Learning Norwegian, learning language

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Heidi Håvan Grosch
Sparbu, Norway

I was at a conference recently in Trondheim on multilingualism, and had the pleasure of hearing Norwegian linguist Anne Dahl from NTNU give a presentation on language. She assured us that speaking a mixture of your native language and your foreign language (for example English and Norwegian) is okay and not a mark of failure in one language or the other. She told me that over the past twenty years ideas about speaking like a native have shifted since more than half of the world’s population speaks more than one language. “The goal of language learning,” Dahl says, “should be to be able to use the new language for whatever purpose you need it for; only rarely does that mean that you have to be able to pass for a native speaker. Communication is key.”

Thinking about my own struggles learning Norwegian as an adult, I asked her when you became too old to learn a foreign language. “Learning a language certainly becomes more difficult with age, but the good news is that there is no age limit to language learning.”

How about speaking with a foreign (American) accent and the mistakes we make when using a foreign language? Do those things mark us as “not quite good enough”? Again Dahl steps in with reassurances. “As we get older we may also notice that learning the pronunciation of a new language becomes more difficult, partly because of subtle changes in our hearing. However, it is important to remember that a native-like accent in a second language is only necessary in one situation, and this is if you are planning to become a spy! Speaking with a foreign accent is usually an advantage rather than a disadvantage because it signals that you are in fact a foreigner and can’t be expected to know all the things that the natives do, both in terms of language and culture.”

There are many Norwegians who fear the infiltration of English words into the vocabulary of children and teens, so I asked Dahl for her opinion on this as well. “As a linguist I worry very little about changes in a language; they happen all the time and always will, and language change is in fact a characteristic of a healthy, living language.” She goes on to say that because Norwegian has such close contact with English, one language is bound to affect the other. She uses English as an example. “English changed dramatically in the Middle Ages because of massive influence from other languages, but these changes certainly cannot have made English a weaker language.” In fact, it is one of the most commonly spoken languages in the world today.

Another fear Norwegians have is that young people will forget how to pronounce certain Norwegians speech sounds, for example the “kj” sound in the word “kjære” (dear) and the “skj” sound in the word “skjære” (cut); to my American ear they sound the same. Those Norwegians fear that two words sounding the same will be confusing, but Dahl points to the English example of “dear” and “deer;” both words sound the same but we understand things in context. And let it be known that the blending of speech sounds is not English’s fault. “There is evidence that the change actually started in dialects in western Norway, in the Bergen area,” Dahl points out. “The ‘kj’ sound is relatively rare across languages in the world, and such sounds tend to disappear naturally.”

So go ahead and take that Norwegian class, even if you are retired. According to Dahl, “research actually seems to indicate that the use of more than one language on a regular basis may delay signs of dementia—and this does not depend on the additional language being perfect. Language learning can be seen as very effective mental gymnastics, keeping your mind sharp as you age!” It is never too late.

This article is a part of Heidi Håvan Grosch’s column Rønningen Ramblings, which appears a couple times a month in the Norwegian American Weekly.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 16, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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