Speak the words, but not the culture

Words have Power

Learning Norwegian was difficult. It still is. At the beginning, listening to the sound of it, it reminded me of a stone avalanche. Thousands of big and small rocks falling down a mountain. I realized that it would not be easy to learn.

I took evening classes, and I was using many hours memorizing words and irregular verbs, expressions that change meaning with each context they are used in. A long time I was frustrated about it, since in my experience, there were few rules and the rest was exceptions. Every time I thought I would have a good and grammatically correct sentence to say, a big laughter would come out from my Norwegian friends. After so many years, they still tease me about the things I used to say or write wrongly.

What I noticed about a foreign language (I speak a couple of them) is that one learns it in layers. Moreover, with time, it gets deeper and deeper into your subconscious and eventually you manage to master it, bit by bit. My accent will always betray me, but my understanding is more complex.

For instance, at the beginning you only speak the words. It is easy to trick the other part, because if you speak the words, repeating them like a parrot, it does not mean you know what you are saying. Because the words you put together with the meaning you have from the background of your mother tongue, it is not necessarily the same with what the native speakers would understand. If they are open minded, they might guess that you don’t really mean what you are saying, and they would help you through it. If they are not, you may have a challenge explaining what you mean. That could represent a danger in this culture. In my experience, the native speakers expectations are that you are supposed to understand much more than they are willing to explain.  The reason for not being willing to explain is not because they do not want to, but because they don’t know how, since whatever is the matter at hand, they never had to speak about it, therefore, there is no culture of explaining. Many misunderstandings can have roots in the fact that we, the foreigners, speak the language of the country we live in by translating word for word out native tongue, and expect the same result as in our culture of origin.

For instance, when I was a student, we had a colleague from Bangladesh. Every time he would make a new acquaintance, he would say, “It gives me pleasure” instead of “Nice to meet you”. We laughed about it at first, and then one woman took him aside, and explained to him that his way of greeting people for the first time, might be misunderstood. He’ve got the point, and in the same time, he was not saying anything wrong. He just translated word for word the phrases he would use in his native language.

It takes time to understand the Norwegian culture, and not only this one. I believe in any country one would move there are social and cultural codes rooted in the culture and in the use of words, we do not relate to, because they never constituted an issue in our culture. Therefore, there was no need for words or expressions. Sometimes, when I am together with friends speaking the same languages as me, we find ourselves expressing things with words from the language that has the best description of a feeling, for instance, or a situation.

Yet, I find that the more languages and cultures one manages to know the richer one becomes.

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