Merry April, dear readers! This month, I’ll admit, I was struggling a little for ideas. My language learning progress has been minimal at best and I haven’t really done anything exciting travel-wise. Somebody on Twitter (you can find me @sprakskatan) made a wonderful suggestion and it kind of inspired me to talk a little about my history with language learning, and how I fell down this particular rabbit hole in the first place. I don’t think I’ve discussed it in detail before, so now seemed like as good a time as any (before Eurovision fever takes hold and becomes the only thing I think about for the next month or so).
To say I was disinterested in languages at school was a bit of an understatement. My secondary school, like a lot of secondary schools in the early 2000s, offered three languages – French, German and Spanish, two of which were compulsory up until the third year. Everybody took French in the first year, and then in the second year, those who were good at French were given German, and those who were bad at French were given Spanish. I don’t think I’ll ever really understand the reasoning behind this, but that was the way things were. We were lucky in some respects, as a Catholic school, which meant we were also given the option of Latin. I think I’m right in saying that we were obliged to take one language on to GCSE level (years 10 and 11)… I opted for Latin, and was stuck for two years in a class of six people with one of the scariest teachers I’ve ever met. He was of the old school; there was a lot of reciting verb conjugations and noun declension, a smattering of Virgil and not much besides. (I still remember my dad saying, ’Mr. ____?! He was old when I was at school!’). Needless to say, none of this particularly piqued my interest and I didn’t take it further than absolutely necessary. At this time, I was obsessed with the idea of becoming a psychiatrist – though later on I would realise that barely scraping by in Psychology was probably a sign that this wasn’t the path for me. But when it came to picking classes for the next few years, there was very little room for languages in my schedule.
In the end, I went to university in York (which, incidentally, is famous for its viking connections) to study for a BA in English Literature. About a week before I went, I was sitting in my kitchen (probably spouting a load of shite on MSN Messenger), listening to the radio. And a song by Lene Marlin came on (’Sitting Down Here’, if you’re interested)… and with the sun shining through the window, something about that moment just felt memorable. You know when you consciously think to yourself, ’I’m going to remember this’? And so I did. I looked up the lyrics and found the name of the song, and started looking into her other work. I suppose it must have been Wikipedia, because I was reading about her personal life and the fact that she was Norwegian really just… stuck with me. It sounds ridiculous to say, but it was kind of the first time I’d ever really considered the idea that you could learn languages that weren’t taught in schools. And so I started with Norwegian. Just casually, in my spare time.
As luck would have it, when I moved into my accommodation, I discovered that there was an exchange programme underway – our block was liberally sprinkled with Norwegians. I remember finding one of them smoking outside the block on my way back from a night out and I was just drunk enough to introduce myself. Before I knew it, I had surrounded myself with a Norwegian posse and I began learning bits and pieces of the language from them. I shudder to think about how many mistakes I’d made in those early days.
So, flash forward to about eight months down the line. I am all about the Norwegian – I’m still probably at a A2 level but I’m using it as much as humanly possible, and then I hear some whispers about the Erasmus programme. I didn’t know anything about it but I went along to an information session, and we were told that our options for our course were the Netherlands, Poland and Spain. Obviously, me being obsessed with Scandinavia at this point hung back at the end to ask if they might possibly have something more Scandiwegian in flavour, and they told me that they’d look into it and get back to me. A few days later, they told me that they actually have a connection to the University of Stockholm, but they had never actually sent anybody – and that their contact would actually be visiting our campus in a few weeks, and that they could arrange a meeting if I wanted to go. And the rest is history – I studied in Stockholm for 5 months, which… well, it’s a story for another time; I’m starting to realise it was probably the best worst time in my life. But as part of that, all visiting students were enrolled on a Svenska som främmande språk (Swedish as a foreign language) course, to get the most out of their time in the country. These classes are where I really fell in love with language learning – they were the highlight of my week, and most of the friends I made on the Erasmus programme came from this course. There was something about learning Swedish that just felt right, it was so much easier than anything else I’d tried to study and it just clicked in my brain more or less immediately. I think having some vague footing in Norwegian really helped me along, but in a way it also kind of held me back.
Danish, for me, was kind of an afterthought… it was more a curiosity than anything else, because it was so similar to everything I’d learned before, but at the same time so different. I could understand written Danish without a problem, but when a Dane opened their mouths they might as well have been yodelling. Mutually intelligible languages are both a gift and a curse – there are so many similarities that you might be forgiven for thinking they’re entirely the same, but with different accents, but there are subtle differences that make you stick out a mile to a native speaker if you get them wrong. For example, the Danish word tøs means ’little girl’, but in Swedish, it’s not a very nice word for an especially promiscuous young lady. The Danish word grine means ’to laugh’, but the Swedish word grina means ’to weep’ (except in Skåne, in the very south of Sweden, where it can also mean ’laugh’… but Skåne is kind of a special case altogether). There are also more surprises in store, in that you’ll notice that Swedish has way more loanwords from German than Danish does, which is the opposite of what you’d expect given the geography of the place. And Norwegian… well, the beauty of Norwegian is that it’s so diverse. They have two official written languages: Bokmål (literally ’book language’) and Nynorsk (literally ’new Norwegian’). Bokmål is, on the page, almost identical to Danish, except with harder consonants (e.g. Danish bog vs. Norwegian bok, Danish mod vs. Norwegian mot), whereas Nynorsk has its base in the western dialects of Norwegian, and looks much more akin to the insular Nordic languages (see the diagram for examples). But that’s just the written language. Norwegian is a lot like falling snowflakes – every single speaker seems to speak their own version, and no two are alike. With such a broad spectrum of dialects and idiolects, it can be difficult for learners to understand what people are saying – especially if you learned Bokmål and end up on holiday in the west of the country. However, if you speak more of the Scandinavian languages, you’ll find it a lot easier because you’re not listening for specific words, just a sort of… general cloud of phonemes. If you know that the word ’not’ can be written ikke, ekki, ikki (pronounced /ˈɪʰtʃːɪ/), ikkje, or even inte (though this one is kind of out there), you won’t be surprised when people shorten it to just ’kke, and append it to words, or if you hear someone say ’ittje’ (which does happen in some Norwegian dialects), and you’ll still understand the meaning.
Okay, so this has turned into quite the marathon post… it’s over twice as long as the things I normally post, so I’m going to cut it a little short here and maybe pick it up another time. If you have any questions or thoughts, please feel free to grab me on Twitter or leave a comment – I love it when you guys get in touch. I’m by no means an expert on the Scandinavian languages, just an enthusiast… so if I have made a mistake somewhere in this post, please feel free to correct me!