I wasn’t one of those people who went to bed one night speaking one language and woke up with 4. I had learned German years ago in a classroom and that’s now kept alive through the lovely German arm of the family. Learning Norwegian in situ was a different ballgame altogether. Of course I have taken classes and passed some state-run exams that are part of the journey to fluency. I also found that there are certain stages of reaction and behaviour that come with one’s proficiency, something along the lines of the following…
Stage 1 – Blank
This is where you become good at returning an impassive “blank” face and switching off guttural expression when confronted with a question in the new language, let’s say Norwegian, that you don’t understand. I am talking about not having the faintest clue here, nobody home. Blank as a sheet of paper for everything except Hello, No and Thanks. “Sorry, I don’t speak Norwegian” is your best friend let-out clause when you are under pressure. In a group situation, you can become expert in ignoring possible conversation attempts and focusing intensely on a blank wall, interesting floor pattern or your hands in case it could be you they are talking to but you don’t want to chance it. Sometimes you might not have the energy but that’s OK, it’s all going to happen again tomorrow.
Stage 2 – Coping
Now you are getting in to it. You have the great highs of recognising words and expressions when spoken to and responding through an animated facial expression and a convincing array of head nodding and shaking movements. This is when you can develop skills in humming and hawwing guttural sounds. Responding with a vocal flurry in your mother tongue, because you can, regardless of whether it’s understood or not, is seen as a mid to mature stage of coping.
Stage 3 – Joining in
You have reached the stage of understanding random conversations and have even tried joining in. This could be in social gatherings with acquaintances. It could also be on public transport or at the shops where you can finally understand some of what people are saying. You don’t want to waste any more time so you can’t resist butting in and giving an opinion just because you are on high on life and your mastery. This is a tough stage with a steep learning curve. You need to rise above any disapproval. Sometimes you will get it wrong for eg. they weren’t talking about Hansen Beck’s latest album but rather the price of Helly Hansen woollens this week. Don’t dwell, keep moving.
Stage 4 – Deadly Confident
This is a good stage where you think you are skilled at using a minimum number of words to maximum effect. You understand a whole lot, even though you still don’t have a huge range of vocabulary. So using your 10 words, you are comfortable having a 30 minute debate on the rights and wrongs of FIFA or the need for research funding into the seasonal migration habits of the elk zoom louse. Word repetition and body language is key. You haven’t quite nailed it but you have the confidence.
Level 5 – Nailed it Nearly
Sailing high here, sailing high. This is when you are cool and calm if you get stuck for a word and have no problem holding the room while you think of a different way to say it. There is always a next train, isn’t there? This is when people switch to English when they don’t understand you because they are trying to make it easy for you, but you switch back to Norwegian as soon as you get the chance. This is when you stop using Google Translate before typing an email or a text – hell, so what if there are a few mistakes and why would Google know better than you anyway.
This is when you are reading Norwegian bedtime stories to your kids and they understand every word, regardless of your funny pronunciation. There is a distinct possibility that they are just too tired to ask but it doesn’t matter, it’s a good moment.