Thursday, July 19, 2012

The weather in Norwegian (foreign languages)

Our granddaughters in Norway have received their annual English lesson, and this time they didn’t even have to leave home. Our son lives in a modest hytte (shack) thirty minutes from Oslo, and they were staying with him the whole two weeks we were there recently. We, for our part, got our annual lesson in Norwegian – though a less productive exercise would be hard to find.

Mainly, it’s because we don’t try hard enough. English is the language of the world, and the girls will have to learn it sooner or later. Their new little brother, too, though he doesn’t even speak Norwegian yet. Forty or fifty years ago, daily exposure to a foreign language would have driven us (Linda and me) to learn it, but we’re too old now.

The Norwegian grammar is much like the English, and while the vocab is unfamiliar it’s not as foreign as, say, Chinese or Arabic. I’ve learned not to call a hytte a hut, unless it’s a basic overnight refuge for cross-country skiers; otherwise, it’s a cabin – or, if it doesn’t have running water, a shack. Ross’s is a shack – no disrespect.

When I hitch-hiked through Scandinavia in my distant youth, I lucked into a short-term job in a farm-home for autistic children in Sweden, and picked up just enough Swedish to get by. Even today I can still read Swedish sub-titles on the TV more easily than Norwegian ones. Watching the weather in Swedish is therefore more informative for me than it is in Norwegian. Swedish words have always seemed closer to English, although that may be attributable to which dialects I’ve been exposed to and which not.

Only in recent times have the coastal villages (viks) of Norway been connected by road. The only means of access used to be by sea – good practice for the Viking raids on the coasts of the British Isles and Normandy in centuries past. Roads and television have lessened most of the dialectal differences.

We met the other grandparents of the baby at a birthday party for his cousin. They struggled manfully to converse with us, but the language barrier was too great; we gravitated naturally to the few cousins and uncles who could speak English. Actually, our presence was a social strain on several levels. Our son had done their daughter wrong (!), and was not invited. The language barrier was probably a mercy. (He did crash the baby’s Naming Day, under cover of a human shield comprising his daughters and their mother. That showed prudent family-planning, in a sense...)

It’s always embarrassing, being caught short linguistically. The girls chatter happily with their dad and his girl-friend in Norwegian, but courtesy demanded that they speak English in our presence. A few years ago I took a Berlitz course that was poorly taught and utterly useless. Be warned: Berlitz courses aren’t designed for conversation with young grandchildren. So, we have to pick up bits and pieces as we go.

People whose native language is English are so lucky! There will usually be someone who speaks it, everywhere in the world – on the beaten track, at least. If not one’s fellow grandparents, at least some of their relatives; if not one’s grandchildren, at least their mothers; if not one shopkeeper, then the next one along the row. (My travel tales on this blog, T1 to T10, illustrate the kind of problems encountered off the beaten track.)

To compensate for our failure to speak foreign languages, Linda & I carefully avoid using English slang and colloquialisms, and try to use perfect grammar. We recognise a duty to make ourselves clearly understood in English; it’s the least we can do.