Keith Brooks – Learning Norwegian in Kentucky

Speaking Norwegian

I recently had the pleasure of hosting a blog buddy of mine. Language learner and publisher of Pardon my Norwegian, Keith was on the Trondheim leg of a 10-day tour of Norway, which also took in Oslo and Bergen.

Considering Norway is a country where many English speakers don't feel the need to learn the local language, it may surprise you to hear that Keith has chosen to learn Norwegian for fun, all the way from his home in Louisville, Kentucky, in the USA.

After a fun day in Trondheim including a visit to Rockheim, I sat down with Keith to grill him about his opinions on Norway, language learning, and motivation for learning Norwegian.

Keith in Bergen
Keith in Bergen (photo by Øyvind Jank)

What is your language learning background?
I’ve always loved languages! I used to be proficient in Spanish and I learned Japanese in high school. I know a little Turkish and bits and pieces of other languages, but not to the level of my Spanish and Norwegian. I started a language blog called 37 Languages, where I examined languages closely: their orthography, history, regional use, and variations. I wanted to study a new language, so I shortlisted 6 of them – Swedish, Turkish, Albanian, Croatian, Portuguese and Norwegian – to look at in more detail.

So, on to my burning question. Why Norwegian!?

Norwegian was really the language that inspired the blog in the first place. I’d read online that Norwegian is supposedly the easiest language for native English speakers to learn so that intruiged me. Norwegian stood out but I also really like Turkish. They're both unusual for an American to learn. Norwegian is similar to English being north Germanic, and being mutually intelligible, to a degree, with Swedish and Danish means I can understand those too.

I was torn between the two, because Turkish is so unique, with a lot of interesting features like vowel harmony and it tacks on particles at the end of words to create different meanings. But because I like Scandinavian culture and music, I felt more connected to Norwegian. Norway is a place I would love to live. In my opinion it's a very progressive and open country.

I feel Norwegians have adopted a very relaxed and easy going way of life and tend to put a lot of value in self care and family. They don't seem to be as stressed with their jobs and livelihoods as what I've witnessed in the USA. It seems to be ingrained in society that you should take time for yourself. This was a big motivator for me.

How do you learn a language away from the country where its spoken?

For the first six months I used a book/CD set called Teach Yourself Norwegian, which follows the life of an English girl, Sue, who moves to Norway over the course of 16 chapters. It focuses on her big life moments such as getting a job, getting a boyfriend, etc. So I did that for the first six months, then after that it was a hodgepodge of all sorts – reading news as much as possible, specifically from NRK, listening to Dagsrevyen and Dagsnytt every day, that kind of thing. I also found another book called Colloquial Norwegian, practised using the language on Twitter and speaking with friends on Skype.

I try to integrate the language as much as possible into my daily life, such as by changing my keyboard to Norwegian, the language of my phone, and even the language of my Facebook and email settings. I restricted watching American TV and produced audio letters on Pardon my Norwegian. This was helpful to get people to correct me. Really what has helped me the most is getting over my lack of confidence and just going for it.

How has the trip been so far?

It’s been so great to actually use the language here, because the first time I came to Norway I had only just started learning it. But now I feel at the airport or even just walking down the street it feels very natural. Whenever I’ve been in a store or asking for directions I can’t help but use Norwegian, it just comes out without having to think about it. Most of the Norwegian people I speak to they automatically respond in Norwegian not English, and they're surprised when I tell them I've never lived in Norway and don't have any relatives here.

It’s been surreal really, because its been so long since I've been here and to get the opporutnity to speak the language properly. At home my friends look at me weird if I slip into Norwegian and now it’s like, oh, its not weird anymore, theres people actualy responding in Norwegian!

I’m pretty satisfied this time with leaving Oslo and seeing Bergen and Trondheim. I fell in love with Bergen, and although Trondheim is smaller, it's very charming!

Have you picked up on dialects?

Yes. I would say I enjoyed Bergensk the most, it seems easier to pick up and I love the way they integrate older Norwegian words into daily use. It sounds very laid back and relaxed. Trøndersk has been a little difficult to judge, because people seem to revert to a more standard Oslo dialect when speaking to me. Understanding spoken Norwegian has definitely been my biggest challenge, but I've made rapid progress in the week since I've been here. Even if I miss some of the words I understand the context a lot quicker.

How was the Oslo to Bergen railway?

Utrolig! I’d read your blog so I thought I knew what to expect, but no. It went from “this is nice” to “we dont have this in Kentucky”. Then it stepped up to “woah, what is this I’m seeing!?” and then it was like “WOW!”

I was taking photos literally every two minutes along the route, and my head was pretty much glued to the window.

What's on the agenda for next time you come to Norway?

I would like to go skiing as I’ve never been before…

Yes, definitely come in the wintertime. It might change your mind about Norway!

Yeah, maybe! I would like to see the fjords, and visit Northern Norway, particularly Tromsø and Alta as I have a friend there. I would really like to experience that part of the country.

Tell me about your social group back in Kentucky, “Louisville Speaks Scandinavian”

I started the group after being curious to meet other people learning Norwegian, Swedish and Danish in Louisville. I knew of only one other person learning a Scandinavian language, and they encouraged me to reach out to an International professionals organisation in Louisville. There were quite a few members from Scandinavia and a lot of them were keen to come along. I was surprised with the number of people who came: a couple of Danes, a Norwegian, and a local girl learning Swedish, amongst others. I’m really surprised how much interest there is in Scandinavia, and the group continues to grow.

Any tips for language learners?

I would say the most important thing is to immerse yourself in the language as much as possible. If you miss even a couple of days it will really affect your progress. You have to embarrass yourself to get better.

Online language communities are great to find other learners or native speakers, because you do feel alone when learning a smaller language. But you just have to keep going and motivate yourself. You have to make the time! For me it was fun, and it has to be fun otherwise you are not going to progress.

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About the Author: David Nikel

Originally from the UK, David now lives in Trondheim and was the original founder of Life in Norway back in 2011. He now works as a freelance writer for technology companies in Scandinavia.

5 Comments

  1. David, this interview was KJEMPEBRA!!! I had as much fun reading it as I did when you interviewed me. Thank you so much for doing this, and for everything of course! There’s a post linking to it on Pardon My Norwegian now, and I’ve posted about it in other places too. 🙂

  2. Ååå, så kjempefint å høre at det er mer folk i verden som meg!! Jeg er Australsk, og lært meg selv norsk også med Colloquial Norwegian, og Teach Yourself (med Sue 🙂 ) .Har vært i norge tre ganger, den siste i år i juli og så midnattsolen i Bødo og Lofoten. Sååå utrolig og vakkert. Bra job med bloggen og fb vegg. Elsker alt norsk! MVH fra W Aust.

  3. What a fascinating story. I’m a Yank visiting Norway this summer. I am trying to immerse myself in the language. Lovely story. My Nordic roots are strong — yet I don’t speak the language. Impressive Keith — and thank you for story David. Bergen is my focus, but will be back for more posts. ”Pardon my Norwegian.” Cute, catchy title. I added a sub to your regular expat link.

  4. Yes, many Norwegians speak English. It does not hurt to learn a little Norwegian though. Try the “English-Norwegian Phrasebook” to at least learn the basic sounds and sentences you might use every day.

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