Learning Norwegian I — from a Romanic language speaker’s perspective

The goal of this post (and I hope the following ones) is to explain my experience as a learner of Norwegian, a language the last week I began to learn. I must admit that it was difficult to find a place in Barcelona where it was taught (at the end of this post I will explain some of the reasons I think could explain this), but I finally found one, the School of Modern Languages of the University of Barcelona. It’s an introductory course of 40 hours, twice days a week, two hours a day. We are eight people enrolled in the course.

Before explaining anything more, there are some things I would like to say. Language issues can be very sensitive and a source of controversy (Catalonia itself is a very good example). The purpose of this post is, as said before, to explain my experience at learning it, from a Romanic language speaker’s perspective. It’s not about comparing languages in order to find out which is «better», or in which one is easier to express oneself (by the way, the answer is pretty clear: one’s native language, of course). It’s just about telling what I find easy or difficult to learn, what it’s similar or different than my native language, what surprised me and why, etc, but always, always, with the greatest respect.

Having said that, let’s begin. Luckily, I didn’t get lost in my way to the classroom, which is not usual in me, and given the fact that it was not easy to reach that classroom. What’s more, I was the first student to arrive, and the teacher was already there. The only thing I knew of here was her surname (not even the teacher was a woman or a man), Mollø. She is a bit old, and I think she’s been living in Barcelona for a lot of years, for she speaks Spanish so well that she could pretend being a Spaniard and no one would notice she’s not. In fact, her Spanish is better than mine: when I speak in Spanish it can be clearly noticed that it’s not the language in which I usually speak, that I’m a Catalan-speaker. Since I spent three years living in Spanish-speaking Spain I suppose I’ve lost some of my Catalan accent, but I’m also sure I’ve not completely lost it.

I like her, she’s very friendly and has patience with us (which is not the case with all language teachers). Before beginning learning Norwegian I did some research on the Internet, so when she told us about Bokmål and Nynorsk (and about Mr. Aasen), and of dialects, I already knew what she was talking about. She also told us that Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are very similar and — to some extent — mutually understandable (this I already knew, too), so she said we were learning «three languages in one», so to speak. Ah, by the way, she also understands Catalan (and speaks it a bit), and knew of one man who helped standardize that language.

Well, probably it is time to talk about Norwegian. Usually, the first thing one learns of a new language is the alphabet. I will pay particular attention to the vowels. At first, all seemed not too difficult. But some vowels that, at first, seemed to sound like those in Catalan or Spanish, turned out no to be so similar. The distinction between short and long vowels will be, I think, rather difficult to learn, because there is no such thing in Catalan nor Spanish. Well, in Catalan we have «open» and «close» vowels, but this is related to how much the speaker opens his mouth when pronouncing them. The teacher advised us to exaggerate the difference, to make it pretty clear. I’m still not sure about the way the vowels must be pronounced. For example, I can’t find any difference between o and å, and between a and æ (well, the only one I can think of is that, when my teacher pronounces a, it seems to me that there is a small o willing to get out of her mouth; the letter æ is, according to my teacher, quite similar to the Catalan «neutral vowel», which is something between a and e, but it seems to me more like and a than a itself). And something similar to Catalan: o is pronounced sometimes in a way, and some other times in another way.

Personal pronouns and verbs. The personal pronouns posed no problem at all (some minor issues about pronunciation taken apart), except that I have to remember that han is he, not she. The teacher told us about one trick one of her past students once told her: to think of «Han Solo». I’ll try to remember that. Verbs. Well, being a Romanic language speaker, it is to no surprise that I find Norwegian verbs rather easy. No difference between ser and estar, only one word for every personal pronoun (compare this, for example, with Spanish, when one must remember «yo soy, tú eres, él es, nosotros somos«, etc, while in Norwegian I can plainly say «jeg er, du er, han er, vi er«, etc). In fact, I think that, among Western languages (and Basque taken apart), Romanic languages have the most complex verbal system: lots of tenses (for those who know Spanish, remember the difference, for example, between «yo cantaba» and «yo canté»: both are past tenses, but with subtle differences in meaning which must be taken into account), the subjunctive mood (very widely used in day to day speech, both formal and informal, both written and spoken).

Substantives. I know of languages with no gender (like English), with two genders (like most Romanic languages), with three genders (like German), but what surprised me is that, in Norwegian, in some parts of the country, one just uses feminine words as if they were masculine. Another thing that surprised me is that the definite article is attached at the end of the word, in both singular and plural. Among Romanic languages, I think that only Romanian does the same. This is something I will have to pay attention to, because it’s pretty different from my language. I thank that, in most cases but not always, there is a regular way of making the plural (unlike German, when one has to learn, for each word, its plural form).

Last day, I remembered one thing they say in Spanish: es de bien nacido el ser agradecido, which moreless translates to «it is of being well born to be thankful». The teacher told us that, in Norwegian, one gives thanks for a lot of things: thanks for the meal (takk for maten), thanks for the last time we spoke or met (takk for sist), and even we give thanks for the class when leaving, among other things.

And just to finish this first installment, a few comments. I told that it was difficult to find, in Barcelona, a place where they taught Norwegian. Why? One could say that there are few people wanting to learn it, and we must admit that this is true. My native language too is one spoken by few people, and virtually all of its speakers are fluent in Spanish. When I tell people I know that I’m learning Norwegian, they stare at me, as if that were something unbelievable, for it is believed, in my country, that Scandinavian languages are very difficult to learn. I suppose this is due to distance and ignorance, and I’m convinced that my experience at learning it will prove they’re wrong.

Romanic and Germanic languages are rather different, of course, not only because of vocabulary (which, after all, in all languages one must learn it by heart) but specially because of grammar. And yes, when writing or speaking in English I miss things of my native language, for example the subjunctive (I am so accustomed to using it that I have to look for workarounds), the «weak pronouns» of Catalan, etc. But when I hear people saying that Scandinavian languages are difficult, I think — and sometimes even say — «did you think that, probably, the speakers of these languages would find our Romanic languages hard to learn, too, and perhaps much harder for them to learn than for us to learn theirs?». The fact that a language is easy or difficult to learn depends mostly on that person’s native language and his or her ability at learning new languages — the more you know, the easier it is to learn new ones.