Anglophones have a pretty bad – if mostly accurate – reputation for not learning languages. I don’t know about other Anglophone countries but here in the UK, when I was at school, everyone learnt French from at least secondary school and everyone had to take at least one language at GCSE and yet if you reached adulthood with more than “bon-joor” in your vocabulary, you’d achieved something miraculous. As a nation – as a linguistic group – we are bad at languages and that’s mostly because we’re lazy and because we don’t introduce it early enough to kids. I have mainland European friends and acquaintances who are fluent – fluent – in four or five languages and they think nothing of it – that’s normal to them.
Having been introduced to Spanish in Year 9, as was standard at my school, I carried on with both it and French first to GCSE, then A Level, then university because I kind of liked them both and didn’t want to make the decision about which to drop, so I finished up with a degree in two Modern Foreign Languages. Due to the fact that I spent my compulsory year abroad in my third year in Switzerland, my Spanish had disintegrated before I even graduated and nearly ten years late, it’s all but gone – all except the verb recitals Mrs McGregor drilled into us in a very old-fashioned but very effective way in Year 9. Right up to my final year at university, I wrote them down in the margins at the beginning of every exam. Hablo hablas habla hablamos hablais hablan como comes come comemos comeis comen vivo vives vive vivimos viveis viven. My French is a little better, because I used it a little bit at work, answering to phone to customers from Tunisia and Senegal and the Ivory Coast, and working on the translated company newsletter and sending scheduled emails to the Francophone customers. But it’s still barely at GCSE level when it should be at graduate level.
Back in November, I took it into my head to learn Norwegian. From a practical point of view, it’s far more useful than Icelandic. There are far more Norwegian-speakers and while 99% of Icelanders seem to be absolutely fluent in English, there are people in Norway who don’t speak much English. Besides, if I learn Norwegian, I get a huge head start on Icelandic, as well as Swedish, Danish and Faroese, which are all closely related.
But why do I want to learn any of them when there are so many people who speak English? 1) Because I’m currently only working two days a week and I fancy keeping my brain active because I felt it rotting while I was utterly unemployed. 2) Because I want to have a functioning second language. 3) