The Challenge of Learning Norwegian

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Please in Norwegian

In my previous article, I explained that learning Norwegian was one of my first challenges when I moved to Stavanger in Norway, from Ecuador in South America.

How did it start?

Because I was lacking the main tool required (the local language) to work in my field (I have a Masters degree in Communication), I started by taking intensive Norwegian classes every day.

Further down the line I started working with children in order to practise the basic level of Norwegian I had by that stage.

Once I reached an intermediate level of the language and while working at a hotel, a guest asked me for an iron and I thought she wanted knitting needles to knit!

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

I just thought “I know Norwegians are really into knitting, but how can they expect us to have knitting needles at a hotel?”

Lost in translation!

These 3 big challenges will explain a bit better my previous example that saw me confusing ironing with knitting (“å stryke” versus “å strikke”)

1) Programming your mind to pronounce vowels differently to what you are used to if you speak a Latin language is one challenge. The letter “å” is pronounced /o/ – as in or, “o” is actually pronounced /u/ – which is not easy to describe, “u” is pronounced /ü/ – as in the last part of “you” … and finally that “y” is not pronounced like “y” – as in the first part of “you”.[D2]

2) Another challenge is learning to pronounce a word with a single consonant different to one with double consonant. Not doing it can mean that you’re asking for a file or row – spelled “rekke” instead of shrimp – spelled “reke”.

3) The third challenge is that there are three additional vowels in the Norwegian alphabet: å, æ and ø that require some repetition and a lot of practice in order to learn their pronunciation and also to know how to recognise them when used in a sentence.

To sum it up, the lady had to mime ironing and I had to mime knitting… well, after all, non- verbal communication accounts for a large percentage of all communication.

Time to name another challenge.

4) Bokmål vs Nynorsk – The two official languages in Norway.

On one hand we have Bokmål, the Norwegian version of the Danish language, with its origin in the 16th century when the Danes occupied Norway. On the other hand we have Nynorsk (new Norwegian) which is actually made up of different dialects from the pre-Danish period. Norway is a long country that, due to its geography of fjords, mountains and valleys, translates into an array of different regions located far apart and each one with its own dialect.

Can you imagine a country with 2 official languages and who knows how many different dialects? Well, it just makes learning Norwegian even more interesting.

5) Another challenge that is not as common but still exists is that most Nordic words are made up of two or three words. One example of this can be the word mattilsynet, which seems to be made up of three different words: mat – til – synet. When you translate them literally they mean ‘food – for the – sight’. Well, it turns out that it actually means Food Safety Authority and is made up of two words: Mat – tilsynet.

6) It is of course common to learn by association. In my case I could recall easier words that were similar to those I had learned before.

Example – the word free, which is “gratis” in both Spanish and Norwegian – the word restaurant is pronounced exactly as in French and there are some common words with English that keep their meaning and pronunciation in Norwegian. The problem is when they don’t.

Example. – the word “sky”, which as well as being pronounced differently is not ‘sky’ but ‘cloud’ in Norwegian. A second example.- the word “bad”, spelled exactly the same is not “bad” but “bathroom” in Norwegian.

These are just some of the main challenges that you should be aware of in order to avoid communication problems.

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

My top tips for learning Norwegian

  • Accept that you will be taking baby steps at first; start by writing down and memorising basic words or sentences
  • Listen to Norwegian radio stations, as it will get you used to listening to local dialects
  • For starters, watch movies and read books or comics in Norwegian, things that you like. Start with simple things like Disney films because the vocabulary is easier
  • As you progress, watch TV series in English with subtitles in Norwegian and pay attention to them, you will catch many new words and expressions that are used in everyday life
  • Talk to as many people as you can (it is often easier to begin with children), and if you are comfortable with it let them know that you want to be corrected by them in order to improveDo you have some tips to add, or have you experienced something similar to this while learning Norwegian?

About Carmen Cristina Pettersen Carpio

Originally from Ecuador, Carmen Cristina is now settled in Norway and works for the tourist organisation Region Stavanger. She writes for Life in Norway about adjusting to the Norwegian lifestyle, and runs her own blog all about Ecuador.

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6 thoughts on “The Challenge of Learning Norwegian”

  1. I still can’t string sentences together, but my comprehension is improving! I’m fortunate to have Germanic roots in my home language (Afrikaans), so that helps a bit.

  2. What a great article, Carmen!
    I for one am working hard to try to study in Norway in the next couple of years and use any resource I can get to study the language (resources are almost impossible to find here). I made a friend from Stavanger, Norway last year and went to visit them and their family in Stavanger this past summer. It was really difficult to understand (what we collectively called) “the Stavanger dialect”, as well as the two different dialects her parents spoke. It helped me to watch videos of other dialects to get used to them – the first time my friend spoke to me I understood nothing – now it’s hard for me NOT to say “ikkje” instead of “ikke” and “jeg” instead of “eg”, etc!

    One thing I did to improve my spoken Norwegian: I would take a book or an article that had an audio version and read it out loud. Then I would then listen to the audio recording, and read it again once it was over. I also paused films or TV shows I was reading so I could repeat what someone said until I could say it. Of course my friend helped me in Skype conversations a lot, and nothing could come close to the help she gave me with the language!

    From my experience, Norwegians are very helpful and more than willing to talk slower or repeat something if you tell them you’re learning Norwegian, or just start out speaking to them in Norwegian. Nearly everyone I met told me how great it was that anyone would try to learn Norwegian. It can be frustrating at first to feel like you can’t make yourself understood, but it definitely gets better! 🙂


  3. Yes Kacey;

    You are right, dialects are a funny thing. Oslo has the proper Bokmål that we learn at “school” but otherwise you find lots of different dialects that make it very challenging.

    I like you strategy to improving your spoken Norwegian! nothing better than repeating words as they are pronounced by a native to get the pronunciation right!

  4. Great piece. I am trying to teach myself Norwegian without class or the benefit of a cultural immersion. I have been wanting to take the next step, as you suggested with watching movies-reading kids books-etc, and I wanted to start listening to shows/movies/radio/podcasts. I also want to start reading, but I know I need kids books to start with (Tried newspapers but I would spend more time translating words at this point). Do you have any links or resources you could share with me to find these items? Youtube seems to be a tough place to find things norwegian (except how to speak the language) and radio or kids books even tougher to locate in the United States. Thanks.


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