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March 4, 2010

I want to live in English

For every language you learn, you live another life. Apparently people who live in Czech say that. I think I want to live in English now.

Most Norwegians understand English, but worldwide practically no one understands Norwegian. This makes Norwegian an inside joke I share with a selection of the people I know.

Growing up, Norwegian was the language I used with the three people who knew me best, the people with whom I barely needed spoken words to communicate with at all. Even though I talked non-stop (still do) in both languages, my parents and my sister could usually understand my face and tone of voice well enough regardless of vocabulary. My mom could tell how happy I was by the way I opened the front door when I came home in the afternoon. So Norwegian was our somewhat unneccessary secret code. American friends thought Norwegian was an angry language, because they only heard it when my parents yelled at me. I preferred English, but my parents insisted I speak Norwegian, because I would need it someday.

These days, communicating in Norwegian is my job. Since moving back to Norway two years ago, I have studied and worked in Norwegian full time. I consider both Norwegian and English first languages, meaning I'm completely bilingual.

Despite all that, after giving Norwegian a serious try, I have realized something:

English is just better. I'm better in English. I like other people better in English.

I'm more open and heartfelt and honest in English. Norwegians are so direct it borders on insensitivity, both in culture and in language. We won't tell you to have a nice day unless we ourselves would really feel happier if you did. We won't say "I love you" to people we just like. We won't thank you if we don't feel genuinely grateful. Any expression of sentiment in Norwegian feels like I'm exposing some secret part of my mind, usually only accessible to Norwegians when we're drunk.

In English I'm more polite, although I might come off as relatively rude due to Norwegian bad habits. It feels easier to be sincere and emotional in English without feeling like I'm crossing the line into inappropriate. I'm more outgoing and animated, especially when I meet Americans. If I'm in a room full of Norwegians and one American, I might look like I'm giving the American much more attention, smiling and gesticulating more.

If I swear, it's in Norwegian. If I ever swear in English, I'm just pretending. The one exception is if I say skitt (the Norwegian word for dirt, the sk is pronounced sh) when I really want to swear in secret and I'm in Norway. (Swearing in French doesn't work at all.) This might be because I used to be American, and as a child I had no reason to swear. 

Privately, I think that all the words I know, in English, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, French, German, Dutch, Khmer, Thai, Italian, Spanish, are all one big vocabulary. Sometimes I can use all my words, sometimes only a few, depending on who I'm talking to. Most of my close friends here in Norway are people who are also fluent in English. I don’t specifically search for bilingual people to befriend, but it’s obvious why it works for us: We have a shared vocabulary, and we often mix up our two languages in conversations.

But despite the fact that most Norwegians speak English, they don't speak the whole English language. English has more words than Norwegian. So I think in English with an occasional Norwegian expression, not vice versa. And when I speak English, the connection between what I think and what I say is less complicated. So in English I'm more honest, more polite and I swear less.

And you know that scene in Love Actually about American girls who love British men because they speak British? I know American girls like that, but it wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to say that English in general - British, American, Australian, Canadian, any version of perfectly pronounced, flawless, this-is-clearly-your-first-language English - works for me. Hearing someone speak English really well just makes me relax. Compared to hearing Norwegians speak English as a second language, it's like hearing a singer with perfect pitch and realizing I've been listening to off-key music for years.

When I go through old notebooks and crumpled-up napkins at the bottom of my purse, I find quotes from novels I've read in English. Paragraphs I had to write down, because they made me shiver a little bit, because they were so well-written. Sometimes they become blog posts. I never feel that way about Norwegian.

Just listen to Stephen Fry talk about anything. Even when he's making fun of the very topic of language, I just love it.

Sure, there are plenty of wonderful things you can say in Norwegian as well. You can say koselig, nydelig, jeg er glad i deg. And as a journalist, I love the intricacies and possibilities of the Norwegian language. But I love the English language more. Half the time when I'm writing in Norwegian, I am quietly wishing that I could write the same text in English.

So what do I do with this? Move? Try to find writing work in English? I don't know.

Image: icanread

Posted by Julie at March 4, 2010 2:13 PM

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huff. her var det mye å ta tak i.

Posted by: p at March 4, 2010 3:37 PM

It's funny- I was always so jealous of people who were bilingual, or whose first language wasn't English, but who spoke it fluently. I longed to have that level of understanding of another language (and though my Italian is at least conversational, I think I'm just not quite there yet!).

