Where learning language can change your life
Skogfjorden er mitt andre hjem
One of the best ways to learn a language is through immersion, living in a community where a foreign language is spoken all the time and where you can experience a different culture firsthand.
In the United States, this type of opportunity is relatively common for languages like Spanish or French, with elementary schools that have their own language immersion programs or summer camps dedicated to learning the language. But on the other hand, with a language like Norwegian, these experiences are few and far between. However, immersion in Norwegian language and culture is possible in northern Minnesota through Skogfjorden.
Skogfjorden is the Norwegian language village which is a part of the larger Concordia Language Villages (CLV), located in Bemidji, Minn. CLV offers programs for over a dozen languages, including Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, and Finnish.
I had the opportunity to speak with two individuals connected with Skogfjorden: Evelyn Galstad, Norwegian Language Summer Camp Program Leadership, senior counselor curriculum facilitator, and Ethan Bjelland, a 10-year villager, language teacher, and program leader. Evelyn also teaches Norwegian at Vesterheim, the National Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, and Ethan is director of communications at Norway House. Through my conversations with Evelyn and Ethan, I was able to learn what Skogfjorden is all about.
What programs does Skogfjorden have?
Skogfjorden offers many different programs for a range of age groups. The most well-known programs are their youth residential programs. These can vary in length from single-day camps to two- to four- week stays in the village.
The videregåendeskole (literally “continuing school”) programs offer an opportunity for youth to stay for four weeks and earn high-school credit for their work in the Norwegian language.
Youth programs are not the only option at Skogfjorden though, as there are both options for whole families as well as events for adults. These programs will uphold the same values that are taught in the youth camps but targeted toward a family or a more mature adult audience.
Why learn Norwegian?
A common belief is that the main reason people in the United States might learn Norwegian would be primarily because they have Norwegian ancestors or relatives. This has certainly been true in the past, even at Skogfjorden. But when asked whether most people attending Skogfjorden have Norwegian heritage, Evelyn says, “I think toward the beginning, that’s what it was. It was the Sons of Norway camp.”
Things are different now though, as “it has become less and less about culture and more and more about active participation and interest.” Both at Skogfjorden and with learning Norwegian in general, interest in the subject has expanded beyond people with Norwegian heritage or relatives to a larger audience.
This growth in the Norwegian language population is for a good reason. As Evelyn mentioned, “There are parts of Norwegian culture that people connect to left and right. There’s friluftsliv (a Norwegian term referring to an outdoor lifestyle and general appreciation of nature). There’s heavy metal or death metal … There are also obscure Norwegian TV shows that have a huge following in the United States. There is a cultural corner for everyone.”
Learning Norwegian also exposes people to the benefits of learning a language in general. Ethan, who speaks many languages, including Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Spanish, German, and Russian, is extremely familiar with the advantages of learning foreign languages. He says that “once you start learning a language and you like learning a language, you’ll start learning other languages. You’ll start leaning about other cultures.”
This passion can develop into further interests, he said, making him want to travel more and get out of his shell. It can also give you more opportunities to connect with people. Ethan told a story about how he went to a Beyonce concert and ran into a Norwegian while waiting in line, someone who he is still in touch with to this day.
Why learn Norwegian at Skogfjorden?
One of the most common ways that people learn languages is through classroom learning, whether that is in the school system or through more individual lessons. While this approach is certainly effective, it is not the only method of improving at a language. Language immersion, the process of having the student be taught primarily in the target language, gives an opportunity for the learners to experience the language through listening, speaking, and living with the language.
Skogfjorden is such a unique place because it offers a language immersion experience for Norwegian, one of the rarer languages found (especially in the United States).
When I asked Evelyn about the immersion environment at Skogfjorden compared with a more traditional classroom space, she said, “the amount of exposure you have [at Skogfjorden] is so increased … you’re exposed to the language so much longer and throughout the day, you’re learning more than you think you are. You’re constantly surrounded by it, so it’s hard not to absorb it.”
Skogfjorden is also not afraid of addressing more difficult subjects. When asked whether the conflict with Russia and other related current events that connect to Norway would be present in the summer camp’s program this summer, Evelyn said, “I’m sure that they will be incorporated. We are not ones to shy away from topics like that. Especially when it’s been in the news so much and we know that some of the kids or teenagers have seen the news.”
She went on to mention an example from a couple of years ago where there was a program that helped the campers learn about the minority groups of Norway. It involved visiting simulated minority centers to learn about each group and what challenges they might face. “We want to be truthful in our presentation of Nordic culture and of Norway today but also of Norway in the past,” she said, reflecting on colonization and realizing that “it was actually bad.”
How Skogfjorden teaches Norwegian
While both Skogfjorden and traditional classroom learning will help students improve their Norwegian speaking skills, they have significantly different methods of doing so. With Skogfjorden’s language immersion approach, Norwegian is incorporated into almost everything students do.
