Taming foreign words on their own turf

On the path towards dominating a language, one often finds more than a few challenges. These will ultimately bring you forward because once you’ve overcome them, you will be geared to go at higher speeds. It is not without pain, especially when you come out of class and have to deal with uncertainty for every other sentence you say. You find yourself before an audience that from your perspective seems to have some sort of special power which you are not yet worthy of. Nevertheless, the boldness to stand before them is your special power and no matter how embarrassing things get, you can always appeal toyour very own super powers! I sometimes forget this.

For example, when I’m in an awkward situation. I’m always a little embarrassed when I meet someone just outside the toilet, right there in front of the mirror. You feel like you shouldn’t be there and you just got caught. This is why I always try to get out when I hear no-one on the other side. I try to wash my hands as quickly as possible and I just leave without drying them. Skipping human contact at that point is the only thing that occupies my mind. I just want out, and can’t even put 2 and 2 together. Let alone speak Norwegian!

That is why the other day, when a colleague came out in perfect synch with me, I went for the quick evasive “hi” as I rushed out. Unfortunately, she stepped on my tail. She was explaining something, to which I said yes immediately (if it’s important it will get back to me) and then she got a phone call. It completely destabilized both of us, she said “2 seconds” which I thought was directed to me, so I took it as my cue and left abruptly. I heard her speaking behind me but one of the wonderful things about not fully dominating a language is that you can choose when to understand what people are saying. This is particularly handy in the bus, when the lady next to you is determined to convince her friend to join her at her next Zumba class.

I was not so fortunate in this case, because it was the worst timing for choosing “not to understand”. All the way from the bathroom to my desk, my colleague had been speaking to ME, not on the phone. Well, speaking to my back. I became aware of it as I reached my desk and she said “OK?” …Ooops.

Another peachy moment was a couple of years ago in a meeting. My entire team was there, together with Top Vikingment, and a few special guests. The discussion was in Norwegian and I could follow the overall sense of the conversation but no matter how much I frowned my eye brows, the core of the argumentation kept sliding away as soon as I had caught up with it. Suddenly someone said a sentence and it all became clear! To make things even better, I had an OPINION about it! So I started translating it in my head, putting together something decent that I would feel confident saying. My heart was beating so hard I could feel my temples move; I kept repeating the sentence in my head while I waited for the perfect opening to throw it into the discussion in an elegant way. I was so excited about my idea, I expected it to result in silence and – why not? – maybe even some nodding.  The words finally came out of my mouth. I was waiting for fireworks, when someone said “Yes, that’s exactly what X just said.”Fan-yeepee-tastic.

These episodes remind me how the process of learning a language can sometimes be…. interesting, and funny. Mostly for others! Here are some tips that have helped me boost my learning curve:

  1. Most Norwegians don’t correct you. Not because they don’t dare or care, it’s because as long as you manage to convey the core message, it doesn’t matter to them whether you used the infinitive form, or the determined form or 2 consonants instead of one. I think this is quite pragmatic and also very nice 🙂 However, finding or asking someone to correct you with benevolence will be most helpful.
  2. Being proactive is not enough. You have to proactively force it into your brain! The more you speak the better you’ll speak. That’s what practice is all about, but not all of us live in a context where we can practice daily. I did not speak Norwegian at home. It was too big a step to take in my couple after so much change. Instead, what helped me improve was taking a part-time job where I was forced to speak Norwegian on a daily basis. I felt like I was climbing my way up to fluency 2 steps at a time! Of course I felt ignorant at times, but it was the price to pay to expand my knowledge.
  3. Find yourself a Norwegian Sparring Partner. In my case, it was – and still is – my mother-in-law. Every weekend we spend at her house is a language seminar for me. In case becoming your mother-in-law’s BFF sounds more like something you would wish for your worst enemy, just look for someone else.
  4. Get a Translation App on your smart phone. I use Google because I am familiar with it but it doesn’t hurt to check for new ones with better ratings once in a while.
  5. Remember that learning a language is a “step by step” process. By this I mean that when you go up a level – or ‘Step’ – you will stay there for a while, thinking you are stuck without making progress. In reality there is progress. It is inevitable as your ears and eyes pick up the language everywhere you go. Before you know it you will be up another level.

Keep it up! You have come so far, haven’t you? They say learning a new language is easier when you already speak 2 or 3; they say Norwegian is easier to learn when you speak English; they say it’s not a complicated language because the grammar is pretty straight forward and there aren’t so many “exceptions”. Well, people can say many things (including me) but it all boils down to 2 things: your motivation and your need. If you don’t need it, your motivation will definitely take a hit, but will not necessarily be crushed if you are determined and if you do it for the right reasons. There is so much more to gain from learning Norwegian than just getting a job. I resolutely encourage you to continue or get started!

3 Responses to Taming foreign words on their own turf

  1. gaëlle March 4, 2012 at 22:38 #

    Thank you for encouraging us! Vi skal lykke!!! 🙂

  2. gaëlle March 4, 2012 at 22:39 #

    Please correct me if I’m wrong 😉

  3. Gisele March 7, 2012 at 13:31 #

    hehehe! Super Gaëlle! Du er på vei 😉