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.
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.