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Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish-mutually intelligible Posted by on Nov 30, 2010 in Language

Most people give me a very strange look when I tell them that I speak Norwegian.  They give me an even stranger look when I say that one of my majors was Norwegian.  After the look sets in for a few seconds, they typically ask, “why?”  A simple, straight-forward and fair question, although I get quite sick of explaining myself because I think most people still wonder “why” even after hearing my answer.  Why learn German if you are not going to live in Germany or be in business, or the literature or history field, for example?  Why learn French if none of the above apply to you?  We can always ask each other why we learn the languages that we do.  Most of my classmates in high school learned Spanish (which I regret not doing-I took French), which makes perfect sense considering we had to learn a foreign language and the MN (and the U.S. in general), has a very large number of hispanics.  Still, I would be willing to bet the the large majority of my classmates that took Spanish do not currently use it in their personal lives or in business. 

My theory on learning foreign languages is that no matter what, it is a good thing.  I believe children should be required to start learning a foreign language at a very early age.  It is scientifically proven that the processes and the skills involved in second language acquisition are highly beneficial to a child’s brain development and communication skills, to name a couple.  It doesn’t necessarily matter if you are going to use the second language on a daily basis or once a year on vacation.  It’s simply healthy and advantageous to learn a second (third, or perhaps eighth language…). 

This topic came to my mind now because last night at a business dinner party, I had a fantastic experience involving my ability to speak Norwegian.  This is my first business trip with my current company and so the night was filled with new names and faces.  I met a number of Dutch colleagues, as well as folks from the U.K., Belgium, Finland, and Denmark.  When I was introduced to the Danish man, someone whispered in my ear that I should speak Norwegian to him.  So I did, and we had a great conversation that no one in the vicinity could understand.  The Danish man was so pleased that he could communicate with me in his own language because for the 20 years that he has worked for this company, it has always been him that could not understand the Dutch people when they would speak amongst themselves.  Finally, someone who could speak a Scandinavian language!

Later on in the taxi ride back to our hotel, the Danish man, myself, and a Finnish woman were sitting in the back of the van together.  The Finnish woman piped up in Swedish (most Finns can speak Swedish because there is an area of Finland that is Swedish-speaking), so we were having a mutually intelligble conversation in Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish.  They are all very similar that most people from the three countries can understand each other. 

Needless to say, it was a lot of fun to be having this private, very interesting conversation.  And…it just goes to show that even an obscure language like Norwegian can be extremely relevant at times:)

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About the Author: 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!


Comments:

  1. Keith Brooks:

    Wow … this sums up all of the major reasons for why I’m learning Norwegian! I resonated with this so much! This will definitely give me further motivation to continue learning the language. Thank you for posting this!

  2. Matti:

    Very interesting, i’m studying swedish and norwegian myself and tend to understand danish quite well. But most finns do not speak swedish, only 5% of the population as their mother tongue and whoever else wanted to learn it. I am interested as to why you learnt norwegian and how long did it take you to master it? Or did you learn it as a child?

  3. Jo:

    Jeg elsker innleggene dine! men kanskje du kunne skrive både på norsk og engelsk. Det ville være flott!!!

  4. LGB:

    As far as I know Finns can speak Swedish because they must learn it in the school. Finland gives great attention about Swedish majority, for example everything must be written in public areas in Finnish and Swedish too, and people learn Swedish in the school (for Swedish speaking people they learn Finnish, I guess). So at least as far as I know Swedish is spoken even by “non-Swedish Finns” because they had to learn it in the school and not (only) because there is a Swedish speaking area in Finland (which is/can be true, but I guess it’s not the major reason) as you wrote. But please correct me if I was wrong with this information ….

  5. LGB:

    Ah sorry, and an other comment too: yes, indeed at least Swedish and Norwegian is quite close to each other (by sounding, written form is a bit different) but at the other hand written Danish is almost the same as Norwegian bokmål (no wonder, as far as I know that is “norwegianized danish after all) but the pronunciation is quite different (I was told by a Norwegian that they speak as they would choke some hot paprika and cannot say the words, only parts of it). Anyway I could have meaningful conversation with a Finn using Finnish (I speak a very little) and Norwegian (also I speak a bit Norwegian) in a way that she spoke Swedish she learnt in the school …

  6. Fredrik:

    (I’m Norwegian)
    I have spoken to some finns sometimes, and they seem to understand the basics of swedish, but I can not say that they could have a long converation in swedish.

    It is indeed true that for us norwegians danish sounds like they talk with a potato in their mouth. It is also true that it sounds like they don’t prenounce the words fully, like they don’t bother (lazy), but it’s their language.

    I was in Denmark one weekend with some friends, and I had no problem what so ever to understand the danes, and they had no problems understanding my danish (alcohol wants me to try to speak the other persons language, even tho i’m not that good at it)

  7. Matti:

    Swedish is taught in finnish schools, but only a small percent learn it well enough to actually converse in it. I try speaking swedish in work and people just tell me to speak finnish because they don’t understand swedish. The signs are bilingual, at least in Helsinki and other big cities. In smaller towns the signs are just in finnish. I’m not saying a lot of people don’t understand swedish, i just think saying “most finns speak swedish” misrepresented the actual number of people with sufficent swedish language skills.

  8. Kari:

    Apparently I received less than accurate information from my Swedish-Finnish friend. Thank you for the clarifications!