Why are Norwegians so good at speaking English?

Posted on 06. Apr, 2011 by in Geography, Language, Norway and the world

I saw an article in Aftenposten this morning titled ´Nordmenn er verdens mestere i engelsk´(Norwegians are world masters in English), which I thought was quite ironic since I just posted about Språkrådet, the Norwegian Language Council, the main goal of which is to preserve the Norwegian language and not let English take it over.  Therefore, I simply had to pick this article out and write a post about it.

It is certainly not just Norwegians who possess excellent English language skills. Other nationalities that have proven their incredible fluency in English include the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland.  I have heard both that Norwegians are the best and that the Dutch are the best.  It doesn´t much matter, but it is certainly interesting to think about and to observe if you are in the vicinity of either Norwegians or Dutch people speaking English.  I remember my sophomore year of college, I became good friends with a Norwegian boy (who I am still very good friends with) and I could barely believe he was from Norway.  Were it not for his stories and his distinct Scandinavian look, I would have thought he was joking-his English was that good.

Several years later when I was living in Oslo and studying at the University, I became good friends with 2 Dutch girls who also spoke impeccable English.  Honestly, I doubted my own English skills (despite the fact that it is my mother tongue…) because they were so good.  All of the Norwegian and Dutch people I have met (except for older people who either didn´t learn English in school at all, or learned a very minimal amount) fit this stereotype.  They are absolutely incredible!

The question is why?  The answer has multiple components/they have several things in common:

-like Denmark, Sweden & Finland, Norway and the Netherlands are small, wealthy, northern European countries.  This reason is essentially the major reason that all others stem from.

-students start learning English early and particularly in college, some, if not all classes are taught in English

-TV, music, media, and computer games, to name a few, are heavily influenced by the English language.  Movies are subtitled, rather than dubbed, as many other countries do

-no other nationalities speak these languages (except colonies…), so it is imperative for people in these countries to learn English if they want to be part of the global community in any way

-people from these countries typically travel a lot and therefore get to use English more than their less traveled counterparts

Some people think that one of the main reasons that northern Europeans are extremely good at English is because these languages are Germanic and have similarities to each other and to German, for instance.  I happen not to subscribe to this philosophy as much as the others for several reasons:

-Finnish is not Germanic or similar to any of the other mentioned northern European nationalities who are proficient in English.

-If this philosophy was true, theoretically Germans should be able to (but doesn’t) speak English just as well as other northern European nationalities like Scandinavians.  Also, theoretically Spaniards and Portuguese people should have roughly the same English language skills, but in fact, the Portuguese are known to be more proficient in English than the Spaniards.

I found a pretty funny comment about the Dutch being so good at English:  Their own language is not music to their ears.  Ha!

What are your thoughts?

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About kari

I attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, where I majored in Norwegian and History. During college, I spent almost a year living in Oslo, Norway, where I attended the University of Oslo and completed an internship at the United States Embassy. I have worked for Concordia Language Villages as a pre-K Norwegian teacher and have taught an adult Norwegian language class. Right now, I keep up by writing this Norwegian blog for Transparent Language. Please read and share your thoughts! I will be continuing this blog from my future residence in the Norwegian arctic!

22 Responses to “Why are Norwegians so good at speaking English?”

  1. Pirate 6 April 2011 at 4:57 am #

    Agreed. Norwegians have an unbelievable command of the English language. Still, there are noticeable differences. My wife has absolutely no Norwegian accent and has to tell people here in the US that she is not a native English speaker and was born and raised in the Oslo area. Her younger brother speaks fluent English, but with a definite accent. Their younger sister has an even heavier accent and much less command of English. All three went to the same schools, so I have to attribute these variations in English ability to differences in instructors and teaching styles.

  2. Paddy 6 April 2011 at 7:31 am #

    Interesting post. I agree with you regarding Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish (an Indo-Hungarian language) I subscribe to the view of Bill Bryson about the Dutch: Hearing them speaking is like listening to a bizarrely corrupted version of English “dzlik-burger-klak-order-cluf”

    And you don’t have to go to far into a book of English etymology to examine the origin of many words from Old Germanic and Old French (not that the French are particularly better at learning English).

    Anyway – interesting!

  3. Jan 6 April 2011 at 8:05 am #

    Syng på norsk !

  4. Brang 6 April 2011 at 12:16 pm #

    Yes. It’s true that Norwegian are very good in English. Resources they have in school play a big role in this. Like you said, they are rich. That’s why they can travel a lot and expose to language more often than others. English culture is deeply influenced in this society. The songs they listen to, the movie they watch are most in English language.

  5. kari 6 April 2011 at 12:58 pm #

    Yes, different instructors and teaching styles are likely to make a difference as well!

