Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Excuse me... could you repeat it?

If we are talking about learning a new language, there is one sad fact we had better accept: there are lucky people and there are less lucky ones. Kató Lomb, the famous Hungarian polyglott who had learnt 17 languages without having spent a longer periode of time in a foreign country, claimed that she did not believe in such thing as a language talent. Well, I would feel quite a bit uncomfortable to write down that I disagree with a person of her grandeur, but I do dare to put down that I guess we all can feel (or could at least in high school) that certain people have fewer (or, if you want, more) difficulties at reaching the perfect score at a grammar test than the average.

I have been in Norway for a little bit over six months now and I am quite happy with what I know in Norwegian so far. In this entry I would like to write a little bit about what I think we can do in order to be more successful at acquiring a language. (The tips are maybe easier for those who are lucky enough to spend some time among native speakers but of course I hope everyone can benefit from them.)

1. Forget the 'pronounciation doesn't matter'-attitude. Why should you? The answer is easy: because it does matter. You might hear here and there that having a foreign accent sounds cute (I was told once that German spoken with French accent is erotic for German ears...), but in my eyes such a compliment is definitively to be avoided on the long run. It's tiring to listen to someone who is not easy to understand and (to be honest) it's hard to take someone with a harsh accent seriously...

2. Turn on the television. It has thousands of benefits... I often play this game: take a piece of paper and try to write down as many new words that you hear on the TV as possible - within (for example) 10 minutes. Try to watch different shows, this way you can have a great little vocabulary about numerous domains.

Houndstooth pattern is called hundetannsmønster in Norwegian. Not an important word, but who knows... I might need it one day. Something I've learnt from the television. The painting of Pete Nawara.

3. Listen to music. Local music is a great topic of conversation with the locals. Music is great to learn some new words, however, it might not be this helpful with the intonation (because of the singing).

4. Go to the library. There are so many things I can be grateful for, thing that only happened because I go to the city library every once in a while... I bought used books on sale, I found CDs and DVDs I have always been interested at and I got a member of a French club. I remember having asked a lady in the library not so long after I arrived in Kristiansand about the most widely read children's book authors in Norway. I got a few names and started immediately to read shorter stories. I think if you read something that the locals heard as bedtime stories from their mums back in the days... it's a bit like sharing a common secret... having a piece of them. I might be wrong but I do think it's a good way to get to know them better, to get closer to them.

This is where the magic happens - The main library in Kristiansand

5. Try to find the logic. If you already know a language that is somehow related to the language you want to acquire, don't hesitate to take a closer look to that relationship! Just one example: what is z in German, is often t in Norwegian (bezahlen - å betale; Zahn - tann). Since I speak German and German and Norwegian are not far away from each other, this little game became almost like a habit and it's as much fun as a riddle!
Let's make an exam now: Look at the words 'night', 'milk' and 'eight' in French (nuit, lait, huit), Spanish (noche, leche, ocho) and Italian (notte, latte, otto). Can you see it?

6. Pay attention to the differences. Let's take the word 'book'. In French: le livre (masculin). In German: das Buch (neuter). With this knowledge in my pocket I was almost 100% sure that 'book' in Norwegian is neuter, or, if for some weird reason not, than masculin. Well, guess what: in Norwegian the word bok is feminin... All I want to say with this is that you should watch out for the differences between the new language and a/the language you already know.

7. Avoid people from your own country. It might be funny to read this but there is some truth in it. In the beginning it's easier to be among your fellow countrymen but the language learning process is much slowlier this way...

You might feel like this at the beginning, but being with locals is worth gold if you want to learn a language.

 8. Look at every situation as a potential source of learning. Don't underestimate anything, you can learn something new even through buying a hot dog or asking the way.

9. Challange yourself. I think it's a great thing if after a while you are already capable to read and understand the articles about the latest plastic surgery of Donatella Versace in the tabloids, but how about you go one step further and challange yourself with something more difficult? Don't underestimate yourself, don't be afraid of trying something that you think you are not good enough for.

10. Change is gold. Don't always watch to the same TV show, don't always listen to the radio program with the same guy, don't always read just one magazine. It's important to listen to both men and women, young and old, perfect speaking TV hosts, farmers living in villages, 'too cool for school' teenagers using slang... etc. This will make your vocabulary and language skills in general sooo much more versatile!

11. Paraphrase. This is a fancy expression for describing a term with different words. If a word is missing,try not to look for the English equivalent. Explaining a word is a bigger effort but don't break the communication and you avoid by it the automatic switch to English.

It's worth trying hard!
+1. And last but not least: Don't forget to give yourself compliments. Don't overdo it, though. You don't need to buy yourself a Maserati right on the first day when you survived in the post office without switching to English. But never forget that learning a new language needs a lot of effort and endurance and even if you are struggling in the beginning, keep in mind that most people appreciate very much if they hear a foreigner try hard to speak their language.

Don't give up and keep on telling yourself as a mantra: Discere non est vitiosum, sed ignorare. (Ignorance is shameful, learning is not.)

Lykke til! (Good luck!)


  1. Nice article. Thanks for using my hundetannsmønster painting.

  2. Thank-you so much for the comment! It's not just because of the pattern, I LOVE your style! :)