How far can you get in 5 hours? The Norwegian mission!


I hope you all liked this year’s April Fool’s joke of my sales pitch for human beings, on the dedicated site, as the best “system” for language learning (turning my HB 2.0 post into an actual cheesy Internet sales page, with highlighter pen and arrow buttons and all!) [Previous April Fool’s included my Confession that I was faking speaking all my languages 2 years ago, and appropriately last year, a video where I actually did fake speaking another language (with a particularly hideous new site design to add to the cheesiness)]

I’ll be leaving the Language Ninja site there permanently, so if anyone ever asks you what the best “product” they should invest in for language learning, with some silly consumerist focus in mind of throwing money at the problem, please send them to that page ;). I hope my sales pitch for HB 2.0 / language ninjas was convincing!!

Next mini-mission: Norwegian!!

Anyway, with a pretty successful Polish mini-mission behind me, tomorrow I am flying to Oslo!

Of course I plan to be a respectful tourist and be fully capable of ordering food, asking directions, being polite, and giving basic info about myself, all in Norwegian.

However, since I am not under any pressure to do something else (my trip to Warsaw was specifically to speak at TEDx, and preparing for that talk took time out of the 5 hours I had planned for polish, knocking it down to only 2! The talk went well, and you can see a cool visual representation of what I was saying in the image above that was drawn while I was saying it!) I think I will actually manage to do five full hours of preparation this time! :)

This is great because Norwegian is a Germanic language, which gives me a huge head start before I even get to work. There are things that would be familiar to us English speakers, and then my German will definitely help too!

When searching for how to get from the airport to where I’m staying, I noticed that the airport on Google Maps is called lufthavn, which would be very easy for me to guess the meaning of if I heard it in a conversation, because it’s Flughafen in German and Luft in German means air.

A quick flick through the dictionary at the back of my phrasebook (which you can see in the photo above, once again, I didn’t overanalyse things and just bought the first interesting phrasebook I saw, which in this case is written in German) shows me a bunch of words I recognize already! Like when I took advantage of Dutch and German similarities, I think I might be able to have a slightly more complex chat at the end of this super-intensive project!

Of course, a video upload next week will reveal all :)

End of the world!

The reason I’m going to Norway is to attend Chris Guillebeau’s “End of the world” party – I love that event name; he has managed to visit every single country in the entire world… except Norway!

He intentionally left it for last since it was way easier to visit than the others he had left, and so himself and a bunch of other good friends of mine will welcome him to his “end of the world” in style! I’m also going on a Fjord tour for a couple of days; not usually my style, but since I’ll be with friends it’s much easier to appreciate aesthetics (which I find way less interesting when I travel alone, as such experiences are better shared).

I will have five full days in Norway, seeing the countryside for 2 days, and then hanging out in Oslo the other days. Since everyone in our group is going to be fellow foreigners, I’m going to try to help them out by at least asking the initial questions in Norwegian for my entire trip as we are out and about.

Even if Norwegians speak English well, northern Europeans can indeed give you good language practice! Despite the prominence of English in some places, I still think it can be quite disrespectful to force the language on people out of the blue, and if I’m asking something beyond the limited amount I know in any language, the question I always ask before switching to English is “Do you speak English?”

So even if I wasn’t giving myself five entire hours to do so much more, I would at least recommend people learn that phrase before being a tourist somewhere ;) English isn’t all that great for travellers!

But I’m hoping that even this minor attempt to do something more than most tourists would, will give me a slightly different perspective on my time in the country, and maybe even help Norwegians open up to me that little bit more.

I really hope these mini-missions are showing some of you that it’s NEVER too early to speak your language! If you put aside all the excuses, fears of embarrassment, perfectionism and other nonsense… how far do YOU think you could get in just five hours of intensive work?

I’ll share the experience with you next week! For now, I have to do the first hour or two of studying to get ready for my Skype session (as before, recorded so you can see how I do in my first ever attempt to use the language) ;) If you have any tips, or if any of you are in Oslo and up to meet up, let me know!



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  • SamB_UK

    Best of luck! I look forward to hearing how you get on.

