Speak the words, but not the culture

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Learning Norwegian was difficult. It still is. In 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 spent many hours memorizing words, irregular verbs, and expressions that change meaning with the context they are used in. I was frustrated about it for a long time. In my experience, it felt as if there were few rules and a lot of exceptions in language. Every time I thought I would have a good and grammatically correct sentence to say, a big fit of laughter came from my Norwegian friends. After so many years, they still tease me about the things I used to say or write incorrectly.

What I’ve 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, it enters your subconscious until you eventually manage to master it bit by bit. Although my accent still betrays me, my understanding has become more complex.

For instance, in the beginning, you only speak the words and it is easy to trick yourself. Just because you speak the words, sometimes repeating them like a parrot, does not mean you know what you are saying. The words you put together with the understanding and the syntax from your mother tongue do not lead to formulating the same meaning as the native speakers have.

If open-minded, a native speaker might guess that most of the time, you don’t mean what you are saying, and would help you through it. Otherwise, it might be a challenge to explain what you mean. Culturally, this might be a dangerous issue. In my experience, the native speaker expects that you 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; they don’t know how to, perhaps because they never had to speak about it before. To locals, there isn’t an easy way of explaining their own culture and the things they grew up with and have been part of them for generations. It is the same in every culture though. Just think for a minute. If you are asked why people in your own culture do things in the way they do, do you find it easy to explain?

Many misunderstandings emerge from the fact that we, the foreigners, speak the language of the country we live in by translating word for word our native tongue while expecting 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 made a new acquaintance, he would say, “It gives me pleasure” instead of “Nice to meet you.” At first, we laughed about it, then a woman took him aside and explained that his way of greeting people he met for the first time could be misunderstood. He understood the point but, on reflection, he was not saying anything wrong. He just translated word for word the phrases he used as a greeting in his native language.

It takes time to understand the Norwegian culture, and other cultures as well. I believe that wherever one chooses to live, there are social and cultural codes rooted in the culture, as well as specific ways of using words and making meaning. If we do not relate to them, it is because they never constituted an issue in our culture, therefore, there was no need for those words or expressions. Sometimes when I am with friends who speak the same languages as me, we use words from the language we find that best describes a feeling or a situation.

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

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I wish you build resilience!


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