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Living in the Land of Brown Cheese

Written By: Diana Arya on October 4, 2009 4 Comments

Learning a new language at 41 is a humbling experience . . . I struggle to catch the rhythm and grammatical structures, skills that I took for granted while studying in China 20 years ago.   Now I have an intimate understanding of losing “linguistic plasticity,” and I’m jealous of my younger self who merrily writes poetry in Chinese calligraphy and effortlessly converses with artists at a local park square in Beijing.  Looking back at past selves is always dangerous—these imaginary beings gain perfection over the years, convincing you how easy it used to be to assimilate in a foreign country and how life in general was so much better when you had tighter skin.  But I can’t help myself now that I’m here in Oslo, learning how to tell people who I am, where I’m from and what I speak, all in Norwegian.

Speaking Norwegian is like a waltz, our language instructor explains as I stumble through the vowels and collection of consonants that are nonexistent in English.  My dance is clumsy, and I notice a barely stifled cringe from our teacher as I tell my dialogue partner, Jeg skal være med deg. I must have said something obscene, but she quickly smiles and utters det går bra as she moves on to the next pair, keeping in time with the dance that exists mainly when she speaks.

A student orientation volunteer told me that It’s cute to hear Americans speaking Norwegian, it’s like, “Yay snayker eekay Nershk.” This comment silenced me for the remaining 2 hours of the orientation ceremony, which consisted of over a thousand international students standing in the main square while the university rector speaks about how viktig i dag is. The majority of his message was lost to me, but his waltz was mesmerizing. Rolling his r’s like a good citizen of “Ooshlo,” he commands our attention much like a great Viking king leading his men to shore.  And the subsequent live symphony performance of Carmina Burana matched the intensity his address.  So, I let the words and music wash over me in hopes of acquiring some of the necessary steps that will save me from falling on my face.

I keep my ears open to the spoken Norsk around me on the train, in cafes and hallways.  I noticed early on that there is a sharp intake of breath in the waltz.  It sounds like a gasp, as if someone has spotted a large insect crawling along my shoulder.  My initial reaction was to hold my breath, eyes growing wide in waiting for whatever realization to surface, but none came.  The bank representative performed this sharp intake quite a lot as he responded to my questions about exchange rates and paying bills online.  That’s when I realized the meaning of the breath—“absolutely.”  What kept me on edge in the beginning has become a source of comfort, a beautiful skip in the waltz that lets me know everything is stable with the world, and this is the way it will be.

Jeg er Diana, og kommer fra USA.  Jeg snakker engelsk og  litt norsk.  And so my dance begins.


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4 Responses to “Living in the Land of Brown Cheese”

  1. Youki on: 6 October 2009 at 12:00 pm

    That’s when I realized the meaning of the breath—“absolutely.”

    how interesting, I wonder if you’ll pick up the mannerisms and surprise us all when we see you next!

    Looking back at past selves is always dangerous—these imaginary beings gain perfection over the years, convincing you how easy it used to be to assimilate in a foreign country and how life in general was so much better when you had tighter skin.

    yeah, I too am envious of my younger self that learned Spanish while growing up. I’m completely rusty nowadays, but it feels so natural to my ears compared to the languages I try to learn now! Even if I don’t understand what someone is saying in Spanish, it doesn’t really ever feel “foreign” to me.

    p.s. great comic!

  2. daveski on: 11 October 2009 at 12:46 am

    Great post, so poignant! Thinking about your previous posts on identity in World of Warcraft, and looking at the image above, I wonder whether you ever hear or see Norwegian being used in WoW…? Do multiple languages figure in at all to MMOGs like Wow?

    Andy Reply:

    Daveski: I’ve been told by some of my European friends that the Euro WoW servers can have some very interesting language dynamics. They’re all nominally English, but sometimes a particular server will get unofficially “taken over” by a particular language, meaning one really has to do one’s homework before picking a server! Conversely, I’ve also heard it said by several that WoW (and other online games) have been a major way that some Europeans have learned and/or practiced English. On the U.S. servers these things just don’t seem to come up for some reason.

  3. daveski on: 24 November 2009 at 12:15 am

    Anyone been on any multilingual servers recently? 😉

    I thought of you all when I saw this listing on LinguistList:

    A few simple questions on Second Life, to be sure, but I wonder if anyone’s studying the pragmatics of WoW??

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