Norwegian Language

Considering that I’ve spent about a year in Norway, many people have asked me if I’ve learned Norwegian. Unfortunately the answer is no, although I can navigate the grocery store quite well and say things like hello, thank you, and have a nice day. I have to admit that my greatest struggle with the language has been pronunciation. Even properly pronouncing the name of my upper secondary school, Byåsen, has been a bit of a struggle. Now I would argue that half of my trouble stems from the fact that there is no standard form of spoken Norwegian. But before I can address spoken Norwegian, it’s necessary to spend some time talking about written Norwegian.

Written Norwegian breaks down into two official norms, Bokmål and Nynorsk. The reason for the two written languages can be traced back to the 19th century. Norway was a part of Denmark from 1397 to 1814, and their union meant that the Norwegian elite spoke and wrote in Danish (albeit with a Norwegian accent), while the lower classes, or the other 95% of the population, communicated in dialects that had sprung up under Danish rule.

However, this all changed when in 1814 Norway was given to Sweden. Part of the agreement stated that Norway would only enter the union as an equal partner. In other words, Sweden and Norway would be two equal and independent countries ruled by one king. This newfound independence ended up having a huge impact on the language because the Norwegians had to decide if they were going to:

  1. Stick with Danish
  2. Create a written language based on Norwegian dialects
  3. Create a more Norwegian version of Danish

While the first option was rejected, the other two were put in motion.

The second option was undertaken by Ivar Aasen, a linguist and poet. After studying different dialects in the western and central parts of southern Norway, he developed what later came to be known as Nynorsk, or “New Norwegian.” It later included dialects from Eastern Norway, but to this day has never gained much popularity with Norwegians. Only about 10-15% of the population uses Nynorsk. In fact, Nynorsk is one of the required classes that my students constantly complain about.

Bokmål, on the other hand, was the answer to the third option. It was developed by Knud Knudsen, and although it originally corresponded to the informal language used by the upper classes, it later came to include the language of the lower classes. Today approximately 85–90% of Norwegians write in Bokmål.

As you can see from the numbers, most people use Bokmål in their writing. I’ve been told that using Bokmål tends to show an affinity for urban culture, while using Nynorsk tends to display conservative and nationalistic tendencies. In order to keep things somewhat balanced and to protect Nynorsk, the government has passed laws requiring the use of Nynorsk. For example, 25% of national broadcasting has to be done in Nynorsk.

As for spoken Norwegian, due to the way the written languages were created, each dialect will either relate to Nynorsk or Bokmål. Because dialect is the spoken language, there is no standard spoken Norwegian per se, although foreigners tend to be taught spoken Bokmål, which is close to the Oslo accent. To give you an idea of how accent is (still) debated in Norway, one of my co-teachers told me that back in the day there were riots over how to properly pronounce the name of my city, Trondheim, and that people will still occasionally squabble over it now. My students have even quibbled with their teachers about writing in Bokmål instead of in dialect (in other words the students want the teacher to write out how the Trondheim dialect sounds).* Alix was even told off by some of her colleagues when she said she was trying to learn Norwegian pronunciation by listening to the way the bus stops are pronounced on the automated bus system–apparently the voice over for the public transportation system has an Oslo accent, something that caused an uproar in Trondheim when it was first implemented.

But it’s not all about accent. Each dialect tends to have something unique about it, whether it is certain turns of phrase or even the number of swear words used (I’m told that Northern Norwegians have a vocabulary that would make a sailor blush). As you can see, it all gets a bit complicated quite quickly. And although I didn’t manage to master Norwegian in my brief time here, I have to admit that I appreciate the depth of thought that Norwegians have devoted to language.

*Students are taught in either Bokmål or Nynorsk in primary school and are then taught the other language in secondary school.

Education Culture Shock

Today the Rovers, Abby, and I had to get up early for an education seminar that we were going to in Halden. Because the train trip took over an hour it was a great time to talk to everyone about their experiences in American education. Topics ranged from the structure of Kipp charter schools to the state of sex education in the US and I had a really good time learning about the different places where people have taught.

The other great part of our commute was getting to use a maxi taxi, which was pretty much code for party bus. The taxi was even playing old Madonna hits.

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Our day was jam-packed with useful information, and it was great to talk with more people about what they thought of the ongoing teachers’ strike. I’ve divided up what I’ve learned into more manageable sections so feel free to skip over the parts that don’t particularly appeal to you.

Teachers’ Strike

The overall feeling that I got from people at the Norwegian Center was that they believed the teachers had valid grievances, but were worried that if the strike continued for much longer that it would hurt the teachers’ cause. In 2013, Denmark had a teacher lockout after negotiations between the Danish Union of Teachers and the local government collapsed. The month long lockout ended when the government forced an emergency bill through Parliament that unilaterally sided with employers (Education International). People at the Norwegian Center, as well as others, seem worried that if the teacher’s strike continues for too long that the same thing will occur here. The strike continuing is a very real possibility and it is rumored that the unions have enough funds to last for two months. Crossed fingers that I will make it school before the month ends!

Foreign Languages 

There are materials available for 38+ foreign languages at the Halden Center, but not all languages are offered in schools, and schools have some independence in deciding what languages they will have available. Learning foreign languages can start as early as kindergarten and preschool, but English doesn’t become a mandatory subject until the first grade. English is taught throughout high school, but in 8th grade students are given the option of either:

  1. Going in depth into Norwegian
  2. Going in depth into English
  3. Starting a second foreign language

The last option is emphasized the most and in order to qualify for university you must know a second foreign language. Being fluent in a second foreign language is also seen as a positive because it can be used to help foster a good working relationship with Europe. The fact that I only started to learn my first foreign language, Spanish, in high school was a bit humbling.

