© Alice Baguet Illustration by www.alicebaguet.com

How to Pretend to be Fluent in Norwegian

© Alice Baguet Illustration by www.alicebaguet.com
© Alice Baguet
Illustration by http://www.alicebaguet.com

Becoming fluent in Norwegian is a long and bumpy path, full of “YEAAAHHHH I am so good at this” and “Oh my God I will never make it” moments. In the down moments, when you burst out laughing thinking THAT was a joke (sorry it wasn’t, say the eyes of your mystified colleagues), you will need some little things to keep you going. Small expressions or words that will automatically make you feel more fluent than you really are. Who doesn’t like to hear “Du er SÅ flink i norsk!” (you are so good in Norwegian!) when you perfectly know you aren’t?

This blogpost is inspired by a short article in The Oslo Eye. I made my own list of things that make me feel like I am more fluent in Norwegian. Hopefully it will be of some help for other immigrants like me who want to learn fun Norwegian things to say instead of grammar rules.

Before anything, you will need to master Norwegian pronunciation and melody. This will help you hide your lack of vocabulary. 30 words well-pronounced will make you appear more fluent than 500 Words pronounced so badly no one understands you even after repeating 3 times. Start by pronouncing all syllables distinctively without swallowing vowels like you would do in your native language. Norwegians (unless they come from Stavanger) take their time when they speak, which is quite immigrant-friendly if you think about it. Then for the melody, give a happy ending to everything you say, even though you are not happy when you say them. The first word I learnt was “Glasmagasinet”. I first said it in a flat way. “No, no” said my first Norwegian friend “it is GlasmagasiNET”. I repeated like her with a high peak happy end note at the end and sounded just like a native (well…so she said).

To hide the fact that you don’t understand what people say when they talk directly to you, you can learn small words/sentences that will make others believe that you understand. For example, you meet a person you know in the street. He or she is telling you in some obscure dialect that they are going on holidays to Greece/hiring Polish workers to re-do their bathroom or they are having another baby. Just answer “så spennENDE!” (ending with a happy and high tone is very important) when they are done telling their little story, with a smile. It means “so exciting!” and Norwegians use it a lot (you can also exchange it for “så hyggelig” although it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing). When someone appears to be trying to convince you of something or trying to get your approval you can also throw a few “ikke sant” here and there and it will also do the trick. “Ikke sant” is a strange bird that means something like “isn’t it” and that people over-use. Just do like them to appear local.

To show some kind of cultural integration you might want to publicly embrace the linguistic diversity of your host country. To do so, you can learn dialect words and/or swear words (or even swear words in dialects! Creativity is encouraged here). To learn swear words just hang out with people coming from Northern Norway. They will usually say swear words without anyone asking, and will be happy to teach you. It is their regional speciality as they have swearing competitions up there. For example my friend from Vesterålen taught me a song involving reindeers in shameful positions: “Kva du sei, Kva du mein, Har du p… mange rein” which I cannot fully write here because it is rude but you can look it up.
Also, asking your friends coming from the regions to teach you expressions or special pronunciation from their dialect is also a good idea. Most locals will be very surprised (and amused) that you know this or that word from some dialect spoken by 200 people in a lost valley. Be careful though, you might end up liking it and use “Ho” instead of “Hun” and “Dokker” instead of “Deres” all the time. And then snobbish Oslo people will refuse to answer your questions (yes it happened to me: “That is NOT Norwegian” he said).

Finally, as the Oslo Eye suggests; learning expressions that make you sound a bit more Norwegian is a good idea especially if you use them at the right moment in a conversation. They can involve pigs: sofagris (couch potato or literally “sofapig”), heldiggris (very lucky or literally “lucky pig”), svinkaldt (very cold), svin på skogen. But my personal favorite is to use old fashion expressions involving owls and alpacas. If someone isn’t how it should be just say there are “owls in the moss” (“Her er det ugler i mosen”). If you are surprised by someone, you can say “Du, store alpakka!” (“you big alpaca”). Yes, Norwegians are very much inspired by wild animals. And how would a foreigner know that one? By hanging out with 80+ year old people, which also happens to be a great way to learn Norwegian. Their English is usually quite poor and they have all the time in the world to listen to your broken Norwegian while young hips in parties will impatiently switch to English.

