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The Language Lesson

6 July 2011

I was mid-sentence when the adviser at the job center suddenly looked up and said, “What are you saying?” as though I’d been speaking Kurdish. I tried again, this time more slowly, and her eyes zoomed in on my mouth. “I have no idea what you are saying,” she said, not with dismissal, but rather with the marvel one has when seeing a cat with only three legs. I tried again. Maybe this time she was actually listening because she repeated my question – the one I had asked three times now – back to me. I nodded. Yes, that is what I said. She sighed, clearly exasperated. Well the exasperation is mine as well, lady, I thought. I decided right then and there that immediately following the meeting I would use my hard(ly)-earned unemployment pay to treat myself to a cup of coffee at a café.

At the coffee shop I asked for “en kopp vanlig kaffe” – a cup of regular coffee – because although I was grumpy, paying the equivalent of $7 or €5 for a tiny cappuccino would only have exacerbated me further. I had forgotten to specify whether I would drink it in the café or take it away, and I asked the woman behind the counter which one I had paid for. I can only assume that she feigned having trouble putting my money in the drawer to avoid me. When she finally did look up and saw that I had not gone away she was forced to acknowledge, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand you.”

“Did I pay to drink the coffee here or to take it away?” I asked again.

“What do you mean?”

“The price. Which cup?” I said, trying a shorter version that included pointing to the stack of cups on the tray next to the coffee. She was clearly pretending she couldn’t understand a single word I was saying, and unlike the woman at the job centre she was feeling a bit embarrassed about it.

My frustration was surely showing. “Did I pay FOR HERE,” I practically shouted as I pointed at the counter, or “TO TAKE AWAY?” this time pointing at the door.

Honestly. You’d think I was the one who couldn’t speak the language. I grabbed a ceramic cup, poured my coffee and parked myself at a table next to a big window. I hoped I had paid the cheaper take-away price. I would sit here for a long time. Maybe read the newspaper left by the previous customer.

After an enjoyably long coffee break I headed for the grocery store to pick up a few items for dinner. The cashier asked if I wanted a bag, but when I said, “Ja,” she turned to the person behind me and began dragging her items past the scanner. “En pose, takk,” I reminded her.

She told me she thought I didn’t want one.

What is up with these people? What do they gain by trying so hard to not understand foreigners? Is the game to prove to me that I can’t speak their language? I get how ends up sounding like ku when coming out of my American mouth, but jaaaaaa (long ahh sound) and NEI (as in n+ eye)? What is so hard about that? No. She was clearly trying hard to not understand me.

The rage I felt as I grabbed the bag from her took me back to a year ago when I shouted at a seventh-grader on the playground. He had been bullying my kids and then started to made fun of my Norwegian by, of all things, asking if I was speaking Swedish. “Ka snakker du? Svensk?” he chided, and turned to laugh with his buddies. My words tumbled out too quickly for me to catch them: “Er du så teit at du forstår meg ikke?” (I cringe as I type these words here.) I had just shouted at a twelve year-old as if I were a five-year-old: “Are you so stupid that you can’t understand me?”

Later that afternoon as I drove my daughter home from preschool she asked, “Mommy, you had to wash today?”

I looked back at her in the rear-view mirror. “What sweetie?”

“You had to wash today.”

“No. I didn’t wash clothes today.”

“No, mommy! You had to WASH today.” Her agitation was apparent and her voice was becoming tight and high-pitched.

“What do you mean, wash?”

“You said you had to WASH today, MOMMY!” My mind raced, searching for any possible, sensible connection to the word “wash.”

“I didn’t sweetie. I’m sorry. I don’t know what you mean.”

She let out one of those growls that four-year-olds are so good at and began kicking the back of my seat as hard as she could. I was frustrated as well.

“WASH WASH WASH WASH!!!” she cried. “You had to wash because you were late for the meeting!”

Clarity and relief washed over me. “RUSH, sweetie! Mommy had to RUSH this morning. RRR-RRR-RRR-RUSH. Can you say, ‘RRR’?”

I felt relieved that we had solved it, but she was in tears. She was not interested in a language lesson. I had just been too stupid to understand her.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Judy permalink
    6 July 2011 12:34

    You are so hilarious, Jena! I can only imagine your frustrations. Truth be told, I find that here in the USA, where English is supposed to be the “official” language, communications can sometimes be just as difficult. With the influx of folks from other countries, many of whom really ARE trying to learn our language but are having difficulties, trying to make some sense out of converstations is a trying task indeed. I, however, have not had to deal with actually learning another language (except in high school, back in the dark ages!!) so my situation is not nearly as frustrating as yours. Hang in there…….

