On teaching a less common language


By Valerie Borey

It is Spring 2011. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak is visiting the third graders at a Spanish Dual Immersion School. He reads a picture book on hopes and dreams for the future, and then asks the third graders, “What are your hopes and dreams? What do you want to be?” Kids raise their hands excitedly, “I want to be a veterinarian!” “A police officer!” He turns to eight year-old Olava, “And what about you?” She considers the question, then answers, “I want to be a Norwegian teacher.” Eight-year-old Olava, you see, already knows something that only a small segment of the population knows: teaching Norwegian is one of the more satisfying kinds of work out there.

Olava knows this because she’s my kid and she’s there for a lot of the behind-the- scenes action.  Over her lifetime, I’ve taught Norwegian to all ages, from three-year-olds to 90-somethings. Teaching a less commonly taught language has its challenges, but also some very distinct rewards.

Yesterday, for instance, we spent an hour at the grocery store looking for foods that Roald Amundsen might have eaten on his expedition to the South Pole. Tomorrow, I’ll be at the airport, filming a scene for my Pre-K class, in which I pretend to pick up a dozen Norwegian exchange students (actually stuffed animals) from their Oslo flight. Because there aren’t a lot of pre-packaged teaching materials available out there, especially for our young language learners, it’s up to me to pay attention to what works in the classroom and go from there.

Teaching Norwegian is not just about teaching the language. It’s about teaching the culture as well, and about building or reinforcing connections between students and what it is that interests them about learning Norwegian. I tell people I am a Norwegian teacher, but I am also a matchmaker, a genealogist, an archaeologist, a historian, a musicologist, a head-hunter, and a theatre enthusiast. I get to work with autotelic learners who care about learning Norwegian. They’re intensely curious and self-motivated, relentlessly pursuing some interest or another. My colleagues are the same. If it weren’t for the internet, most of us would have hallways lined with stacks of Dagbladet and VG, not to mention the menus we’ve stolen from Norwegian restaurants.

At language education conferences, the Spanish, French, and German teachers dominate the room. I invariably find myself at the side, mixed in with the Dakota, Yucatec Maya, Polish, and Tagalog teachers. “Are you a heritage language?” we ask each other, and then set to comparing notes. What if there’s no established written language tradition? What if all the native speakers are dying out? It gives me perspective on the work I do, and maybe sharing my own experiences can help another less commonly taught language to survive. I hope so.

These kinds of hopes and dreams seed the future of language diversity. Charlemagne once said, “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” What better dream than to help people gain purchase on theirs?  

Valerie Borey has a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology and an M.A. in the Social Sciences. She works with all-ages Norwegian immersion programming at Concordia Language Villages, from Barnehage (Pre-K and elementary levels), to youth and family programs at Skogfjorden. She has also taught Norwegian at Mindekirken and through Community Education in Minneapolis.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 24, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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