I am officially six weeks into my Erasmus exchange in Norway. I’m here to take classes in Norwegian, to go to plays in Norwegian, to order carryout Chinese food in Norwegian, complain about the weather in Norwegian; in short, to speak the language as much as humanly possible. I expected to be immediately immersed into a linguistic exercise that would leave me speaking semi-fluently after barely a fortnight. A bit ambitious, perhaps, but in my mind, achievable. Not to spoil the show for anyone, but I have been speaking next to no Norwegian thus far. This isn’t because my Norwegian is terrible (though it leaves something to be desired), but rather, because everyone in Norway seems to speak perfect English.
This is not entirely surprising. In my experience, the Scandinavian population in Edinburgh can be identified by their love of hiking and Fjällräven Kånken backpacks, rather than their musical accents. English is taught in their schools, such that Scandinavians all grow up speaking it. It was with this in mind that I chose Bergen for my exchange, rather than Oslo, the more internationally-minded capital. I hoped that by going to a smaller town, I would be forced to practice the language more.
And yet – I am attending a university that is used to accommodating the needs of non-Norwegian speakers, as the majority of foreign exchange students have little to no Norwegian upon arriving. The Erasmus students that I have met have all done their bit by opening a Duolingo account (which, by the way, is useless when the Bergen accent is about as unnavigable as the Bermuda Triangle), but few want to speak to each other in Norwegian when English is the neutral ground for students of every nationality. Unfortunately, it is far easier to say ‘thank you’ than ‘takk skal du ha’.
Surely, Norwegians would want to speak in their native language. Yet an English speaker attempting some semblance of foreign diplomacy in the form of butchered Norwegian is, for many, an opportunity to practice their own language skills. Middle ground seems impossible to find, neither speaker being able to practice as much as they would like to.
Of course, the Norwegians are only trying to be helpful. The general assumption is that foreigners visit the country for the culture, the museums, the landscapes, and not the language. By speaking in English, Norwegians are showing us that they want to make things easier for us. It’s no help that my reflex when I can’t think of a word in Norwegian is to give up and revert to English. It’s a continuous and frustrating effort, especially when the Norwegian that I come out with is often warped and wrong.
Native English speakers are fortunate. We speak the language that, for decades, has been the most widely spoken across the world. Of the 195 countries in the world today, 81 have English listed as an official language, and many that don’t still teach it from an early age. As such, I can travel anywhere in the world, and the likelihood that I will be able to communicate with strangers is very high. This might be useful for things like tourism, but for those of us trying to actually study in a foreign language, it’s more of a hindrance.
If there is any solution to be offered for this, it is merely to rehearse how to say, ‘I would rather speak in Norwegian if that’s all right’, and hope for the best. On an academic level, perhaps universities could require basic language skills from their foreign students; foreign universities could offer fewer courses in English. Unfortunately, much of the appeal of going abroad is being able to go somewhere different without having to learn a foreign language. This in itself is something of a subscription to the stereotype of Erasmus students going abroad for a good time and nothing but. The solution for the moment seems to be to persevere, or to buy a badge that says, ‘please don’t speak to me in English’.