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Speaking your language makes Norway feel like home, only better


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I am often asked why, out of all the places I could have gone to study abroad, I picked Norway. It was not because I felt some spiritual calling to the country. Nor was it because I had some life-long dream to go fjord exploring, or had some weird love of horrendously cold weather. In fact, I chose Norway for a reason so lazy it almost shames me. 

For many years, I had held a vague desire to study in a foreign country, but was always put off by the fact that in order to enjoy my time away and understand the classes, I would have to learn a second language. So you can imagine my delight when I first heard that in Norway, not only were the classes taught in English, but everyone —  the waitresses, the taxi drivers, the tourist guides  —  spoke it extremely well. 

There are plenty of things that could go wrong for me here. I could fall off one of the country’s severe mountain tops, catch pneumonia from the cold, or get stranded in some cabin under ten feet of snow. But it’s pretty unlikely I will ever be misunderstood. 

‘No one speaks English better than the Norwegians,’ boasted an article in Aftenposten, one of the country’s biggest newspapers, a couple of years back, before pointing out that they were referring to nations where English was not the native language. For an otherwise friendly and pleasant place, it is the only thing about Norway that is slightly intimidating: the extremely casual way in which residents can switch between the two languages.

This tends to make a visitor assume everyone here is smarter than they are, which, of course, is not true. But it is still quite embarrassing to think that people in this country have mastered two languages when they were half my age, when back home in Glasgow it wouldn’t be too difficult to find people twice my age who are still getting to grips with their first.

But for countries such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, they really have no choice. English, unlike Norwegian or Danish, is a truly global language. The governments of Scandinavia know that their country’s children must learn English, not just so holidays in America will be easier, but in order for them to have better chances in the international career market.

Yet French is taught in just about every school in Britain and despite the best efforts of our teachers, we have failed miserably to become a bilingual country. With Norway and its neighbours, however, they are not just taught English, but are brought up with it, be it from television and movies made in Britain and America, which are mostly subtitled, not dubbed.

I doubt many people living in Norway quite understand what an impressive thing it is to be an almost universally bilingual country, or how much more welcoming it makes the place for an English-only speaker such as myself. Knowing that you can easily talk to anyone here, even a stranger on the street, makes a visitor feel a lot less lonely and isolated than they might otherwise be.

Dan Elloway’s semi-serious book, A Xenophobes Guide to the Norwegians, points out something I noticed quite early on, that even if you try to speak Norwegian to a bus driver or supermarket till operator, they will speak back to you in English if they have realised you are a visitor. Helpful for a tourist, maybe, but not so much for someone trying to learn the language. 

I half-heartedly enrolled on a basic Norwegian course when I first arrived here, having apparently forgotten how terrible I was learning French at school. When the recurring nightmares about irregular verbs came back, I quickly dropped the class and focused on my other subjects instead. Despite picking up a few phrases, such as ‘ha dat’ for goodbye and ‘tusen takk’ for thanks, I will probably go home next summer knowing almost no Norwegian.

Would it be the same if I moved here permanently, something I am certainly thinking about doing? Sure, there are some downsides to this country —  acquiring alcohol, always a priority for a student, is not only expensive but quite difficult (shops refuse to sell it after a certain time in the evening), and I’m sure the depths of the winter will be harsh. But besides all that, Norway must be the most clean and picturesque country I have ever been to, and so far, I have only really seen Oslo. 

If my home country of Scotland wanted to learn from its neighbours, Norway would be the place to start. Meanwhile, I think if I decided to move here permanently I would pay the locals the compliment of learning how to speak to them in their own way.

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