Norwegian Chess: Sjakkmatt

A snowy mountain in Norway.

Photo: Kristen Walter
Rotsethornet mountain in Volda. Here the author took many steps forward in learning Norwegian.

Kristen Walter
Flekkefjord, Norway

Much like when I play Sudoku, I unfortunately rarely complete language learning to its fullest extent—but Norwegian has been different. Whether it was Spanish, Latin, Portuguese, Arabic, or now Norwegian, they were all puzzles or games to sort out. At its core, I believe that learning a language is like a game of chess where you learn the pieces—your limitations and capabilities. In this game, the journey of playing is all about steps and strategies. A part of these puzzles is of course being internationally minded. That certainly helped when my boyfriend, Petter, and I decided to move in together. This meant me moving from the U.S. to Norway. I made that official trip across the pond in October 2016. I’ll try to explain my experience with Norwegian as honestly as I can.

Now I must admit, I am not fluent in Norwegian, but I can tell you a bit about the journey towards becoming fluent. A common mentality at every stage of learning Norwegian has been a burning curiosity and desire to communicate. First things first, I wanted to know the cuss words. I suppose that was similar to someone playing chess for the first time and wanting to move their pawn but not really sure where or why. Though those words were secretly funny to me, they did not help me communicate with anyone. I needed another move.

Before I moved to Norway, I went to what was familiar to me in regard to learning languages. I made flash cards galore from children’s word books. And I do mean galore. Also, every night before bed, I would complete a lesson in Mondly (a language app) on my phone. Mondly allowed me to record my voice and play back to practice phrases. And wow, that was pretty hilarious. I could hear I had a long way to go. For whatever reason, saying “hyggelig” (nice) was very difficult for me. At this point in the game, I assumed the most difficult part of learning Norwegian was going to be the silent g’s and silent d’s, let alone the æ, å, and ø’s. Luckily, there was a wonderfully hilarious video by Kollektivet, “ÆØÅ (Size Matters),” that I still sing today to practice my awkward Norwegian vowels.

But at the end of the day, practicing at this level was still very solo. I was not comfortable with the vulnerability of speaking Norwegian to my Norwegian boyfriend. I felt a lot of things, but most of all, I was afraid to be found out. As if it were any surprise that I was foreign to someone who has known me for so long. As if there were any shame in having an accent or struggling to say the right words in the right grammatical order. I had to get comfortable being vulnerable to constructive feedback, but that was a move in the game that took a while to be able to play. Turns out, that was precisely the right move to make.

It is funny how time works in regard to learning. In retrospect, you can organize the journey in steps, but during the journey it is not always easy to see the steps. I assumed pronunciation and memory were going to be my final challenge. If I could just remember and be able to say the Norwegian words for my English words, then I would be good to go. Right? Well… that was sort of right. What I came to understand during my conversations in another language was that the words are only part of the conversation. There is a whole culture behind words that gives them their meaning. I considered myself semi-funny in my use of sarcasm in English. But when I said the same thing in Norwegian, it did not always go as planned. The game had changed. Now I needed to understand the language in a new light to be able to be myself within it. It is a strange sensation to feel as though you have lost part of yourself just because you are speaking another language. It is something I did not expect.

Thankfully, due to months of using Migra­norsk, an online Norwegian class that follows a soap-opera-like storyline, I was able to see what it was like for the characters to vocalize themselves during all types of scenarios. Here, I saw how it was to be in situations where someone was angry, sad, excited, etc. Words are just words, but humans and their culture made the words make sense. By branching out into this style of learning, I reclaimed that sense of self in this new life I was living. It was an even bigger help that I had the most amazing support team, consisting of my boyfriend, Petter; his family; and the amazing Norwegian friends I have made along the way. Norwegians are an honest and welcoming group of people. I would not have expected it when I began this game, but playing it has been both a linguistic journey and an experience of a lifetime.

• Music video by Kollektivet, “ÆØÅ (Size Matters)”, Youtube:

• Online Norwegian learning resource:

Kristen Walter, originally from Troy, Ohio, moved to Norway in October 2016 and is currently studying for a masters in Ås, Norway. She is also a vegan activist, artist, and a self-proclaimed chef in her own kitchen.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 20, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.