Snakker du engelsk? Speaking English in Norway

Friday 19 April 2013

One of the 23 iron sculptures that make up "Broken Column."  The sculptures can be found all over Stavanger creating an imaginary column from the Stavanger Art Gallery to the harbour.

When we arrive in a new country that will be our home for the foreseeable future, we have all sorts of expectations, goals & hopes outlining what we want our stay to look like.  We have an idea as to how we'll spend our time, what we'd like to learn and where we'll travel.  Some of those things come to fruition while others do not.

When I arrived in Norway, I was motivated to start learning Norwegian.  I'm in a new country with a completely foreign (to me) language and out of respect & interest in the culture, I figured it would be in my best interest to take a few lessons.  Once we found out we were staying, I made a few calls in hopes of securing a tutor for Joe and I at our company's expense.  (Side note: Our company will pay a certain amount for Joe's lessons however not for mine.)  I waited and waited for Joe to settle into his new position and find some time to track down the information and paperwork needed before starting lessons.  It took forever and with that, my interest and motivation started to wane.  When we finally did secure everything we needed, our travel schedule picked up and the tutor advised us to wait until we had a more consistent schedule.

In the meantime, it became evident that most everyone in Norway speaks English.

Norwegians start learning English as early as Kindergarten and they continue throughout their entire schooling career.  By the time they graduate, most Norwegians will speak excellent English.  (The teacher in me finds this fascinating particularly coming from Canada where our commitment to French language instruction has failed miserably to produce a bilingual country.)  Obviously, in larger cities with more exposure to foreigners, English is more widely used and there is a bit of a generation gap but even in the rural areas, most Norwegians will have a working knowledge of the language.

Of course, the official language of Norway is Norsk thus signs, advertisements, labels and the first language most people will speak in day to day life will be Norwegian.  Movies & TV shows (with the exception of cartoons) that come from North America and the UK are left in English with the addition of Norwegian subtitles and are very rarely dubbed.  Official government documents for visas, taxes & healthcare are generally in Norwegian although with an influx or immigrants and expatriates, it's not hard to find an English version.  It's pretty common to hear Norwegians move between English and Norsk seamlessly even within one conversation amongst themselves.  It really is quite impressive.

In the beginning, I faced some challenges with the language.  As opposed to Gabon where I had a lot of French vocabulary to assist me, I didn't know a single word in Norwegian and the language looked and sounded completely foreign to me.  There were moments in the grocery store where I was guessing when buying 1%, 2% or skim milk and a bit of difficulty when researching mobile phone carriers as the websites were all in Norwegian.  However, when someone speaks to me in Norwegian and I apologize, "I'm sorry, I speak English," they immediately switch over without hesitation or judgement.

To date, I've picked up a few words.  I can do the checkout at the grocery store without English, as long as they stick to the script.  I know that "kylling" means chicken and "jordbær" means strawberry.  I can "hei, hei" in greeting and "ha det" in closing with the best of them.  I've nailed "tusen takk" and "ja" and "nei" and I now know that although "pose" and "pølse" sound similar they don't mean the same thing (bag and hot dog respectively.)  I still sound ridiculous when sounding out words as I often try to impose English sounds on Norwegian words and I keep my home address written in my wallet because no one seems to understand my street name no matter how hard I try to say it correctly.

It appears that English has once again allowed us to get by without learning another language.  This always feels like a blessing and a curse.  It certainly is convenient but it also allows us to lazily take a backseat in the language learning department.  I haven't fully abandoned the idea of taking Norwegian lessons as I do still consider it important to learn and to make an effort but I'm just not exactly sure how that will look for us.


  1. Great post - I'm having a very similar issue in Brussels. I was all hyped up to learn French when I moved over from the UK, but so far almost everyone speaks (enough) English and I have had very few problems.

    When I do try and speak the little French that I have learnt, people tend to respond in English.

    I'll keep learning, but definitely not with as much urgency as I thought I would need!

    1. Thank you Michelle.

      You are right - it takes the urgency off. I felt more of a push to strengthen my French (aside from needing it in my day to day life) as it's a pretty international language. Norwegian is only spoke in Norway and while there are links to other Scandic languages, it's less likely to need it once we move on. I almost wish I had a bit more of a push!

  2. really enjoyed this post! i'm currently living in the czech republic in a medium sized town where very little speak english. i never really know what to say when people start talking to me in czech, but i like your suggestion of "i'm sorry, i speak english"-- i need to learn how to say this! i usually just end up muttering "anglisky?" with a confused smile. one thing i'm not in love with is that it takes me so long in the drugstore or grocery store when i'm looking for a VERY specific product that i can't find. i will be in there just staring at things for the better part of an hour.

    1. Oh Cynthia - I feel your pain. I spent an hour going up and down the aisles looking for vanilla essence & cocoa powder one day. Once you find it once, it's not problem but the first time I search for something can take ages!

