Over the years, I’ve had a lot of missions, goals, projects or whatever you want to call them (16 of which I’ve blogged about, so far) to learn languages and take on many interesting other objectives.
Generally on this blog I try to see the good in what I can, and I consider each project I’ve blogged about up to now to be a success (some a huge success, and others short of my initial aim, but a very useful level I’m very proud of nonetheless, such as reaching a B1 rather than my planned B2 level in Arabic in a few months), and consider a black and white pass or fail attitude to be one worth discarding as totally irrelevant to such a non-academic topic of the degree to which you can express yourself in a foreign language, which is better thought of as beginner, through intermediate, through fluent on to mastery, rather than “can or can’t”.
When you put serious time into language learning, you can’t fail. It is all about those degrees of success, where you simply aim to get to as high a degree as possible.
Having said that, this time I can’t really put such a spin on it. It can’t be sugar-coated, I have simply not succeeded in my project to get by in Norwegian. When you take on a challenge over the very long term, or over a few months, you can do many things, and the good days and bad days can even out over time, but obviously this new theme of seeing how far I can get in just a few hours is something that leaves you way more open to errors, and chance.
Polish vs Norwegian intensive missions: comparison
For instance, I actually consider the most recent project of getting by in Polish over a few hours to be one of my most successful projects ever, because after just two hours I was able to have a basic conversation and even act as the designated Polish speaker for my group in dealing with taxi-men, ordering food, and asking for directions. There were, however, many things in my favour for that project;
The first person I spoke Polish with over Skype (Ewelina) understood my desire to not use any English, and was patient enough to stick to just Polish for our entire half an hour, which was an incredible boost to start the super intense project on.
When I got to Warsaw, I didn’t meet anyone I already knew well until my last day, so I was under more pressure to meet new people, walk around by myself, and use what I knew. As a solo traveller, I find this forces me to use my language much better.
As well as this, after I gave my TEDx talk (which was my priority), I was able to shift my focus to exploring Warsaw a little and using what I knew, which motivated me to do a little bit more studying.
Finally, Polish people have been preaching about how difficult their language is to me for years (being more voicy than others about the point), so I also had this extra motivation and passion to make this project a success, as I find such discouraging claims to be unhelpful and worth disproving. It’s a weird motivation, but I genuinely wanted to speak Polish, partly because of this!
In Norwegian on the other hand, the first person I talked to on Skype wasn’t as experienced a teacher and left more responsibility to me to come up with all ideas of how the lesson should progress, and it ended up more like “how do I say xxx?” questions in English the entire time rather than trying to really use the language (as you can see me struggle to attempt to do in my first Polish video). I can get good practice with pretty much anyone in later stages, but who I talk to in earlier stages is really important.
Also, the point of going to Oslo was actually primarily to spend time with some very good English speaking friends of mine (see below), which took away the solo-pressure I usually have, to try and integrate more.
Finally, plans to meet particular Norwegians I was in touch with, for practise and to record a video for me to at least work towards, (recording videos have been great motivation for me to really buckle down!) didn’t work out, because two separate people I was in touch with, who were willing to appear on camera, ended up being too busy to meet me.
In the end, I only did a half an hour or so of studying my phrasebook, constantly procrastinated doing the rest, and ultimately would just say “Please” and “Thanks”, otherwise using English, rather than really using it. I fell down the trap of so many before me and became a typical English speaking tourist!
The real missing ingredient
Missed connections, a less than ideal first conversation, English speaking friends of mine everywhere and so on are all well and good for me to assign the “blame” for why I didn’t do with Norwegian what I was able to do in Polish, but these are all pretty weak excuses that could really have been overcome.
Several of my first Skype attempts in Arabic were also big wastes of time with bad teachers, but I kept trying and tested out other teachers until I found two or three that I did find I’d make genuine progress with. A less than ideal first experience is no excuse for not trying again until you get a better one.
