© Alice Baguet

Is Norwegian Hard to Learn?

A Frog in the Fjord: One Year in Norway Book

Despite what the internet tells you, no language can be learned in 3 days. Norwegian is no exception.

1-Learning Norwegian is easier depending on which other languages you speak fluently.

If you speak English it will be a bit hard, but not too hard. I am a native French speaker and speak English as my second language. At the beginning I felt like English and Norwegian were very far apart, but the more I speak Norwegian, the closer I find it to English. Now that I speak Norwegian fluently I see English words under a new light and English to me has never been as interesting as it is now. Thursday is actually Thor’s day. Friday is Freya’s day. Grimsby (city in England) is the city of Grim, the Ugly. The modern English spoken today has in fact roots in Old Norse. More than that, the linguist from the University of Oslo Jan Terje Faarlund even claims that Old English died out and that English is in fact a Scandinavian language. What is for sure is that there were many contacts between Vikings and England from the 9th century from when the Vikings invaded and raided Northern and Eastern England. If you want to know more, watch a show called Vikings on Netlfix. Another interesting show is Beforeigners, shot in Norway and mixing different times of the Scandinavian history and languages.

If you speak Dutch or German it will be quite easy to learn Norwegian. The reason is that Norwegian is a North Germanic language, and its grammar can be seen as a simplified version of German grammar. Dutch language is very close in written form to Norwegian, but the spoken languages are very different. If you speak Swedish or Danish you will end up speaking something called Svorsk or Dorsk – a mix of Norwegian and another Scandinavian language which Norwegians understand. If your native language is a Roman language such as Italian, French or Spanish, then it will be a little harder. Norwegian is not a latin language and the language’s structure is different. However there are many latin words in Norwegian too, and even French words like sjåfør (chauffeur), sjampinjong (champignon) and more.

If your language is Japanese or Vietnamese then it will be very tough. I read somewhere that Vietnamese was the world’s language which is the farthest away from Norwegian in terms of pronunciation especially. But it is not impossible if put in the time and energy.

2- Be thankful you aren’t learning Danish.

No matter how difficult it may be, if you really want to, you can learn it. It is about studying, putting time and energy into it, and talking to people who have Norwegian as their native language. Think positive, you could have needed to learn Danish! And that, believe me, is about 10 times more difficult than learning Norwegian. Although those languages are very similar in their written form (at least the bokmål, one of the two official languages of Norway), Danish is like a less articulate, less clear, less pronounceable, and less understandable version of Norwegian. In Norwegian they pronounce everything and speak quite slowly, whereas Danes eat half of the consonants and all of the vowels, making you believe they said one word when they said 2 full sentences. Norwegians say of Danes that they speak Norwegian with a potato in their mouth. Potatoes are wonderful, they can really be used to everything, even to speak a language.

3- Dealing with the many Norwegian dialects. 

Norway has as many dialects as it has valleys and mountains. Check here on How to differentiate Norwegian dialects. It does not really matter which dialect you learn, just be consistent and learn the pronunciation which sounds right to a Norwegian ear. Oslo people will tell you they don’t have a dialect, because they tend to believe they speak “clean” Norwegian. But in facts it seems everyone speaks with dialect words at a stronger or lower level.

Take classes to learn the pronunciation as well as the basic grammatical rules, and go out into the world. If you live in Bergen you might want to pronounce sharp “r” rather than rolling ones like the folks in Oslo. Note that contrary to what many foreigners believe, nynorsk is not a Norwegian dialect. It is not an oral form of Norwegian either. Nynorsk and bokmål are the two official written languages of Norway. You can pass exams in either language, get official documents from the state in both languages, and newspapers and television have a quota of news in each language too.

4- Learn the culture behind the language.

A language is not just words. There is a culture or even several Norwegian cultures behind this language. You will also need to learn those cultural codes and how they are translated into the language. For example, saying “takk for maten” after you’ve eaten and not “bon appétit” before you start eating. That people who say a few words that mean a lot. Get the hint, because most Norwegians will not complain and open their hearts. Those few words “Det går ikke så bra” (I am not doing so well) are already a big sign the person was opening their heart to you. “Den var ikke så verst” (It was not that bad) can mean something was very good. Janteloven tells us not to brag, not to make anyone or anything stand out whether it is for the best or for the worse. That is just one cultural aspect, there are so many more you’ll need to learn. My new book is coming out soon in the Spring of 2021 and I explain that how I managed to understand all those cultural codes, adopt them and even learn Norwegian. Register here to read the 40 first pages for free!

5- Be versatile in your ways of learning and have fun.

There are many ways to learn a language. Some will go to 1000 hours of class, some will watch television like NRK (Norwegian broadcasting channel), because they can listen to the language and read the subtitles. Others will listen to the radio, others will go to bars and chat with locals while they are drunk. Others will read plays, Ibsen for example. I learned with children books, which is a good way to get conversational vocabulary and understand stories with simple sentence structures. A combination of all those things is probably a good idea.

6- Learning a language is uncomfortable. Once you accept this fact, you will learn faster.

Learning a language has to be uncomfortable, because you need to be out of your comfort zone to make those connections needed to learn a language. Suddenly, despite being an adult, and maybe someone with a higher education, you find yourself not knowing how to say simple words like “table” or “chair”. Suddenly you aren’t able to express nuanced ideas, your sentences are very short and native speakers raise their eyebrows because you say things in a strange way.

Don’t be ashamed. You are going to sound like an idiot in the beginning and make mistakes, but it does not matter. People will pretend they understand what you are saying when they don’t (look out for the blank eyes).  You will pretend you understand people when you actually don’t. Just accept it all. It will get better. And note that according to my experience, the more uncomfortable the beginning of learning a language, the faster one learns. Throw yourself in the pool instead of dipping a finger in there everyday for a year. Just try to speak, learn from your mistakes and your brain will do the rest. You will adapt. And you are lucky, Norwegians are very forgiving of whichever rough treatment you will give their language in the beginning. They are also used to listening to people speaking with different accents because of the variety of dialects. And they are quite happy when a foreigner learns their language, even a little. You basically have zero excuses not to learn Norwegian now!


4 thoughts on “Is Norwegian Hard to Learn?

  1. Jeg har mye glede av å lese det du skriver. Men fransk har jeg aldri lært, tross flere tapre forsøk.

  2. I come from Australia. When I was 16 I spent a year in Norway as an exchange student. By the end of the year, I could speak Norwegian fluently although not perfectly. I enjoyed learning Norwegian, and because I was living with host families I felt I learnt Norwegian like a child as I could practice with the family members.
    A few years ago, now in my fifties, I decided to go back to university to learn German and I studied 3 years of German there. After the second year, I attended a 6 week language school in Germany. For some reason I thought that because I learnt 2 years of German prior to coming to Germany, I would be able to come off the plane and speak fluent German! And maybe even if I couldn’t speak it straight away, I was sure I’d be able to speak fluently by the end of the 6 week language school!Boy, was I in for a shock! I had real trouble trying to remember all the German vocabulary and to make matters worse, I kept getting Norwegian words mixed up with German. 😮
    I personally found Norwegian a lot easier to learn than German. I don‘t know if it was because I was a lot younger when I learnt Norwegian, or because I was in Norway for a lot longer length of time. Also, when I was in Norway I wasn‘t embarrassed about making mistakes in Norwegian. I was younger, and willing to take more risks. In Germany, I was painfully aware of my shortcomings in speaking German and I felt worse because I was older and I felt somehow because I was older, I should somehow be better at speaking German than the younger students, which wasn‘t the case.
    Anyway, just my experiences in learning two foreign languages.

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