But then an English L2 friend told me he was jealous of me because, as he said "You're so lucky English comes so easily for you- you don't have to find the words, they're just there!" I never thought of it that way before, but I guess I am lucky for that- as you say, English is a great language to read/write/think in- nothing else comes close to it for depth, vocabulary or nuance.

And though I still long for that deep understanding of another language (so I can stop feeling like an ignorant, stupid English speaker), I realise that I AM lucky to have English as my first language, because it means I am the authority- i know through instinct what works and what doesn't, and I have an innate feel for the many nuances and variations of English that L2 speakers will never quite have, no matter how well they speak it (unless they're completely bilingual like you...you lucky bastard!)

SO thanks for an interesting post- I've always loved language, but since being in Europe, surrounded by so many polyglots, and being in a place where multilingualism is such a part of day-to-day life, I've grown to love it even more.

As multiethnic as Australia is- and at Uni, for example, my bilingual friends almost outnumber my monolingual ones- that's really only on a personal, familial level- day-to-day life and society is firmly monolingual, which I think is a shame- think of how open and aware people could be if only they were exposed to other languages, and could thus "live another life"

Posted by: Stephen Conte at March 4, 2010 3:41 PM

I just discovered your blog after seeing it linked on Facebook...and I'm glad I did! I can tell you are a journalism student by the way you write and appreciate language. Your post is very interesting and I look forward to reading more.

I wish I could speak a language other than English well; it remains a goal of mine to learn another language well, but right now I'm too busy for that. In school I took a couple of years of Spanish, a semester of Russian, and many years of Latin. Latin seemed to be the most challenging and interesting at the time I chose it, but now I wish I had chosen a language still actively used in the world.

Posted by: Julie from Boston at March 4, 2010 4:52 PM

and still English has no word for jo.

Posted by: Aina at March 4, 2010 4:55 PM

keep it in the bathroom, your old chocolate.

Posted by: Aina at March 4, 2010 4:57 PM

p - Kom hit og overbevis meg om at jeg tar feil.

Stephen Conte - Even just a few interesting phrases in foreign languages can broaden your horizons. For example, as Aina says, there is no word for "jo" in English. "Jo" is Norwegian for "You're wrong. The answer is actually yes." So while you have arguments that go Yes! No! Yes! No!, we say Ja! Nei! Jo! Nei! Jo! Nei! The French argue the way we do.

When Aina writes "Keep it in the bathroom, your old chocolate", she means "Good-bye."

For another mind-broadening experience without actually learning a new language, read the post before this one, here: http://www.espen.com/julie/archives/2010/03/love_in_any_lan.html

Julie from Boston - It's funny. Now I know two Julies from Boston, plus myself of course. Welcome to the blog! Latin is a great foundation on which to build knowledge of other languages, and you can live another life even if few people can actually converse with you.

Aina - Yeah, I didn't say English was perfect. Glad I know people like you who really speak my language (and more).

Posted by: Julie [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 4, 2010 6:37 PM

Who is the other Julie from Boston (besides yourself of course)? Are you sure we are not one and the same? I am the Julie from Boston whom you met in kindergarten at Hardy Elementary School.

Yes, it is true that Latin has helped me with other languages (not to mention my native English! LOL!). It even helped me with Russian, which surprised me because Russian is not a Romance language and does not use the same alphabet. The grammatical structure of Russian has some similarities to Latin. For example, I was already familiar with the concept of using different cases for a noun depending on how it fit into the sentence.

Posted by: Julie from Boston at March 4, 2010 7:17 PM

Julie from Boston - I know who you are. :-) The other Julie from Boston is Julie Balise, whom I met in Paris actually.

Oh, and about language. I think when you learn a second language for the first time, you kind of stop taking the structure of your language for granted. You learn to expect the unexpected, and so you are more prepared for learning a third language.

Posted by: Julie [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 4, 2010 8:22 PM

Men norsk har så mange fine nyanser som folk som deg (og meg) ofte ikke ser fordi vi er så vant til engelsk. Ofte, når jeg føler at det ikke finnes norske ord til å beskrive hva jeg føler, er det bare fordi jeg ikke kan dem, ikke fordi de ikke eksisterer.

Og mange av disse ordene synes jeg er direkte vakre, som forstemmende, eller sky (i betydningen shy), eller blid, eller molefonken. Snerk er en perfekt beskrivelse fenomenet. Raseri likeså.

