Language class lessons

The standard sterile classroom environment-fluorescent lights, pale yellow paint on cinder block walls, a blackboard-emphasized the drudgery ahead for learning a language. It was also January, the darkest part of the year, the rainiest part of the year, when I began Norwegian class in Folkeuniversitetet in the Bergen city center on the southwest coast of Norway.

I’d taken language classes before, but never as an immigrant. To be fair, I was in Scandinavia. I didn’t have to learn Norwegian. English seems to be an unofficial official language of Norway. I was also working in an international biology lab at the University of Bergen where the common language was English. 

My Norwegian book was as dry as any other beginning language book. When you know zero words, when even the word “no” is different, the motivating factor in those first pages, the no-way-around-it hours of memorization, is the fantastical prospect of one day understanding a conversation over the phone with a stranger or being romanced by a native in their mother tongue. 

There are two official versions of Norwegian, Bokmål and Nynorsk, and a dialect for every island, every fjord. My Norwegian teacher said, “The class is a starting point.” 

No language teacher had ever described their class that way to me. The Italian I learned in my class in San Francisco is the Italian I use on the streets of Roma or the small town of Carovigno. I still thought Norwegian might be easier for me. The sentence structure is closer to English than the romance languages I had studied. In Norwegian, I learned to say “I am hungry” rather than “I have hunger.” Or “I like chocolate” rather than “chocolate pleases me.” 

Some of the words are nearly the same in English and Norwegian. The meaning has just migrated a bit. “Å smitte” means to infect in Norwegian, while smitten in English could be considered a specific type of infection. 

Norwegian grammar is simple relative to romance languages-only one verb conjugation and only one set of objects after verbs and prepositions. Although as for any language, misused prepositions can transform the meaning of a sentence.

I finally decided my teacher meant that there is a difference between the written language and the spoken language. Like a Scot speaking to an American, I could read what he might write, but I might have a harder time understanding when he spoke. 

So the entertainment value of a beginning language class depends on the people in it. In my Italian class in the USA, I met people representing a broad spectrum of professional careers distinct from my own in science-artists, musicians, architects, lawyers, and city workers. In Norway, I found myself surrounded by people of the world.

Most students in my classes were from Europe. A Russian woman who had just given birth to “en-eggede” (identical) twins. An English man working for an oil company who was engaged to a Norwegian woman. A Ukrainian woman making more money as a nurse in Norway than as the physician she trained to be in her own country. Young Polish women who were au pairs.  

The au pairs advanced faster than the rest of us. Their main day-to-day audience was made up of children, and our beginning vocabulary consisted of the very words they needed to perform their job. “Eat. Brush your teeth. Time for bed.” In fact, one of my strategies to learn the language was to sit by the pool in summer and listen to parents repeat commands to their children.

The oil man often complained that translations into English didn’t make sense. The teacher said, “There is no reason. Language just is. Memorize it.”

Norwegian words began to roll off our tongues.

The teacher asked us one evening, “What do you put on your bread?” 

After we used up the usual options, one woman said, “Stamps. I put stamps on my bread for breakfast.” 

I became braver at initiating conversation with some of my Norwegian colleagues from the lab. They gave me detailed descriptions one snowy evening when I asked, “What do you do before breakfast?” 

It was humbling. Norwegian class was another reminder I’d left everything I knew, my country, my friends, my family, my career trajectory. 

Scrambling up my life left me open to try anything. And I did, which I realized was the point of being there. I tried hiking, camping, snowboarding, rakfisk, akevit, heartbreak. “Norskkurs” had turned into a crash course in life.

Norway was where I discovered I loved snowboarding and hot dogs grilled on a single-use grill (engangsgrill) after a hike, but not cross country skiing or mountain climbing. It also was the place where I discovered I really was an American. I had always felt ethnic growing up in the Midwest as the girl with the dark Sicilian features, who loves artichokes. I confessed my epiphany to an Italian and a Frenchman one night. Maybe I should have predicted it living among Europeans, but whatever transplanting myself into another country did, it had done it to them too.

Moving to Norway brought into my conscience what was so routine I never thought about it in the USA. I saw the government for what it was, taxing the residents so much, becoming a rock around their necks. I looked back at the USA and thought, it isn’t much different, and we are asking for more of it. A shared border with Russia emphasized the delicate balance between free market societies and authoritarian regimes. The real fears of the average western European. 

A German friend told me what he thought of his country’s new policy of shutting down Germany’s nuclear reactors a few months after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. 

 “I don’t like it because it means Germany will be more dependent on Russian oil.”

After 2016, when the media began calling the American president Putin’s puppet, I knew they had it wrong. And when the war in Ukraine began in 2022, I thought back to my German friend, who had the premonition of the risk of putting his country’s energy dependence in the hands of an unreliable source. 

All I had to do was go to a language class. All I had to do was listen to the logic of a common man.

I never became fluent in Norwegian, even after seven years. But a few hours before I left the country for good, the woman helping me close an account over the phone said, “Your Norwegian is great! I can understand everything you’re saying.”

Or maybe that’s what I thought she said.


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