I also had English speaking friends everywhere around me while I was in Valencia, but still managed to make the smart decision to make sure I got into Spanish.
And my first day in Oslo, I had a Fluent in 3 months reader meet up (as always when I travel, announcing it in a location-specific targeted update on my Facebook page), and one of those present wasn’t a native speaker but spoke C level Norwegian, and offered to meet up and help me practise. I could have made the time to do that, and even record the video together (not with a native speaker as I prefer to do, but 2 non-natives chatting in Norwegian could have actually been a more interesting video on Youtube!)
Each of my excuses has a good retort, the same way being too old, not having time, not being able to travel, not having the right language genes, and every other excuse does have an answer, if you are willing to accept that maybe you are the problem.
The real missing ingredient was lack of commitment, laziness and lack of passion. Passion is the one true thing that separates those who are successful from those who aren’t, and I simply didn’t have the kind of passion to learn Norwegian as I’ve had for other languages.
Fail fast and fail often – it’s all a learning experiment!
OK, I lied at the start when I said that I can’t put a positive spin on this mini-mission
I see everything I do as a continuous experiment, and all a chance to learn and improve for future projects. Even with the pressure of starting a blog for accountability, and a decade of language learning experience under my belt, I’m as prone to messing up as everyone else. I firmly believe that perfection is impossible, and being open to experimenting and making mistakes is the true road to success.
These two mini-projects have been an interesting experiment, and I have seen that you can indeed do something incredibly useful the day before travelling to the country, but giving yourself that short a time span leaves too much open to the Murphy gods, so while I will have a project to link to for some encouragement to get someone off their ass if they are flying to a country tomorrow, I think I’ll stick with setting aside at least several days rather than just a few hours in future!
And of course, after I finish this intensive super-duper secret contract in Berlin, I can get back to much larger commitments than that, which are way more practical in producing real results.
Getting by in 2-5 hours is definitely possible, but perhaps not advisable as the only thing you’ll try, and do so half-assed
I’ll have more on this concept of learning, even through “failed” experiments, in the next post!
Still had a fun time in Norway!
Having said all that, while the language aspect of this project was a disappointment, I actually had a wonderful time in Norway!This photo was a collaboration between Wes Wages… and my gorilla tripod tied to a sign
I joined Chris Guillebeau and a few others for a “nutshell” tour of Norway’s Fjords, seeing some beautiful scenery on the west coast of the country over two days. We then get back to Oslo for Chris’ “End of the world” party, since he had successfully visited every single country in the world!
I was joined by loads of great friends of mine here and hung out with them for the rest of my time until leaving the country. Now that I think of it, Norway is actually the first time in my entire life that I have travelled to a country for a genuine holiday. I always tend to have a cultural objective, mixed in with language learning involved, or if it’s a brief visit then I am going for a particular conference I have to speak at. This time was just to see friends and be a visual rather than a cultural tourist.
It was a fun experience! But sadly, for the first time, I have nothing to say about the local culture or about any new friends from the country that I’ve made. By speaking just in English (and German/Spanish etc. with some other foreigners in the party), I feel like I have seen Norway itself through a window, without breaking through it.
The Norwegians of course speak excellent English, but Northern Europeans can of course be spoken to in their own language. Then again, I was only really speaking to those in the tourist industry or in central Oslo.
As it happens one of our group needed to get some cold medicine in Bergen (Norway’s second city), and the lady at the pharmacy couldn’t understand what she meant by “to have a cold”, and I noticed quite a lot of really strange translations in the English on signs and menus, some almost meriting a submission to Engrish.com. So I definitely think that spending more than a couple of days in the country would merit putting serious work into learning the language.
Norwegian, like all languages, would definitely be worth learning for someone visiting the country. I didn’t do so well this time, but I’ve learned a lot, so I can certainly do better the next time I visit a country briefly
Let me know your thoughts on this mini-mission in the comments below!
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This article was written by Benny Lewis
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