight humiliation) when they happily switch to English.

    In my experience, there are 2 sides to this language “problem”, at least here in Trondheim. You have the social side of life in which you can speak English as much as you like, but when it comes to the job-market there is a brick wall scenario where speaking Norwegian is an absolute ‘must’ because without it, nobody wants to know.

    You will face a stack of “lykke til videre” responses to your job applications along with confirmation that the job has now been taken (if you are lucky) or often just no response at all.

    There is a vicious circle in that you need to speak Norsk to get a job, but in order to learn Norsk you need a job to pay for the course to learn Norsk. Sure, you can go to the Library and get a book, or even sit around a table with some others who are trying to learn, and play blind-leading-the -blind, but progress is devilishly slow and the cost of living is not sympathetic to your lack of Norsk.

    It used to really infuriate me that when it comes to the job market you have to pretend that nobody can speak or understand English – Sounds crazy, but in effect that’s exactly what is going on. But now, I just smile and accept it for what it is og snakk Norsk hele tiden. 🙂 somewhat begrudgingly. 😉

    1. Thanks David. And thanks for sharing your experiences. Very interesting, and somewhat daunting, to hear. 😉 I am not looking forward to the job search! Thanks for the insight and for reading 🙂

      1. I think your experience will (hopefully) be different to mine Jill. Being in the South is of more benefit for foreigners than it is up here, as English is more integral in the business community where you are, whereas up here in Trondheim this is the, dare I say it, pride capital of Norway, at least to those who are from here.

        The sense of rejection was immense and naturally that makes you feel a little resentful, but hey ho that’s life for ya.

        I hope your experience is a good one and I wish you the very best of luck.

        Don’t stop writing though, whatever happens. I supported myself doing pretty much that for a long time. 🙂

  5. I enjoyed your post and could absolutely identify.

    I’m American and moved to Norway 27 years ago with my Norwegian husband.

    I’ve been through it all!

    I do talk Norwegian but it took 6 years to learn! And of course there’s my accent…

    I really had to laugh at your quiz story. I found my self in a similar situation when my team was counting on me to answer the question, who was the 26th president of the US? Needless to say, I could not answer and was especially embarrassed when a Norwegian did answer (Roosevelt)!

    Hang in there and Good Luck!

    1. Hi Maggie! Thanks so much for sharing your story… YES… I can so relate! I hope you’ll enjoy my future posts. Thanks for reading 🙂

  6. Its very nicely described. I feel the same and we were talking about the exact same feeling with my non-norwegian friend not long ago.
    Good to know we’re not alone.
    Thanks for that 🙂

  7. Thanks for this Jill – enjoyed the part of the quiz. I am Swiss and currently in process to come over to Norway for Projects. I started learning Norwegian on my own and also work with a language teacher. Understanding written Norwegian is easier as there a lot of familiar words in Swiss and High German. Even when listening to spoken Norwegian I am detecting words who almost sound like swiss german.
    So how is your Norwegian in the meantime?

    1. Hi Latifa, thanks so much for reading! Yes, I know that German people I have met over here say it is quite easy to learn Norwegia – lucky! 😉 My Norwegian is getting better – slowly but surely. Good luck with your studies and your move 🙂

  8. Thank you for writing such a wonderful post. I’m moving to Norway next year (my boyfriend is Norwegian), and about to start working with a tutor to learn Norsk. Duolingo only gets me so far! Since I’m moving as a job-seeking skilled worker, the language aspect is going to weigh in heavily. I just hope my speaking and listening skills are up to par by then so I can pass the Bergentest.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Jennifer! Good luck with the Norwegian. I’m sure you’ll pick it up in no time. My skills have improved some since I wrote that article. 😉 I’ll have to do a follow up… I hope you enjoy my other articles too. I hope the tutoring and move go well.

  9. Brilliant article, Jill. I noticed most Norwegians cannot pronounce w or z. I cringe each time I hear “Darth Wader” and “seebra” or “ea-see”. Words with double o are automatically pronounced as u (eg. Evergood coffee is Evergud). Nevertheless having English as our mother tongue makes it easier to learn Norwegian as the grammar runs parallel. I’m Singaporean by the way, and had on many exasperating occasions, explained to people that Mandarin or Malay is not my first language!