    In my year or so of learning and speaking Norwegian, one of my greatest frustrations has been how polite and friendly the Norwegians are – because they nearly always switch to English with you! Even last weekend when I was there, I was ordering drinks and had ordered in Norwegian and made a query about my card, only for the guy serving to switch to English when it came to me paying! Frustrating! But obviously it just takes persistence and understanding – and the reason Norwegians do it is that they genuinely think they’re being very helpful, and to the majority of tourists they really are!

    The other oddity I’ve come across several times in Norway is that service staff often don’t speak Norwegian. Much of the time they’re Swedish, and so a half/half Swedish-Norwegian conversation will ensue, which often confuses the hell out of me! Alternatively, they might be an immigrant from elsewhere (usually Eastern Europe) and not speak Norwegian at all – instead they’ll ask the customer to switch to English, even if the customer themselves is English. Not something I’ve ever seen anywhere else in the world!

    Anyway, best of luck! I look forward to reading your experiences, and especially any tips you have for getting Norwegians to speak Norwegian with you! I’m also interested to hear your experiences with Norwegians with different accents – one of my biggest difficulties has always been understanding the range of totally different pronunciations!

    • Benny Lewis

      As I wrote in the “Northern European myth” post linked above, I’ve come across this phenomenon before, of them switching to English and it is very very easy to change. Not just by “persistence” (I’m not actually THAT persistent), but my trying to emulate their pronunciation and sentence rhythm better so your accent doesn’t stand out as much.

      Since most foreigners may not learn the language, when they hear the ACCENT they feel compelled to switch, because they’ve had to do it by default all other times and have the mental association with an accent basically demanding a switch. (This is independent of your scope of vocabulary, grammar etc.)

      I’d suggest getting singing lessons, talking to a speech therapist or whatever it takes to reduce that accent, and you may be surprised at how less likely they are to switch to English ;)

      Although yes, being served by other foreigners is outside of this case. It is indeed strange to hire waiting staff that don’t speak the local language. To me this sounds like something you’d only do in a highly touristed restaurant, and not one used almost only by locals.

      Then again it can be done intentionally out of charm. For instance, Italian restaurants here in Berlin greet me in Italian as I come in, and are very happy for me to ask for my seat and make my order in Italian. This gives the experience a feeling of authenticity, especially if you can speak some Italian. Although they too speak some German most of the time, even if it’s not great.

      • SamB_UK

        Thanks Benny – like I say, I’m curious to see how you get on in Norway, as I do think it’s harder there than elsewhere to persuade people to stick to their language, simply because Norwegians are so good at (and comfortable with) English.

        You are right though that it’s that mental association with the accent, and of course my accent is something I’m working on (and am all too aware of!) – I think I find the Norwegian accent somewhat harder to emulate than when I’ve learned other languages. I’ve had the problem far less in Germany and Serbia, for example.

        I have encountered being served by foreigners in restaurants a lot. It’s not necessarily particularly touristy restaurants, but it is in cities (mostly Bergen), so it’s presumably higher there than it might be elsewhere.

        • Benny Lewis

          “I do think it’s harder there than elsewhere to persuade people to stick
          to their language, simply because Norwegians are so good at (and
          comfortable with) English.”

          This is precisely the same thing many would say about the Dutch ;) In my (limited) experience, the Dutch tend to be slightly better at English than Norwegians, but I still managed to not switch to English while living in Amsterdam, which is the worst place to go in the Netherlands if you want to keep the conversation from switching to English :D

          Best of luck with the accent reduction!

          • Joop Kiefte

            True… we switched to Portuguese when I visited you ;) If you visit the Maastricht region some day (FESTO 2013 will be in the neighbourhood!) pay us a visit!

        • Gina

          Since I started attempting to speak Norwegian (about 2-3 years ago…and I visit Norway 2 or 3 times per year), I haven’t had any Norwegians try to switch to English while talking to me. Ever. They may have the best English ever or whatever, but it seems they’d still rather speak Norwegian. So I don’t think it’s the Norwegians who need persuading to keep speaking Norwegian ;)

          Totally with you that the pronounciation is harder. Not sure it’s an “accent” problem so much as the fact that they have sounds I never encountered before, plus the all-important concept of long and short vowels.