Når jeg leser en velskrevet norsk roman føler jeg at forfatteren bruker språket på en måte som jeg er for lat til å gjøre siden engelsken ligger så naturlig for meg. Det er lettere å bare putte inn et ord andre også kan, selv om det er på et annet språk, enn å finne ordene jeg leter etter på norsk.

Jeg føler at norsk er like fint som engelsk, selv om jeg er enig i at vi er så ærlige at det nesten er uhøflig, særlig i forhold til amerikanere. Men jeg føler også at norsk blir fattigere jo mer folk går over til engelsk.

På den andre siden kan det handle om at vi alle får engelsk som første språk etter hvert, sånn som man skulle ønske at esperanto hadde vært. Og kanskje er ikke det så ille?

Jepp, jeg rabler i vei. Skjønner du hva jeg mener?

Posted by: Martine at March 4, 2010 8:52 PM

"Privately, I think that all the words I know, in English, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, French, German, Dutch, Khmer, Thai, Italian, Spanish, are all one big vocabulary." - I love that! In fact, I love the whole post (though I can't say I think of my relationship with Norwegian/English in quite the same way), but that bit was just so... !!! :D Did I tell you my research project this year is all. about. WORDS.?? It's kinda geeky, but fantastic.

(Btw, I suggest you move to Australia. We speak the good english here. :) )

Posted by: Hanne at March 4, 2010 11:30 PM

Another thought: Cora Sandel is a Norwegian author of beautiful sentences. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cora_Sandel
And actually, I want to quote Hamsun, sometimes.

Also, we kinda have an expression for 'jo' - it's 'yeah-nah'. (Admittedly, some might still analyse that as *two* words. But just give it time.)

Omg, I clearly could go on about this for a while. Back to my study!
Thanks again. Keep up the blogging. :)

Posted by: Hanne at March 4, 2010 11:34 PM

Martine - Jeg skjønner hva du mener, og det er et godt poeng. Det er ikke det at jeg ikke liker norsk, men kanskje jeg ikke er så glad i hvordan norsk vanligvis brukes. Jeg skrev forsåvidt litt om det her: http://www.espen.com/julie/archives/2005/06/kampen_om_orden.html

Ellers er det sannsynligvis helt sant at norsk (i praksis, i måten det brukes på) blir fattigere når vi heller tyr til engelsk, og det er et poeng jeg bør huske på. Men dette er tross alt en blogg som handler om meg. Jeg bruker norsk i massevis, men jeg tror tankene mine først og fremst er på engelsk. Jeg tror det er en del tanker jeg har tenkt for første gang på engelsk og en del følelser jeg har opplevd for første gang på et tidspunkt da jeg først og fremst levde i en engelskspråklig verden. Jeg har lest flere bøker på engelsk enn norsk, og jeg har hørt flere sanger på engelsk enn norsk. Jeg er mer meg selv på engelsk.

Hanne - Thank you! I hope you can tell me more about the research project at some point. (And Australia sounds tempting, seriously, but I have other English-language plans I think.)

I think I should read something by Cora Sandel as soon as I finish "Theft". What I read definitely influences the vocabulary I use to think.

Posted by: Julie [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 5, 2010 10:43 AM

Eg blei oppdratt tospråkleg amerikansk-engelsk/norsk, og hadde eg lese dette for 10 år sidan hadde eg vore samd. Men så oppdaga eg korleis det var å leve blant den norsk-norske familien til kjærasten min (altså i motsetnad til å leve i ein norsk-amerikansk familie), og då høyrte eg verkeleg nyansane i norsken, dei mange små forskjellane i bruken av kvart orda, og dei nydelege dialektane, upåverka av Læreboknorsk for Amerikanarar.

Eg veit ikkje om eg er meg sjølv meir på engelsk enn på norsk, men norsk kjennest meir heime enn engelsk.

Posted by: k at March 8, 2010 8:44 AM

Found your blog just surfing the net. I am of Norwegian descent (my great-grandfather moved to the states and married a US born Norwegian woman) and would give anything to understand the language. My grandpa had Alzheimer's and somewhere in his incoherent rambling he'd speak Norwegian once in awhile. No one knew what he was saying. It only took two generations before the native language disappeared. My point is that you are fortunate.

Posted by: Julie at March 20, 2010 3:45 AM