    • 7 July 2011 16:29

      Thanks, Judy. Trying to learn a language as an adult (and with kids!) is really hard. When we lived in Miami I remember thinking: if they want to live there they should learn the language! But I see how difficult it really is and I am much more sympathetic now. And incredibly envious of my kids who have no problems whatsoever and are always correcting me in Norwegian. (*sigh*)

  2. 6 July 2011 14:37

    This is a great post, Jena. I hope you continue to be able to take wisdom from your experiences with such grace. I have seen this so many times, even in supposedly multicultural Toronto: people asking simple questions or making simple requests hit the wall of someone else’s refusal to open their ears a little more and really try to engage and communicate. From my observation, stubborn lack of understanding is most often the reaction of unilingual people with little appreciation of how their own language works. EVERYONE should have to spend time in an environment where they struggle to be understood; we would all become much better communicators as a result!

    • 7 July 2011 16:34

      Thank you, Barnaby! I suppose my comment to Judy (above) also addresses what you’ve written. Sympathy and understanding is definitely needed in communicating with immigrants. At one point in my life I really believed it was a sort of willed thing to not learn English (i.e. that immigrants wanted to live in Canada or the U.S. and purposefully not learn English so they could just continue living their old home life). But it is so incredibly difficult and time-consuming not just learning another language, but actually being able to communicate in it. And again: *sigh*. Thanks for reading, though, and for your kind comment!

  3. John Duncan permalink
    6 July 2011 16:05

    Jena, Great language lesson. I have a (barely) related question. I believe your mother told me you spent some time in Tuscany. If so, would you have any tips/suggestions on things to see/do? Train travel or car rental, etc. Gena and I are heading that way for a few weeks in September. Regards and thanks……John

  4. 6 July 2011 19:10

    The last bit reminds me so much of my blog friend’s recent post

    But anyway, every time I’m in Norway, I caught the Norwegian (Oslo) “accent” bug which makes my Danish sounds really weird LOL and sometimes I have to speak with mixed languages since my colleagues (who weren’t born in Norway but learned Norwegian as adult) didn’t have a single clue on what I was saying in Danish. (The Norwegian born could easily understand me, though)

    • 7 July 2011 16:27

      Spoken Danish is impossible for me! When we went to Denmark a few years ago our hosts kept insisting that if we spoke Norwegian we should be able to understand them in Danish – not true! I can read Danish, but I credit you for learning to pronounce it!

  5. Becky permalink
    18 August 2011 17:20

    Oh Jena, thank you so much for taking the time to blog about an experiance like this. For someone like me who wants to relocate but hasnt yet it is posts like these that are most helpful, it gives me realistic view of what its like living in another country, not only the positives but the struggles as well. I’ve stated teaching myself Norwegian though PC programs, audio CD’s and books but do you have any suggestions on what could help me learn the language? Thanks again for your lovely blog:-)

    • 19 August 2011 20:52

      Hi Becky. Thanks for reading and for your comments on my blog! This is a good question. I used books and CDs before I came but after I came to Norway I quickly realized that what I had learned was … Norwegian from a book and CD! 🙂 In other words, it really depends on where you settle in Norway. There are a bi-zillion dialects and they are so different that even the local news uses subtitles sometimes. For example, standard bokmål (what you learn from the CDs and what is more or less spoken in Oslo) would use “Jeg skal gå” (pronounced something like “Jai, skal goh”) In Bergen, where I live, the “Bergensk” dialect says, “Eg skal gå eg” (pronounced something like “Eggska gå egg.”) And so for a very long time I was trying to figure out what the heck “eggska” meant. And why so many people use “I” (eg) at the end of a sentence for emphasis. In Bergen “boss” is trash. Elsewhere it is “avfall” or “søppel”. I went to Stavanger and thought they were speaking Danish. I went to Sogn og Fjordane and didn’t understand a word! (Nor did anyone understand me!) So… to make this long story short, do continue with the books and CDs because they will help (at least initially in trying to figure out how the language works), but expect to spend a good couple of months re-learning the language when you get here. 🙂

      • 19 August 2011 21:06

        And here is a link to a news commentary / comedy program in which the host asks if anyone can figure out what this man is saying about the boat fire he was in (his statement was broadcast on NRK, the national news). You can hear the audience laughing and then the man says that is an extreme dialect and he wonders if it is even Norwegian! Sånn er det i norge. 😉

      • 24 August 2011 03:37

        Hi Jena, Thank you for your input, it’s a little disheartening to know that books and language programs will only get me so far, but when I think about it that’s probably true for most languages huh?!? I’m glad to be at least heading down the right path, I can only hope that when I do relocate I know enough of the language that I don’t tick off every native speaking Norwegian around me! lol

        I love that youtube video you shared with me, thank you. And even though I don’t understand what anyone on that show is saying (including the fisherman, hehehe) the look on the hosts face says it all… Huh…WHAT THE HECK did he just say?!? hehehe

        I enjoy reading your blog post very much, thank you for sharing your point of views with all of us followers, I look forward to chatting with you again! 🙂

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