        • Gus Mueller

          One thing I’ve found to obscure my origin is … mumbling. It’s not necessary to speak all the time like your pronunciation skills are being evaluated. Local people don’t. I’ve made this work in French, Chinese, and Tibetan. I’m functional but not fluent in any of them.

  • Austin Wood

    See you at the end of the world!

  • Herman Håkestad

    As a Norwegian, I was so delighted to see my inspiration taking on our language 8)
    Good luck!

    • Benny Lewis

      For the next months, for about an hour or so a day. I’m working on bringing all my other languages back up to specific levels (and greatly improving particular ones; more on this in a post after my Norwegian mission). Because of time restrictions, I can’t be doing anything in Arabic for the moment, as that was my major focus for the entire 5 months before I arrived in Berlin.

      Because of this, it’s getting rusty fast and I’m temporarily not going to tell people I speak it because I hate getting put on the spot.

      After my 3 month contract, if I still have a few more months before the next major project, I can give much more time to improving my languages and give Arabic a solid permanent place with an hour or so a day to get it back to the solid B1 I had it at before, and beyond, but I still have to figure out the MSA vs dialect issue.

      • Herman Håkestad

        Oh okay. Thanks for responding! :)
        Much luck with the Norwegian mission, looking forward to seeing the TED talk you had too :)

  • Angie Johansen

    I agree with some of the comments here, too bad you’re only going to Oslo, because I know many people who only speak English there. I think the Nighthawk Diner on Grünerløkka only has American waiters for example. (And it has nothing to do with ‘Allo ‘Allo either…..) But if you’re in Oslo, stay in Oslo, don’t go to the rest of the south east, it’s not… it isn’t the prettiest part of Norway. Bergen, the west in general (vest ER best!), and the North, where I’m from, are the most beautiful! No contest! :D

    And also, there definitely is no one Norwegian accent. If you want to have A Norwegian accent, I think the trick is not picking a dialect, but try finding a person and stick with his or her particular dialect. That yields the best results in my experience. With most people from Norway you can tell that he or she is from this side of the fjord or the other side, because they will speak differently even if there are only 1500 people living there. For example, during my hour long conversation over coffee yesterday with a friend from the south east, she had to ask me twice for definitions of words I use. And we’re from the same country! But the good thing about the vast differences in dialects is that you sort of get two extra languages through learning Norwegian: Swedish and Danish!

    Ár ádh mór ort!

    Ha en fin tur!

    • Benny Lewis

      “too bad you’re only going to Oslo”

      I’m doing a 2 day Fjord tour, I thought that was clear!! And yes, it’s the west – we’ll be overnighting in Bergen between Fjords! ;)

      Yes, I just got off my Skype call and she didn’t agree with the phonetics in my phrasebook many times, saying it’s another accent. Fun language!

      • Angie Johansen

        Sorry, I was commenting on the “…seeing the countryside for 2 days, and then hanging out in Oslo the other days”, which I interpreted as you seeing the countryside in the south west, which in my opinion is “meh.” compared to everywhere else in Norway. I did see that you are planning to take the fjord trip, which I know you will enjoy even if it isn’t your thing. And yes, Bergen, I am actually jealous of you for going there, even though I was just in Bergen, and I’m going there again in a few months. Bergen <3

        The various dialects, sociolects and accents of Scandinavia are multifaceted and confusing, but if you get the hang of it, you can communicate with a bunch of other people as well! The different accents of Norwegian does sometimes remind me of the differences between the Irish accents, but I'm still not sure which language gets to claim to have the widest spectrum, mainly because I don't speak Irish very well yet. I WILL THOUGH!

  • Andrew Moorehead

    Lykke til med å lære norsk og i reisingen til Oslo.

  • Andrew Moorehead

    Oh, yes. Make sure you visit the new Mathallen in Oslo. Heaps of good food.

  • Bort

    Why don’t you learn Norwegian to fluency? It’s probably the easiest language to learn as an english speaker, and given you already know german and dutch, you could probably get to fluency in 2 months. Plus you’ll understand spoken swedish and written danish… 3 in one!