  6. kari 6 April 2011 at 1:02 pm #

    I work for a Dutch company and I have come to like the language a lot. I only wish I had more time to learn it! I think it sounds nicer than German;)

  7. Fosse 7 April 2011 at 7:07 pm #

    When I first visited Norway as a new, non Norwegian speaking bride, Norway was a small, relatively poor, Northern European country (still recovering from the war and the occupation). The older generation, to a large extent, was non English speaking. However, almost every home I visited had a TV set. there were only a couple of channels and those functioned for only a short time every day. The limited programming included several American series (including Gunsmoke). There were no subtitles and no dubbing. The majority of homes I visited seemed to have the TV on all of the few hours that it operated with young children listening or at least present while the English was being spoken on the TV. I have always believed that this exposure, combined with the fact that, if Norwegians step one foot out of Norway, no one has any idea what they are saying (with the exception of people in the other Scandinavian countries) has motivated them to become fluent in English..

    As time has gone by and I later lived in Norway for a time and visited many times I saw a remarkable change as Norway gradually became a wealthy nation and her citizens became great lovers of travel (well, of course, they were historically travelers), it was my experience that more and more people spoke English (as well as other languages).

  8. kari 8 April 2011 at 2:19 am #

    Hi Fosse-it is extremely interesting to hear from someone who has physically seen the language and cultural progression since WWII. Thank you for sharing! You´re observations are spot on!

  9. LGB 4 May 2011 at 2:10 pm #

    Just a random thought: I’ve been in both of Finland and Norway. English can be used and understood everywhere, that’s true. My country (Hungary) is often told not so great if someone wants to use a foreign (to Hungary) language here. And indeed, it’s true, I must admit. What I can see, that people are nervous here if a movie, series, whatever is not dubbed and it was always the case. Maybe hearing English (like in Finland and Norway, where movies are not so often – or never? – dubbed but only subtitled) helps people to “get to used” to another language and they can learn then more easily. Or something similar …

  10. Summer 6 June 2012 at 10:52 am #

    HAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, are you kidding me? I live in Norway, and we suck at it!

  11. Even 8 June 2012 at 10:37 pm #

    Summer: How can you possibly say that? I guess you’re not even able to count to ten? Norwegians; though especially teens are able to communicate on they’re 2nd language (english) fluently ;) Like when I was nine years old I started to play video games, and from there I learned my english so well that I could communicate IRL even though it was only my third year with English at primary school… But of course. Not every single person speaks good English.

    Btw. I have noticed that the Norwegians who live on the west coast, gets a much more similar dialect with Native English speakers than the people of Eastern Norway, where I can easily hear they’re ugly dialects flow into they’re English.

  12. norwegian 24 July 2012 at 3:20 pm #

    Well, I am Norwegian. And I belive the reason that you get the impression that we are good at the English languange, is that we start to learn English at the age of 10. Also a lot of the shows on TV are in English. We also frequently use the internet :-)

  13. another norwegian! 19 August 2012 at 7:12 pm #

    I can see where u goning with this, but hey, like you said, not all of the norwegians are good at speaking english! Mostly people who were boarn earlier than the 70´s actually SUCK! It´s the newer generation that you´re might pointing to… I go to 10´th grade now (in norwegian schoolsystem) but I still got plenty to learn! I mean, it´s probably some horrible spelling mistakes in this very comment!
    I am getting an A in english, but that´s just the oral part! you see, norwegian schools have two ways to learn the language english, it´s oral and then it´s a writing part! And u know what? Mostly, studets at my age are not that good when it comes to SPEAK english, but their grammar,stories,and yeah… prity much everything is really good!
    I got influenced by “the choose”! That´s somethig many schools give their students when they goes to the last year at primary school, or in what we norwegians call 8´th grade! What they give, is a dilamma between talking (and very important writing) American English or British English! I think that´s the biggest source to the Norwegans impressive english! When they got to choose what they really want to talk, and that just might given them a lot of inspiration to continue talking!

    Oh, and btw… we use A LOT of google translate! ;)

  14. Satsuki 1 February 2013 at 8:05 am #

    Have you met Petter Solberg?

  15. Bjørn A. Bojesen 7 February 2013 at 9:59 am #

    No. :-)

  16. Dimitris 27 February 2013 at 8:44 pm #

    I am from Greece and I dare say, the Greek youth are the best foreign English speakers worldwide. Because we can see our country failing right before our eyes, becoming worse every single year, we study English bloody hard! I, sometimes speak in English all day long with my friends instead of speaking in my native language. We watch american TV and shows like House M.D, Community and CSI without subtitles on and read English Literature Classics without the need of a dictionary. I am 14 years old and I have the Michigan Proficiency (ECPE). My friends are taking the exam next year. Also, my best friend Aggelos has got his IELTS and he’s just one year older than me. Some people suck donkey ass to be honest but we’re mocking them. He who doesn’t speak proper English in Greece is considered stupid. You can bust my balls all you want but that doesn’t refute the facts. Ah, I forgot to mention, 70% of Greeks who study abroad study in the UK. Norse bitches kiss my ass. The only thing I like about your country is your beautiful blonde chicks and black metal.