Of course to appear fluent in Norwegian you might have to make a real effort (still): learn real useful words (alpacas take you so far…) and work your way to it. When do you know you are close to being fluent? When you stop answering “ja” or “nei” to a question that required a full sentence; when no one bursts out laughing after reading your latest email in Norwegian where you wrote løppemarked instead of loppemarked for example (yes that also happened to me); when you stop looking at people with blank eyes when they speak at a normal pace. Then when you have overcome all these delicate situations where you always look like a moron, you can proudly call yourself a Norwegian speaker. And as a reward buy yourself a Marius genser or get one knitted for you by your new 80 year old friend from Northern Norway.

I still remember the first conversation I understood in this strange but also new and melodious language. I was at the gym and these two older ladies were discussing something. I took some extra time to put on my woolen underwear so that I could carefully listen to their conversation and understand it. “Hva spiser du til lunsj?” “Knekkebrød og makrell i tomat” “så spennENDE!”. Yeah I forgot to tell you. Like in every other language, becoming fluent in Norwegian will not prevent you from having to listen to very boring conversations.

This blogpost was chosen to be Freshly Pressed, as part of the best selection of the month by WordPress.com under the category Language.

A Frog in the Fjord: One Year in Norway Book

76 thoughts on “How to Pretend to be Fluent in Norwegian

  1. Great post!! I just wanted to inform you, that saying “ho” which is dialect, can be a bit rude if you talk bokmål. Or pronouncing it somewhere between ho and hu. For example if you say Hu derre dame der er ekkel”. saying Hu is more “right” then saying hun in this setting. So that might be the reason the man react negatively when you said ho

    1. Maybe. But my Norwegian wife once used her dialect word for “skole,” which she says “skule,” and an Oslo nurse didn’t understand her. My wife tried again before she just switched to bokmål. My wife, whose dialect has a fair bit of nynorsk and who speaks clearly, just doesn’t get understood by some Oslo folk.

  2. Det var da morsomt. Gurimalla! Jeg kjenner meg igjen fra denne tiden jeg kom til Norge og lærte språket.
    I live now in Canada but laughed my “a..” off when I read your blog today. Det var da kjempebra!

  3. This made me laugh my head off.. I found this blog through an article on osloby.no.. I have been looking for language resources online for some time now.. Have been trying to learn through audio files and books.

    So happy I’ll be able to add a few ikke sant here and there when I move to Oslo in August. Of course the minute I open my mouth over there, it will be one long Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhh….

  4. Du bør kan hende påpeike at ein del av leksjonane dine gjeld kun austlandsk. Det heiter ikkje “spennENDE” på vestlandet, heller “SPENNende” (på bokmål).

    Elles så hugsar eg godt kor dei lo av meg ein gong eg kom att frå byen (dvs. Bergen). Eg visste jo at ein ikkje uttalar “d” i jord og bord. Så då eg vart spurd kor eg hadde budd i byen, svara eg “på Horaheimen.” Sååå moro! Det går betre no.

    Artig bloggpost, takk.

  5. How much time passed from the day you had your first test until the moment you rewarded yourself with that marius sweater? 😉

    I’m learning by myself here in Canada and I get overly exited when I understand a word in a video, but I’m still mostly lost, everything else sounds like a paté of pretty fancy words!

    J’adore ton blog en passant, c’est super de te lire, continue!

  6. I try to find spoken podcasts on the NRK Radio app to hear Norwegian haha, trying to catch few words! But 99% of Norwegian radio programs are music, and… English music 🙁

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