“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Nelson Mandela
To learn the language of the host country can often be on top of the list of barriers that skilled immigrants face when they move abroad. And rightly so: Language forms the base of your socio-cultural inclusion, your career, and your whole experience understanding a new culture and society.
As an immigrant, you are making your way through a long, tedious list of things to “settle in”. To begin with, it’s the logistics of the move, setting up a new home, getting the kids in school, getting a car or figuring out public transport, and the other necessities to get life up and running. Then there’s the part about having no friends, missing home and missing everything familiar. That’s a big emotional hill to climb for many.
For many immigrants who move abroad, voluntarily or involuntarily, there is also the stress of having no job or becoming ‘employable’ in a strange, unfamiliar economy. Add to all of that the handicap of not speaking the local language, and it leaves one feeling crippled and frustrated – that ‘Where do I even begin?!’ feeling.
Of course, learning a language as an adult can be challenging in itself. It’s a lot of unlearning and relearning, throwing yourself into a new cultural mindset and needless to say, it takes time and a very mighty, conscious effort.
But rising to this challenge is most definitely worth it, and I can vouch for that. It does much more than help you fit in. It helps you feel a sense of belonging, helps to decode the new culture and society around you, helps you make friends and so much more. And I am definitely not alone. There are a lot of talents who authentically live themselves and at the same time include themselves in the host community and be included. You can watch Authentigration, the community empowered by Generation Mobility: Authentigration
Here’s one more interesting benefit: According to a study in Sweden, learning a language causes areas of the brain associated with memory, namely the cerebral cortex and hippocampus, to increase in size. So picking up the local dialect literally makes you smarter!
Before I get into exactly how I put myself on the super-track to learn Norwegian in 90 days (yes, you read it right, 90 days!), I’m going to tell you why I felt it was vital for me and what opportunities it opened for me.
Language Equals Culture
For me, a country’s language is one side of the cultural dice, with food, clothing, music, art, and history is the rest. If you take away language – our ability to understand sarcasm, irony, and humor disappears. We lose the ability to be witty or let our personalities shine. We can’t connect with people the same way we would in our own language.
An immigrant’s ability to speak in the local language is in itself a significant gesture, and even the attitude to try opens welcoming doors. This perspective of mine helped me overcome my initial fusses to learn the language.
Making Meaningful Connections
For the most part in many sectors, the working language in Norway is Norwegian. This especially applies to the health care sector where one has to communicate with patients. Since I have a health care background, I knew that learning to speak Norwegian would help me make my career debut in the country and make more meaningful connections for work and beyond.
Learning the language quickly helped me plug into the local news, learn what was going on around me, and sparked some of my most enjoyable times here. It even leads me to make some wonderful Norwegian friends through the “Tea Time” initiative started by the Norwegian Centre Against Racism. You can read more on that in the post Tea Time.
Getting My Voice Heard
Equipped with a Bachelor’s Degree in Pharmacy when I moved here, I had a burning desire to learn more about immigrant healthcare in Scandinavia. My interest wasn’t limited to just physical health, but also social, emotional and mental challenges of relocation and transition.
I also wanted to share my thoughts, ideas, and, eventually, my findings as a Master student and later on as a Ph.D. candidate. I knew that I had to get my voice heard here, to drive the change and awareness that I wanted to drive, I had to speak the language of the masses.
So, for all of these reasons and more, I came to terms with the fact that I needed to learn Norwegian to turn my desires into something tangible. Preparing my mind on why I needed to do this was one thing. Putting my effort into actually learning was the start of my real struggle.
Learning a language can be a tough feat for most, and it was for me too. According to this article, Learning a new language, Professor John Cummins of the University of Toronto estimates that it takes one to three years to learn basic interpersonal communicative skills – like an informal conversation between friends at a coffee shop. Further, it takes five to seven years to learn a new language at an academic level.
Now for the part, you are probably reading this for.
As mentioned above, I compacted this into an ambitious 3-month goal. Here is how I learned this seemingly difficult language in 90 days:
My love for languages helped
I wanted to get this one out of the way first because it’s probably my secret weapon.
I’ve always been fascinated with language and culture, so after I got over my homesickness, I knew I would want to throw myself into the challenge. Being a third-culture kid in a place as diverse as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), I was always surrounded by a diverse bunch. I was one of those kids who went up to her friends asking, “Hey, how do you count from one to ten in your language?”
I was resilient and made it a focused mission
When I was learning, I went all in. I went to the adult learning center like most people do when they move here. But I didn’t just go to class and do my homework. I repeated the words I learned and put my head to the task for every waking hour that I could get outside of class too. I watched the news in Norwegian; I tried to read Norwegian newspapers and magazines. I even watched Norwegian TV shows and movies. I turned on the English subtitles so I could correlate and associate meaning to the words. My husband would find me pouring over a Norwegian newspaper at 11 pm for a quick ‘read’ before bed. I was really on a mission!
I overcame the shyness and used the language – broken as it was initially
This is my biggest tip to anyone trying to learn a new language. I had one Norwegian friend back then, and I asked her to stop talking to me in English and use only Norwegian instead. Was that hard? Yes, but we had quite a few laughs while I learned! Between our English and Norwegian skills, we spoke in what we cheerily called “Norwish”!
I tried talking to shop attendants and service providers in Norwegian – often looking up words as I needed them. Slowly but surely, those sounds and words that felt so strange started to fall more naturally upon my ears. I didn’t have to consciously think about how I pronounced a new word, because my foundation was getting built.
I think this forced practice helped to take me a long way. A lot of people go to ‘Norskkurs,’ which is the Norwegian language course, but end up with only theoretical knowledge of the language. A very important thing about learning a language is that practice is critical if you want to be able to speak, so practice I did. For me, the hardest part has got to be the sing-song nature of the Norwegian language. There’s a beautiful dynamic and up-and-down motion that native Norwegians have when they speak. Norway has two official languages, Nynorsk and Bokmål, and many different dialects. The dialects are pretty hard to decipher for the unfamiliar ear.
I’ve always been conscious of not being able to capture that motion in my words. I will say that’s gotten a lot easier over time and with practice, though.
Tuning your mind to pronounce vowels and consonants differently from what you are used to can be different and challenging, too. Words can sound different based on context, so some aspects only come with experience and practice.
I hope I’ve left you with enough insight, some tips, and the confidence that ‘you’ve got this!’.
As the saying goes, ‘A different language is a different vision of life.’
Learning to speak Norwegian has been a huge part of my thrive-story in Norway. I know that learning the local language can be a life-changing tool for immigrants anywhere in the world – socio-culturally and professionally.
How about you? Have you just moved to Norway or somewhere else in the world that speaks a language that you don’t? How’s your learning coming along? What’s the hardest part for you?