  17. Transparent Language 27 February 2013 at 9:38 pm #

    Blonde chicks and black metal?! Well, that’s a start…

  18. The third(?) Norwegian. 18 April 2013 at 10:52 pm #

    Learn english at the age of 10??
    My class began when we were eight years old, but i still cant say that i speak fluently.
    Iv’e just took an english test, and the respond was ” youre english is advanced”
    I dont think the test was good enough when they say MY english is advanced!

    I dont have any american accent, only british, its like my tongue cant make those sounds haha…
    And my spelling isnt good enough,im better speaking english than writing it.
    So i dont agree that EVERY norwegian born after the 70′s are good at it, cause im still learning .

    But i think its because the english and the norwegian language has the “same” sentences like:

    i can speak English
    Jeg(I) Kan(can) snakke(speak) Engelsk (english)
    They both got the same words on the same spot, but if we for example take the german language it would be:
    Ich kann Englisch sprechen
    (I can english speak)

    I dont know if this made any sence at all, but i think it has something to do with it

    Great post by the way!
    - Hedda

  19. Norwegian Girl 9 June 2013 at 1:37 am #

    ˆNorwegian: I’m Norwegian too, and I think we start learning English earlier than at the age of 10. We start learning the numbers and the colors when we’re like 6-7, I think.

    I have to say that many Norwegians are fluent or almost fluent in English, but some suck at it. Take Petter Solberg for an example. He once said “It was so much dog on the window”, when he actually meant to say “It was so much dew on the window”. (Dew is “dugg” in Norwegian, almost pronounced like the English word “dog.”) skills

    I personally think, and I’m told all the time, that I’m really good at both speaking and writing English. (I probably shouldn’t be writing this, though, because of the Jante Law. Haha :p). BUT as stated above, some of us Norwegians have such a lack of English that I honestly think it’s so embarrassing! Heavy accents are also a problem. Some have a such a heavy accent that it’s hard to understand what they are trying to say.

    I don’t know why, but I’ve always been fascinated by English and the US, and I think that’s the reason for my “skills in English”, or what to call it. By the way, I’m 17 now.If you were wondering: I speak American, because I just loooove it! haha

    I’m actually going to be an exchange student in Utah, USA 2013/2014 and I’m leaving this summer! :D I have a blog (www.lotteinusa.blogg.no) you can read, if you want to. I’m writing in Norwegian, though :)

    Sorry if I had any words miss spelled or any grammatical errors! Please let me know :))

  20. Karen-Oliva 20 August 2013 at 9:30 pm #

    Hi! I’m another norwegian here.
    It is true that many do speak good english, but seriously, some are probably the worse in this world.
    My class (I believe mostly everyone in Norway born after 1990 or 95) started learning english at the age of 6, we started out easy, but you know, we knew the easiest words like yes, no, one, two, three, so, sorry and so on.
    I speak with a big, fat, British accent and my old classmates always used to tease me a little for it. But I believe that the younger generation and even some from about 1930 speak good english is because of how they have been working. The west coast of Norway has always been influenced a lot with fishing and boats, many of these went abroad and came to other countries. My granddad f. Ex. worked on a boat as a machinist or something like that and the boat went abroad all the time with other nationalities on board and they would usually use english, spanish and german to communicate with eachother and when they came to other countries.
    These days we have many working with the oil and machines, my mother for example is working with spare sales in a company called cargotec wich sell parts of machines to others, among them many english speaking.
    The younger generation today watches movies, tv-shows, use youtube, travel, use english practically and do use the Internet a lot. It is not weird that the younger generations from mostly all over the world are getting better at english when we use it so much in the media and computer games online, blogs and TV.
    We do also work harder in school to get what we want, if you want a really good job, you should know english.
    In Norway for example if you want to study to be a doctor or an enginour you (I believe you have to, this is what my teachers told me) have to start with another foreign language in 8th grade (when you are 13-14 years old) as f. ex. Spanish or German or French, and this is beside the english.
    Believe me, many Norwegian teenagers do want to be good in english, that’s why we make an effort.

  21. Debbie 3 February 2014 at 12:23 pm #

    it’s possible. Old English may well have been a Germanic language, but modern English is a Scandanavian language, basically the language of the Danelaw settlements in the East Midlands. Compare the sentence structure/grammar of English and Norwegian and you’ll see what I mean. Verbs in the same position, can finish a sentence with a preposition, “the” and “and” from old English,but the verbs and the nouns from Norwegian and/or Danish.

    Comparing modern English to Dutch/German, it’s clear that their sentence structure is vastly different to ours. I guess we abandoned old English and derived modern English once the Norwegians/Dames started to settle here in huge numbers.

    And this is old news. Linguists were defining modern English as a Scandanavian language way back in the 1930s, well before WWII. British people have known English was a Scandanavian rather than Germanic language for years.

  22. Detergent 10 August 2014 at 8:04 pm #

    Dutch people without higher education can’t speak English very well. Unless you’re in a very big city, most of the time you will have a hard time finding people with a reasonable command of the English language. And most people have a terrible accent.


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