Evelyn gives examples of this concept: “At Skogfjorden, if it’s art [time], that’s when you would learn more kinetically, and you can touch the things that you’re learning about. It’s less based on pictures in a book or telling you about this cultural concept rather than living the concept itself.”
Ethan also detailed another important part about learning at Skogfjorden, the “Skogfjorden Promise.” He explained the significance of the oath, and “that all of the staff and the campers make to each other.” This promise “starts to pervade everything” at Skogfjorden and holds everyone accountable to create a safe and welcoming environment. no matter who you are or what you do. The promise can be found on the Skogfjorden website.
When hosting a camp with the purpose of improving language abilities, one has to consider the difference in language experience for each of the campers. Skogfjorden takes an interesting approach to this conundrum, using what they refer to as strenggrupper, or “string groups,” to promote learning at all experience levels.
When I asked about this situation, Evelyn gave me an explanation of how strenggrupper work: “There are specific times in the day where you are with the people that have never spoken Norwegian before. For example, if you have a dark blue string, that means it’s like your first year at camp when you’re pretty new to Norwegian. Then you have your second level, which is rødstreng [red string], your next year Norwegian. For those sessions you are just with the people of your level, but for the rest of the day, you’re exposed to people from that are higher levels.” The levels of the strenggrupper go “blue, red, orange, yellow, green, brown, marineblå [navy], the high school program they have a white string, and then all the counselors have black string.”
She also went on to mention how “it’s easy to identify at what language level they are. So that as a counselor, I know that this villager might need a little bit more because they’re a rødstreng [red string], versus somebody who is marineblå or grønnstreng, who will have more of that vocabulary.”
One of the most memorable parts of Skogfjorden are definitely the theme centers, called kretser, or circles. Ethan explained how kretser work using some examples from previous years: “We have what’s called the krets, that are various activities. Those could be like Viking ages. I remember reading scripts for soap operas in one of them. I remember reenacting the Hanseatic Trade Union with the German camp … those are another way to bring the different language levels together.”
Evelyn also had many stories of previous programs that she had run. One example was when she was head of the immigration center’s krets, she had the kids simulate what it would be like to be an immigrant either coming to Norway or leaving Norway for the United States: “One of the things that we did was we had all these resources and they have to trade their resources. Then they have to deal with government corruption and a corrupt police force.”
Another example of a successful krets would be when she was a part of the Viking-themed program. She said, “We organized [everyone] into Viking families. A couple of my co-workers and I made shields in the middle of the night. We were up until maybe 4 a.m., making shields out of sleds.” Then, the kids were able to paint their family crest on the shields and even went on to negotiate treaties with the other families. Evelyn spoke about how she loved these examples in particular, because “the best programs are the ones that the kids take control of.”
Teaching adults vs. children
While you could say Skogfjorden’s main focus is educating children in Norwegian language and culture, their adult programs should not be overlooked. I was able to ask both my guests about what it’s like teaching adults compared to teaching kids, and their answers were somewhat surprising.
Ethan said, “There’s a lot more similarities than there are differences … Oftentimes, we found with our adult programs that people actually bring their own [things] that they want to learn.”
He also mentioned that the adult programs use a concept that is part of the folk high school system in Norway called dagens ord, meaning “word of the day.” It gives an opportunity for people in the class to participate by bringing something to share with everyone. He detailed a couple of examples from past programs: “One woman wrote a song in Norwegian and wanted to perform the song for everybody. Somebody brought in a poem that they really liked and read the poem for everybody.”
Evelyn also has experience working with older Norwegian learners. In fact, she often tells people that “[her] youngest student has been 3 and [her] oldest student has been 97.”
With that experience, she also has some insights on how teaching adults can be different from teaching children. The biggest difference she has noticed is in the humor of various age groups: “You can make jokes about like ‘Soulja Boi’ (a famous rapper) from the 15 to 25, that age group, that’s your ‘Soulja Boi’ jokes. Whereas [with] people who are past 50, that’s when you have to make jokes about the little rosemaled plates that say ‘takk for maten.’”
Ultimately, she realized that having a passion for what you’re teaching is the most important thing: “What I’ve found is if you care about your language and what you’re teaching, and if you’re passionate about it, you can’t hide it.”
“Skogfjorden er mitt andre hjem”
When asked about their favorite parts of Skogfjorden, Evelyn and Ethan had very similar answers. Both referenced the community aspect of the village. “It’s the community and the amount of love and encouragement and safety that is in this community — it’s unbelievable,” Evelyn said. “The family that comes out of [Skogfjorden],” Ethan said.
This theme is repeated when we visit the website for the Norwegian language village, where in a promotional video there is given a simple prompt: “Skogfjorden is …” Countless answers from the video revolve around a single idea: Skogfjorden is a home away from home. The Norwegian phrase “Skogfjorden er mitt andre hjem” translates to “Skogfjorden is my second home” and perfectly exemplifies what makes this place so special.
All photos courtesy of Skogfjorden unless otherwise noted.
This article originally appeared in the July 8, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.