    1. Thanks Christina! Yes, the w and z is quite funny. I do like to tease my husband about those. That being said, I can only imagine what it must sound like when I speak Norwegian… THAT is a big cringe! 😉 Thanks for reading and commenting. 🙂

  10. Takk I feel the same Céline est notre support! Dirent from Haslum Merci! We are not Dumm !!! Need Canadian friends soon! Nathalie

  11. Hi Jill, nice article. I am in the same situation with the language. The only thing is that things are not so nice in the north of Norway where I am. I started going to school to learn the language and we were being taught like 5 year old kids, not as adults. So I did not last more than a week in school. I am a 38 year old woman with a Master’s degree and it was not possible for me to tolerate teachers talking to me like I am stupid just because I do not speak the language. They put me in the same class with people that use arabic alphabets, so it was all day learning that B+A =BA…I could not stand that.
    People in the public agencies here can be quite racist and I had to snap back one one occasion to a gentleman that instead of being professional and doing his job, he chose to make assumptions and treat me with some sarcasm.
    The people here do not like to speak English at all. And they are not good at it either way. If I speak quick and use regular words instead of very easy ones they do not follow what I am saying.
    Most of the people here have only high school or some one or two year vocational training. I find it extremely insulting that they wanna treat me like I am the stupid one. I just do not speak the language.
    Everyone here is very racist, if you do not speak Norwegian you are an outcast. I am white with green eyes and I moved here only because I married someone from here, and I feel the pressure. I can only imagine how it feels to the African refugees that are trying to start new here.

  12. none of these language difficulties mean a thing you are human and you found your person. you have only a limited time to enjoy them so shuck off your miscommunication and realize why you are here for them in the first place . because you saw in them the chance for your heart to fell loved which is the best we can all hope for. you may not see it now but your time is indeed short and if you hope to leave a mark on this world past yourself. This is your best option

  13. Great article Jill.

    I am from Cape Town, South Africa and married to a Norwegian. Been up and down between Cape Town and Hønefoss the last two years and in the process of moving permanently. So yes, language school is waiting for me 😀

    A lot of Afrikaans words are almost similar to Norwegian but I can relate to the dummy feeling 😂

    Good luck & looking forward to your next article.

    Rose

  14. Hi Jill, I really enjoyed reading your article which brought back a lot of memories. I married my Norwegian husband in 1973 and moved to Oslo from England to make our home. That makes it 45 years this Autumn! I wasn’t going to stay either! To obtain a residency article back then, a visit to the local police station once a year was the only requirement which only took minutes. How times have changed.

    Good luck 😊

  15. Loved your article Jill! I’m Australian and will be living in Norway for 4 months this year. I’ve been trying to learn Some Norwegian here before I go. I’ve had visions of stunning people with my ability to say ‘I would like a glass of beer’ and then striking up a conversation. I came crashing down this weekend after visiting an old Norwegian friend here. I said a few words to him (he says my accent is good) and he excitedly let loose with a torrent of Norwegian! It’s all I could do to stammer ‘I speak a little Norwegian’! My mind went blank! He gleefully handed over a pile of Norwegian newspapers he’d saved and told me that was the way to learn!

  16. Kjære Jill 😉
    Waking up on a lovely Sunday morning and reading your article was far more than a treat! I loved it. I lived in Norway for one year as an exchange student from an organisation called “AFS”. I was lucky enough to live with a brilliant Norwegian host family which encouraged me not to give up in the learning process. I was a scared 17 years old girl who could only speak Latin Spanish and basically nothing of English nor Norsk. Imagine that 😆 but with the constant support and encouragement of both my Norwegian host parents and my Sandnes videregående skole lærere I managed to learn both languages.
    You just reminded me of the many times people asked me questions and giving them the wrong answers 😆 Thanks for writing such an amazing article. Keep writing VÆRSÅSNILL!!! Tusen takk 👌🏼

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