Columnist: Indigo is an American studying at UiO, hoping to come closer to figuring out Norwegian society. «NO WAY I'M IN NORWAY» is her biweekly column about how to navigate Norwegian life for Universitas.
Columnist: Indigo is an American studying at UiO, hoping to come closer to figuring out Norwegian society. «NO WAY I'M IN NORWAY» is her biweekly column about how to navigate Norwegian life for Universitas.

Why international students don’t learn Norwegian (but should)

Learning a language isn’t easy, but it's an essential part of being a foreign student.

You’ve had a long night of drinking, and your new Norwegian friends are slipping out of English and into their dialects. They’re throwing in Norwegian words until the whole conversation has devolved into what sounds like gibberish.

Look around you though. Are you the only non-Norwegian speaker there, vastly outnumbered? It’s an alienating experience, but it’s hard to blame them for reverting back to their mother tongue.

Not bothering to learn Norwegian sends a clear message: I’m not here to get to know you or your country.

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It’s easy to never learn Norwegian. Everyone here speaks English, and often seem more than happy to. Due to their fear of awkwardness, Norwegians are people-pleasers. They would rather switch to English than put the burden on you to muddle along. The first month I moved here, I learned how to say «I prefer to speak Norwegian,» because so many people were trying to be nice by speaking English with me.

Not bothering to learn Norwegian – not even a few words – sends a clear message: I’m not here to get to know you or your country. We all get frustrated with these emotional Neanderthals, as I called them in my last column. It can be hard to crack the ice. But how do we expect to get anywhere if we can’t even hold half a conversation in their language? Despite their seeming willingness to speak English, I’ve found that most of my friends didn’t fully reveal their personalities until we started speaking Norwegian. There’s almost always a palpable sense of relief when I tell someone we don’t have to speak English. Outwardly Norwegians are often blasé about foreigners not speaking their language, even joking it’s a useless one (though I beg to differ, especially since you get Swedish and Danish comprehension as a bonus), but I’ve had many conversations where they express frustration or irritation that many international students can’t venture beyond «Hei, hvordan går det?»

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It’s also a matter of privilege. The Norwegian state requires all permanent resident applicants to learn Norwegian. Immigrants from all over the world come here and have to take 550 hours of language courses, unless they can pass the test already. As foreign students, we get let off the hook. We have the chance to study here and soak in the culture, with no pressure to assimilate. Unfortunately, that also means missing out. It’s easy to retreat into our international communities, without venturing much further out. We all need that sometimes – a haven of people who know exactly what it’s like to live here as an outsider. But living in another country is also about meeting the people there halfway.

No one expects foreign students to be fluent in a year or two, and we can certainly get to know Norway without speaking the language; but there’s always going to be something missing. Whether you’re going to the grocery store or talking to a new acquaintance, even a little knowledge of Norwegian will go a long way toward understanding this sometimes-inscrutable country.

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