Learning Norwegian: What's challenging in Norwegian?
Common Obstacles for Learners
Dive into Common Obstacles for Learners and equip yourself with the knowledge to overcome the complexities of vowel usage, sentence structure, tense, gender, dialects and more, as you chart your course to fluency in the Norwegian language.
Embarking on the journey of learning a new language is both exciting and challenging, and Norwegian is no exception. This article on Common Obstacles for Learners, offers a deep dive into the fascinating complexities and nuances of this beautiful Nordic language. With a focus on common difficulties like mastering the nine vowel sounds, getting the hang of the fussy sentence structure, and understanding the diverse dialects, this guide aims to arm you with the knowledge to overcome these obstacles and progress confidently on your language-learning journey.
Whether you're a beginner or at an intermediate level, join us as we unravel the intricacies of Norwegian and chart a course towards achieving linguistic fluency.
What's challenging in Norwegian depends in part on the learner's mother tongue and, to a lesser degree, other languages they have experience with. Here are a few observations, including aspects that are problematic for most adult learners as well as some that are language-specific. I don't really try to differentiate between levels, as many of the mistakes recur at intermediate and higher levels, just less frequently and embedded in richer constructions.
Tricky Norwegian Vowels
Many languages, such as Standard Arabic, only have 3 vowel sounds: A, I, and some variant of O (/ʊ/).
Norwegian has nine. Each with a short and a long version, adding up to a staggering 18 different vowels.
It doesn't stop there. We even add diphthongs which are combinations of vowels.
One time, an Arabic-speaking student popped his head into the teachers' lunch room and asked politely if we had saks (scissors) in there. Because he got a vowel wrong, however, the question came out very differently in meaning. Clearly, mastery of vowels matters.
A lot of learners struggle with the vowel /ʉ/, which is written U, as in the pronoun du (you, singular). The trick is to anchor the tongue behind the lower teeth and raise it to create a narrow passage while puckering your lips. Nailing this will instantly make you sound more native. Failing it will make you address people as do /dʊ:/ -- a casual word for toilet. Other challenges include Y vs I. The difference is that Y involves rounded lips while I does not.
Then there are the three letters in addition to the standard Latin alphabet. The Æ-sound is more open than E, yet closer than A, and the favourite vowel of sheep. The Ø-sound is even more distinctively Norwegian. Say E but with rounded lips. That's it! Take care not to conflate it with Å /ɔ/ , which is like A with rounded lips.
The length distinction must also be considered. Speakers of Slavic languages, such as Polish, may find this difficult. The vowel in fin (nice) should be about twice as long as the one in finn (find). In writing, long vowels are usually followed by two consonants, or by nothing, as in “du”.
Norwegian is fussy about sentence structure, a.k.a. word order or syntax. Infamous is the so-called V2 rule, calling for a tensed verb in the second position of all statements and open questions. When the clause begins with the subject -- i.e., whatever's doing or being something -- this is straightforward:
Jeg er her (I am here).
However, whenever it doesn't, the subject must swap places with the verb: Her er jeg, not *Her jeg er. The verb is like a stubborn passenger refusing to budge when asked by cabin crew to change seats.
This is simple enough on paper, but noriously hard to get the hang of. Likely it's because it has zero impact on meaning. Those who just want to communicate may in fact ignore it, but if you want to speak and write correctly, or pass tests at higher levels, you better get practising.
The V2 rule does not apply to dependent clauses. Here the subject, not the verb, goes second. And now there's a new, unwelcome twist! Adverbs like ikke (not) go before the verbs:
Jeg er trist fordi du ikke er her (I am sad because you aren't here).
Of the world's over 7,000 languages, it seems that only the Scandinavian ones have this pointless frill.
Norwegian statements and questions always require an explicit subject. In languages like Spanish, this is often implied by the verb: Estoy feliz. That's not in the job description of Norwegian verbs, so one must say: Jeg er glad. If no logical subject is around, a formal placeholder rolls up:
Det regner (It's raining / It rains)
Who exactly is this “it”, and could it please stop raining? The “it” is required, nonetheless, and always in its neuter variant, det.
To some learners, this is confounding.
While simple compared to most languages out there, the tense system is far from transparent to all learners. For example, it has the perfect tense, which is absent in Slavic languages such as Polish or Ukrainian. In addition, Norwegian employs the perfect tense for ongoing situations, where many languages use the present. This leads to common mistakes like *Jeg bor i Norge i to år (*I live in Norway for two years).
The correct version is:
Jeg har bodd i Norge i to år.