    • Benny Lewis

      I don’t have 2 months. I have 5 days in Norway. Then I absolutely have to get back to my contract here in Berlin. ;)

      • Jack F

        Benny are you living in Germany now? I’ve been on the western side of the country for the past 9 months now, I love it here!

  • Herman Håkestad

    I hate asking too many questions but… What variety of Norwegian are you learning? Nynorsk or Bokmål?

  • Karen Chow

    I loved your April Fools joke, it was my favorite one this year! Have a great time in Oslo and Bergen and on the fjords tour. I’ve been there and it’s awesome, and cool that you’ll be celebrating Chris’ last country.

  • Andrew

    “I still think it can be quite disrespectful to force the language on
    people out of the blue, and if I’m asking something beyond the limited
    amount I know in any language, the question I always ask before switching to English is “Do you speak English?”’

    If you can learn nothing in else in a language prior to going to the country where it’s spoken, it should be this. Been telling people this for years: learn “Hi”, whatever greeting they like to use (equivalent of “How are you?” in English, which isn’t always “How are you?” in that language), and “Do you speak English?”. That’s the minimum to not be rude.

    Enjoy Norway, it’s supposed to be gorgeous and Norwegians are very friendly (though I hear you may need to get them drunk first as, like most Scandinavians, they’re generally very shy otherwise).


  • boc

    I was interested in this site and iv read most of it, but everytime i read your “langauge tips” i think to myself what have i actually learned? And the answer is always not much. Your constant tip is to speak from the start… And that seems to be it, i watched ur tedx talk hoping to get tips but the main lesson was speak from day one. Yup. Revolutionary. Telling people to speak from day one is hardly “langauge hacking” and everything seems to rely on buzzwords like “fluent in three months” . Im just disapointed with the lack of quality content

  • Andreas Moser

    If only Norway wasn’t so damn expensive.

  • Katie Jurek

    Heihei! Yay, du lærer deg norsk! Jeg elsker Norge og norsk og selvs norske politikk; det er et veldig vakkert land! Kos deg! :D

  • Sofie Clara Esther

    Benny, Norway is a country that speaks very good English. One of the best of all foreign countries. In fact, I think it was ranked top five with Finland, Sweden, The Netherlands, and Denmark. So a lot of people will already be fluent in English, or capable of speaking and understanding it well. Do you anticipate problems speaking Norwegian and having people speak Norwegian to you?

  • Randybvain Torques

    I see that your missions require a lot of memorisation. I wonder, is it getting easier and faster to learn words by heart now comparing to the past?

  • linds113

    Finally you’ve decided to tackle a Scandinavian language! It’s about time lol. I’ve only learned Swedish but it’s a lot of fun and I bet Norwegian is too :))

  • SamB_UK

    Hehe, I like to try that, but then it’s always a bit embarrassing when I then *don’t* understand what they say in Norwegian! It’s sods law it always happens that way!

  • Benny Lewis

    I’m going to Bergen. I said I was doing a 2 day Fjord tour!

  • SamB_UK

    The number of times I’ve stumbled through a conversation thinking ‘hm, it’s really hard to understand what this person is saying’… it usually takes them using a particularly Swedish word (saying tillsammans, for example) for me to realise that they are Swedish!

  • SamB_UK

    It does indeed! I’m better now than I was a few months ago. Good thought about the different radio stations actually, that hadn’t occurred to me. As I’m usually in Bergen, I’ll try and find some Bergen station to listen to! Thank you :)

  • Benny Lewis

    Thanks for the heads up! ;)

  • Goshka

    jeg skal hjelpe :) this list should be enough ;) there is a lot of various towns. it’s from a link Benny gave in LHL to search for radio stations in various languages.

  • Herman Håkestad

    I thought the same thing about the phrasebook too, because the only people who legitimately “study” Nynorsk tend to be Norwegians themselves anyway.
    I think the wisest choise would be an Oslo/Vestfold dialect, because even though it isn’t spoken everywhere, it’s mostly written and read everywhere, plus our national TV is in Oslo dialect most of the time (if it’s not swedish :’D).

  • Gina

    And when you get to the Flyplass, the airport train to Olso is called “Flytoget”… something like “the airplane train”. It’s not made up of the English words “fly to get”, as I somewhat stupidly originally assumed ;)