Can’t speak, brain numb

And suddenly I had 2 kids in barnehage and I had to figure out what I was going to do to earn a living. The obvious thing was that I needed to learn the language. We had come here for the long haul. You can’t belong anywhere without speaking the local language.

Myths abound about moving to a place like Norway as an English speaker and how easy it will be to find work. You will find it so easy because there are international companies who will need international experience, they say (they being the wise old elves who know everything). You will find it easy with native English as they need English speakers for international trade, they say.

There is a fair dose of rubbish in the above for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a small market and it is hard to break in. Norway is still fairly homogeneous and you will struggle, as I have, if you are untried and untested in Norway or at least Scandinavia. And that’s no matter what kind of a bright or not so bright star you were somewhere else.

It is also underestimating the base standards here. Looking at corporate jobs, you are competing in a market where the norm here is bilingualism. Although Business English fluency to let’s say, contract negotiating level may not be as common, most Norwegians I have met speak and understand everyday English really well. English is taught in all Norwegian schools from age 7 when kids are in their second year. And of course English TV is a huge help. There is little dubbing here like you see on German TV. Original English language content is broadcast in English with Norwegian subtitles so people are absorbing a second language daily.

I remember expressing my amazement at this to a Norwegian friend and she responded with classic norsk pragmatism: “Of course we need English, how else could we go on holiday and order a beer. Who understands Norwegian abroad?!”. Fair point. Of course it also crystallises why native English speakers are on average very poor at fluency in other languages. It’s that, ” just pass the exam and you’ll never need to use it again” kind of mentality that makes us such high non-achievers on the international language stage.

To add to this, if you put Norwegians, Swedes and Danes in a pub together for an evening, they would all easily understand each other when speaking in their own tongues. The languages have huge similarities. So you could say that they are polyglots here, fluent in 4 languages. It’s amazing. Finnish is a whole other world of loveliness.

So in essence, bringing English to the table is not such a huge advantage in finding work here. You need fluent Norwegian more than you need any English. I started my first Norwegian language course, thus re-igniting a part of my brain that had been sleeping for years. Did you know that it gets harder to make an ass of yourself in your forties, as you try to make yourself understood? Well take it from me, it does.

It takes time. And you have to celebrate your wins. A few weeks back, I won an argument with a call centre adviser when I called up to cancel a subscription for some vitamin tablets. She tried very hard to pause it for 3 months and we all know how that would go. I was having none of it, in my best Norwegian. Suffice it to say, it’s cancelled now. Midlife migrant 1, call centre 0.


  1. Hi. I´m so entertained by the way you write, MLM! 🙂 Keep up the good work! Good luck & talk soon! <3 Nina

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