Norwegian has no simple future tense, so learners often overuse the present future, formed by the modal verb skal + infinitive. However, skal is mainly used to express intention, not mere prediction. Thus, for instance, Millioner skal dø av dette viruset! (Millions shall die of this virus!) sounds like the villain revealing his scheme to a captive Bond. Say instead: Millioner kommer til å dø, or more formally: Millioner vil dø.
Another common error here is using the present tense twice in a row: *Millioner skal dør av dette viruset! This statement is worse than a crime: It's a grammatical mistake.
There also is no continuous/progressive tense. To say that something's happening, use the regular present tense and slap on a nå (now). For emphasis, there are phrases like holde på + infinitive.
Slutt å bable om grammatikk, jeg holder på å spise! Stop rambling about grammar, I'm eating!
Nouns and noun phrases
Norwegian nouns come in three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter.
This can be baffling to speakers of English and other languages lacking this pointless complication. Upon being informed that it's et bilde (neuter) but en billett (masculine), one British student exclaimed: "A picture, a ticket, what's the ****** difference!" Indeed. Still, the genders must be learned, by memorizing the article for each new noun. Flashcards are helpful here, as for vocabulary acquisition in general.
There is a shortcut: Just say no to the feminine. This gender is optional in the bokmål standard, so feminine nouns can be changed to the masculine at will. For instance, instead of ei flaske, one might say en flaske. Both options are correct, and common, and refer to a bottle. In this way, learners are free to confront their main enemy: the neuter. Try to avoid, for instance, “en bilde”. It's a bit jarring.
Like English, Norwegian has definite reference. This means that whenever you refer to something specific which your audience is familiar with, you let them know. However, Norwegian grammar tends to belabour the point. Take the English phrase “my black cat”. How many times are a specific kitty singled out? Only once, by “my”. In Norwegian, by contrast, this would be phrased den svarte katten min, with no fewer than four definite markers. True, one could also say min svarte katt, but that's less common and still doubles up on specific catness. Pity those learners whose mother tongue lacks definite form altogether!
On the bright side, Norwegian rarely gets any trickier than this.
Unlike English, Norwegian uses reflexive possessive pronouns when someone else interacts with something or someone they have. “He's kissing his wife.” Whose wife? In Norwegian it's either:
Han kysser kona si (happy wifey)
Han kysser kona hans (potential drama)
However, the reflexive form can't appear in the subject, so *Han og kona si kysser (He and his wife are kissing) is wrong. Correct would be: Han og kona hans kysser.
Vocabulary points for English speakers
The word hvis is only used in conditional clauses: Jeg kommer hvis jeg kan (I'll come if I can). What's confusing is that English “if” is also used in clauses expressing doubt or ignorance: “I don't know if I'm coming”. Here, Norwegian uses om: Jeg vet ikke om jeg kommer. On the other hand, om may substitute for hvis: Jeg kommer om jeg kan.
A few common phrases work differently from English. How are you? Don't answer: Jeg er bra (I am good); that sounds like bragging. Say instead: Det går bra. If you like something a lot, say Jeg liker det godt, not Jeg liker det mye. Last but not least, the verb å gå has the basic sense of “to walk”. Sure, it sometimes functions like “to go”: å gå på jobb (to go to work), å gå på skole (to go to school), å gå hjem (to go home). However, we don't say, for example, “å gå til USA”. That walk would be too long and splashy.
Many learners overuse the verb å synes, which is narrower than English “to think” and reserved for subjective evaluation. It works like French trouver: Je trouve que c'est bête (I think it's stupid), or English “find”: I find it fascinating. If you're unsure about factual matters, use instead å tro (to believe). If you're prepared to argue for a view, å mene is probably ideal.
The wealth of dialects are challenging for every learner. There's no standard spoken variety, and many dialects differ significantly from either of the two written standards (bokmål/nynorsk). One possible sentence in the Trøndelag dialect, for instance, consists entirely of vowels: Æ E I A Æ Å (I'm in the A class too). This is a made-up illustration, but it makes the point.
It doesn't help that that dialects are used even in official contexts, lately even NRK newscasts. So what can be done? Well, how do Norwegians learn to understand each other? The answer can only be exposure. My tip is to watch Norge rundt, the NRK regional magazine show presenting mildly interesting oddities from around the country every Friday on NRK 1. Subtitled in either bokmål or nynorsk, its web archives stretch back to 1976. Not only will it teach you dialects, it will show you all of Norway and help you feel at home.