As you most probably know, I’ve been learning Norwegian for the last 23 months, largely by conversing with Norwegians on Twitter with the help of two grammar books and various dictionaries. It’s been a fascinating process. (I haven’t blogged properly about the process yet; maybe one day I will.)
What I didn’t quite realise when I first started was the three-for-the-price-of-one nature of the Scandinavian languages. Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are really a collection of dialects stretching across Scandinavia, with no clear boundary between one language and the next. The borders between the countries determine which dialects are considered as belonging to which language, but that’s about as far as it goes. It turns out that learning one of the three languages means you can already understand substantial amounts of the other two if you’re prepared to do a bit of guesswork. Bilingual or trilingual conversations are common between the Scandinavians on Twitter: each participant tweets in their own languge, and generally has to explain only occasional words to the others.
Written Danish is so close to the Bokmål variety of Norwegian that Danish and Bokmål mostly just look like misspelt versions of each other. This isn’t very surprising, since Bokmål is descended from written Danish. (Norwegian had no written form for several hundred years, while the country was under Danish rule.)
Swedish, however, is a lot less guessable, largely because the spelling is so different that Swedish words which are very close to the Norwegian equivalents can look quite different from them. But I’d like to be able to read Swedish without a struggle. I’m encountering more Swedish than I was, both on Twitter and elsewhere: for example I sometimes get Swedish replies to my Norwegian tweets or forum posts. Also one of my favourite authors, Tove Jansson, wrote her novels in Swedish, and I’d love to be able to read her actual words. Her writing is stunning even when translated, and I imagine it’s even more stunning in the original.
So I’ve been feeling the need to learn at least some Swedish. But I’ve no desire to laboriously plough through lots of information which simply repeats what I already know about the Scandinavian languages via Norwegian. What I’m really after is the differences from Norwegian. When is it safe to assume that the two languages work the same way? When isn’t it safe? Does that word which looks similar to a Norwegian one actually mean the same thing or not? It seems to me that learning Swedish this way is both less information to absorb, and a more integrated way of learning. Relating new information to what I already know makes it easier to remember and puts it in context, implying greater understanding than if it were random information.
So I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a book on Swedish written for Norwegians, rather than one for English-speakers.
Now, where does one get such a thing? Probably from a Norwegian publisher, at great expense . . .
Some of these thoughts came up in a recent conversation on Twitter between me, a Swede and a Norwegian. It was a good conversation which confirmed my feeling that getting material intended for Norwegians was probably the way to go. I wasn’t expecting what came next, though. Inger, the Norwegian, mentioned that she had a Swedish–Norwegian dictionary, from when she used to teach in a Swedish-speaking school in Finland. She said she had no further use for the dictionary, and that she’d therefore like to send it to me.
Human generosity is in my opinion a wonderful thing, and it’s no less wonderful when it comes from people you’ve never met. And in this case it came in a form which I’m happy to share in a blog post.
If you think Twitter is about nastiness, libel and boring minutiæ, then either you’re following the wrong tweeters or you’ve missed the point of the communities which form there.
Fascinated by your goal! Just a firsthand witness – as another Brit – that the languages cross communicate well. I lived in Sweden for 4 years and dutifully followed SFI (does not stand for Swedish For Idiots, honest) and all the various courses up to pre-uni level. Then I got a job in Norway, for which I was interviewed in Norwegian and for which speaking ‘a Scandinavian language’ was a requirement of the post. So it really does work, even for those who learn the languages as foreigners. And my kids – who were born in Sweden – made the move into Norwegian virtually instantaneously.
I admit to having a bit more trouble with understanding spoken Danish though… But still, I love the 3-4-1 deal learning Swedish brought.
I hope your efforts are similarly fruitful! (Now I’m going to nose around your site a little more.)
Thanks for confirming that it works in person too! That’s encouraging.
It’s hard to know what my ultimate goal with Norwegian and the other languages is, since I started learning for a variety of reasons all of which felt important.
One test will come in a few weeks’ time though, when I hope to meet one of my Norwegian friends and we discover whether I can in fact speak Norwegian or only write it . . .
As for Danish, you might like to watch the hilarious video in this post if you’ve not seen it already. 🙂
This week I was stayed with another polyglot in Oslo. Cristina participates on the How To Learn Any Language forum that I started writing on when I first got into the online language community. She is an active member there and tries to help other learners where she can. I have always admired not only her ability to use a number of languages to a very high level, but also her kindness towards others.