Research done at the Center also shows that when more languages are offered, the more students take foreign languages. There is the same curriculum taught in all foreign languages and an exam can be taken to determine fluency. Immigrants* are also encouraged to learn their home language so that they can take exams to become accredited. Perhaps because of the wide range of languages that are offered in Norway, weekend language schools such as Chinese school and Korean school aren’t very common in Norway.

*In Norway immigrants are not only people who move to Norway from another country, but also include the children of immigrants. In other words, even if you are born in Norway you are still considered an immigrant if your parents are immigrants.

Teacher Education

Teacher education is a four year masters course in Norway, and learning often continues even after teachers achieve their masters. The government has developed centers for teaching excellence where educators can go to to learn new teaching techniques, and teachers can also enroll in education classes and receive funding for this by national authorities. Teachers are also encouraged to get their PhDs to increase their competence in subject knowledge.

The government has also embarked on a recruiting campaign for teachers. Recently there has been a fall in respect for Norway’s teachers (one of the grievances of those on strike). One hypothesis that we were given for this decline in respect was that because education used to center around teaching the elite it was seen as a more “special” profession. Now that education is accessible to almost everyone, the respect for teaching has also declined and fewer people are becoming teachers. Not only is the government trying to recruit teachers generally, they are also trying to recruit more male teachers, specifically those who want to teach primary school children. The hope is that by incorporating more men into the education system schools can give children more male role models.

Primary & Lower Secondary Education

Yes, Norway uses the same education naming system as British so the above roughly translates to grades 1-9. Primary school has students until around age 7 and lower secondary school encompasses ages 6-15. Municipalities are responsible for primary and lower secondary schools, counties are responsible for upper secondary education and training, and the state is in charge of universities and university colleges.

The biggest difference from the American system that I was told about was that there are no grades are given from grades 1-7, though informal evaluations are given. The professor that I work with at NTNU said that the reasoning behind this is that educators don’t want to encourage competitiveness amongst children. Children also can’t fail a class and retake it. Students are graded on competence, so instead of being given a failing grade, a student is simply marked as at the lowest degree of competency.

Another difference is that teachers do not have their own classrooms, the students have their own classroom. The teachers are the ones responsible for changing classrooms when they switch lessons.

Lastly, there isn’t the same concept in Norway as there is in America of separation of church and state. Religion is a mandatory subject here and while it used to only focus on Christianity, it has become more diverse over the years. It used to be that you could apply for an exemption from the class, but now that coverage is more diverse you can’t do that anymore. As for what’s actually offered, the religious classes available are Christianity, Ethics/Humanism, and Other Religions.

Upper Secondary School and Vocational Training

Upper secondary school and vocational programs round out the last few years of what we would call high school. If students participate in upper secondary school they normally do two years, but if they are in a vocational track they can either do:

  1. Two years of upper secondary school and two years of apprenticeship
  2. Three years of upper secondary school then one year of apprenticeship

Vocational tracks include things like

  • Building and construction
  • Design, arts and crafts
  • Electricity and electronics
  • Healthcare, childhood and youth development
  • Media and communication
  • Agriculture, fishing and forestry

and much more. Vocational students still have to take theoretical core subjects (things like English, Math, Social Sciences, etc.) and students have reportedly found it difficult to work with these subjects and see them as relevant. The FYR project has tried to change things by making core subjects more vocationally oriented. For example, an English class would focus more on how to write cover letters, CVs, and professional writing than a standard upper secondary school English class would.

One thing that Norwegians are concerned about is the dropout rate, especially in vocational programs, and especially amongst boys. In fact, almost 45% of vocational students achieved no competence in their studies, or failed to finish. A few factors that Norwegian authorities have looked into:

  • Parental education (parents who have a good education or an interest in education have children who more likely to complete school)
  • The grades people received in lower secondary school
  • Ethnicity
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Rural people moving into urban areas

The last two bullet points have caused schools to call dropouts “push outs,” because they see it as a more accurate term. Additionally, when students apply for vocational studies they rank their top three tracks as part of their application. Most students get their top choice, but those who don’t usually end up dropping out. Moreover, some students select a vocational track not because they are particularly interested in a vocation but because they hate general studies. Students who do this oftentimes still struggle in vocational tracks.

Higher Education 

Norway has eight universities and there are several ways to qualify for them. Typically students need to have three years of completed and passed upper secondary education, but for those over 25 university access is based on several forms of competence. In order to apply for university, you simply fill in a national application that states your basic information, your grades, and your ranked preferences for universities. There are no personal statements, references, lists of extracurricular activities, or work experience. This was probably the thing that I found most shocking since it offered such a large contrast to the US application system. The other thing to note about the application process is that students are only admitted to one school. Mind blown.

Universities in Norway also take part in the Bologna Process, something that establishes standards for higher education throughout Europe. There are 46 out of 47 European countries participating in the Bologna Process (Belarus is the odd one out), and in theory the Bologna Process means that degrees are recognized between countries and that classes should be fairly equal throughout Europe since classes are using common reference frames.

As for funding, financial support is originally given as a full loan, but about 40% of that loan changes into a grant after certain modules are passed at university.

Because higher education is so accessible here, there is a feeling that people have too many masters degrees when what Norway really needs are people in the professions, such as plumbers. The question being asked is whether or not people have become too academic, especially when there is a dearth of skilled craftsmen. Similarly there has also been a loss of respect for the humanities in favor of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) because STEM is seen as being much more practical and helpful in terms of boosting the economy. As a humanities major myself, it’s sad to see that the loss of respect for the humanities appears to be a globalized trend.

Our orientation was full of useful information and I was thankful to have a much better understanding of the Norwegian school system by the end of the day. Once our lectures on education finished both Abby and I returned to Oslo to catch our late night flights back to our new home cities.