Love of language

Photo: Nedra Hoffman. Håkon Vinje (left) teaches Norwegian classes at the Norwegian Language Institute of New York.A conversation with Håkon Vinje, dean and co-founder of the Norwegian

Language Institute in New York

Christy Olsen Field

Seattle, Wash.

Why learn Norwegian? It’s a question asked by Norwegians in Norway, to people who want to know the value of a language spoken by only 5 million people. For many, it is the opportunity to connect with Norwegian relatives; for some, to know the language of their significant others; and there are some who want to learn Norwegian for professional reasons or simply for a love of the country.

As a Norwegian-American who learned Norwegian in college, I wanted to find out how community-based language programs taught Norwegian. The thriving program at the Norwegian Language Institute in New York City is a success story in Norwegian language instruction, and I spoke with Håkon Vinje, the dean and co-founder of the program, to learn about their approach.

In 2008, Vinje was asked to take over the language classes at the Norwegian Seamen’s Church in Manhattan. With extensive experience in education and linguistics on both sides of the Atlantic, Vinje saw improvements that could enhance the curriculum and develop into a full language program. The result? Vinje and his dedicated Board of Directors– David Morse (chairman), Emre Balik, Lynn Ellefsen and Geir Jaegersen – have turned the Norwegian Language Institute into one of the largest Norwegian language programs in the U.S., with classes for kids and adults.

Christy Olsen Field: What is the history of the Norwegian Language

Institute (NLI)?

Håkon Vinje: The idea of “Norwegian Language Institute” came to be in the fall of 2009. Originally, we wanted to call it “Norwegian Institute,” but we were warned against that, because someone said we would drown in questions about food, trips and genealogy.

Norwegian language courses have existed for a long time in New YorkCity, and have been conducted by Columbia and NYU, as well as the Seamen’s Church. The latter has run such courses for more than 40 years.

However, it was always as an afterthought. Courses would run if there were enough students or if they happened to have someone to run them, and I asked if the Seamen’s Church would be willing to do an experiment by allowing us to implement an independent language course program, and then we could split the proceeds.

We had immediate success. Enrollment jumped from eight or nine students per year to 20, to 35, and now the yearly enrollment is over 70. We are the number one Norwegian program on the East Coast.

COF: What are some of the reasons people come to NLI?

HV: I believe this particular aspect must have changed a lot over the last two decades…

Norway is perhaps the richest country in the world, and in the wake of the financial crisis, this has not gone unnoticed. Norway is an interesting destination for many young and established professionals with a booming job market, a generous social support system, high standard of living, and general public safety. It was 2009 that more American citizens moved to Norway than Norwegians to the U.S. – the first year in history.

This in itself generated a market for NLI, since the language requirements for residency in Norway has been tightened over the last decade, and in an increasingly specialized and high-tech job market, language proficiency has become currency.

The students normally fall into three categories:

The number one category is students who have a Norwegian spouse or significant other. They are usually the one who have a practical reason to learn the language. We always joke about their first dinner with the in-laws, where everybody would speak English for 10 minutes, and then switch and leave the poor non-Norwegian speaker would be left to fend for him- or herself for the next two hours. This is also the category with the highest retention rate, since they face the prospect of one day moving to and living in Norway.

The second category is Americans of Norwegian descent. They are – surprisingly – not as numerous as you would think. One of the key reasons for establishing NLI was that we felt there was a need for a Norwegian language presence on the East Coast. So much Norwegian-themed and Norwegian heritage activities happened in English, but in the end – no matter what piece of clothing one might wear or what food one puts on the table – nothing make you more Norwegian than speaking the language.

The third, and smaller category, is the one where students would like to gain a knowledge of the language for professional reasons, or simply because they have an interested in country.

COF: What is the structure of NLI’s curriculum?

HV: We used to have a more college-like approach, but since the students do not take these courses for credits, we were free to experiment, and landed on a model we call “Norwegian in 1-2-3.”

In the current course program, Norwegian 1 runs over one semester as an introductory course; Norwegian 2 runs over two semesters as a real foundation course; and Norwegian 3 runs over 3 semesters to expand and develop the students’ proficiency and preparedness to enter a non-English speaking society. All this in two calendar years! We more or less follow the Norwegian language training programs when it comes to the number of hours and curriculum. We also have an advanced class we call “Norsk for viderekommende.” This class is not as much instruction as it is perfecting the language skills.

We often receive inquiries regarding an online program, and it is something we consider, but we are not there yet. Also, we are considering expanding into New Jersey and Connecticut, but in order to do so, we need to know that we have both teachers and a market to make it worthwhile.

COF: In your opinion, what is the most challenging part of learning Norwegian?

HV: Applying it! It is hard to apply and practice your skills in a setting where almost no one else speaks it! If you were in Norway, you would be immersed in the language – from talking to people, overhearing them, on TV, going to the store and reading the headlines. Since we do not have that opportunity here, it takes a lot of work.

Despite all claims for the wonders of “Teach yourself” books and online courses (such as Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone and Berlitz), they cannot substitute for instructional teaching. Language acquisition takes time and work. Speaking a language is not parroting phrases from a book; it is the understanding andcomprehension of a different set of variables for communication. It is hard, but then again – speaking more than one language is one of the most remarkable skills we can possess.

The Norwegian Language Institute offers four courses for three semesters each year, and the cost is $470 per quarter, including all materials. For children aged six to 17 years old, Den Norske Skolen i New York offers a variety of classes on Saturdays. For more information about theNorwegian Language Institute, visit, email or call Håkon Vinje at (718) 541-4507.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 22, 2013 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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