  3. I loved this post. I'm always of the mind set, like you said, to respect the culture and learn some of the language of places I visit, but also like you said, with so much else going on in life, it's often hard to find the time and financial means to learn it especially if English is so often spoken. Great post though and I love that you've picked up as much as you have!

    1. Thanks so much Casey! I do hope to increase my vocabulary as we continue and perhaps make more of an effort to learn simple phrases for day to day life.

  4. Definitely a blessing and a curse. In Malta English is widely spoken. But I feel so guilty when someone mistakes me for Maltese and I have to say, "I'm sorry, I don't speak Maltese..."

    I've picked up a few words here and there (and purchased a dictionary, CD, workbook, and plenty of Maltese language children's books) but I haven't had the time to dedicate to lessons or a tutor yet. And I've been here almost three years! Yikes. Bad expat.

    And I hear you about the failure of the Canadian education system to produce more bilingualism. I think it's so sad. That's my biggest regret from public school - not taking French classes all the way through (I was forced to drop from my French immersion program in Grade 12 to be able to take more art and leadership courses, which eventually got me into art school and won me a scholarship, but I always wonder what it would have been like if I stuck through with it.)

  5. I've heard it's one of the hardest languages!!! Good luck!

  6. This is an interesting post, Jay! One of the reason why I chose to go to Norway to study abroad was that English is so widely known across the Scandinavian countries. It's suppose it's less of cheat for me, though, considering that English is not my mother tongue.

    That being said, I've already started to learn Norwegian and plan to take courses through the university while I'm there. I've heard that Norwegian is supposed to be pretty easy if you speak both English and especially German and while I'm way to new to the language to confirm that, I do have realized that a lot of the vocabulary has a striking similarity to German words. There usually written very differently, but when I browse a Norwegian website, I can usually kind of guess my way around. But we'll see how the language learning will go! :)

    On the Canadian education system: When I went to High School in Alberta, I was the only one who took a French home schooling class and when I told everybody about all the foreign languages we took at my school back home, they thought that I must have gone to some fancy school - while it was really just a regular, public high school. I wish people wouldn't just rely on the fact that most people know English. You might never really need French, but it's just such a nice thing for oneself. I cherish that I'm able to get along with English so well and it's something I wouldn't want to miss!


    1. Re: French in Canada - yes, yes and yes. I used to teach FSL - such a battle that was in Alberta.

      Re: Norwegian - I don't speak German but my husband has a little knowledge. When I asked him he said there are similarities but it sounds really different. The ease of language learning is so subjective - those who know more languages often have an easier time picking up another. When I see Norwegian words, I can occasionally pick out similarities to English or French which help but listening to it is really, really difficult for me - as are making the sounds. My mouth has a hard time forming the sounds. Others do talk about the difficulties learning Norwegian because of the many different dialects. Many people speak their regional dialect and it's amazing how different it can be from one of the 2 main dialects. I saw a graphic awhile back documenting the differences between phrases which was really interesting - I tried to find it for you but can't remember where I saw it.

      I suppose we'll see how you find it when you get here. I'll be interested to hear about it!

  7. i absolutely loved this post jay (no surprise there) when we first moved to korea we had the strong intent of learning the language. as of now we can get by in restaurants, can read fairly well, and overall, make-do. but it's hard to get motivated in a country where the vast majority knows at least SOME english, or at least enough to get by.we still make an effort and pick up phrases and words along the way but it's nice to read a strong explanation of why it's not as easy as just 'picking up a language.' best of luck in the language department!

  8. I found this really interesting, Jay! I'm actually studying abroad in France right now, and it surprises the heck out of me that I meet people who reply to me in English when I speak French to them. It's so frustrating to me since I'm trying to learn the language.

    I'm actually Canadian too and I find the issue of French language instruction in our country pretty depressing. I actually looked into becoming a French teacher to see how much more education I'd have to complete and was shocked to realize I wouldn't have to do much more... I feel SO FAR from being qualified to teach kids French haha. I would love to hear more about your experiences as an FSL teacher though... have you blogged about it before??

  9. It's funny, I was just having this conversation with another expat today. She said they've lived here for a couple of years now and she hasn't learned and has never had any problems. Me and John, on the other hand, seem to have had all the bad experiences where people were downright nasty about our not speaking Norwegian. If we were staying longer I would learn, because I feel like I'm only half here without it...but otherwise the fact that I will likely never have the chance to speak it again elsewhere makes the effort seem to burdensome to me for little reward.

  10. Hello! First of I most say that I'm really enjoying reading your blog! secondly, I am myself Norwegian but have lived abroad for a large portion of my life and I find it so amusing and interesting to read about your experiences in Norway as an expat! Thank you for teaching me about my own country!! haha :P


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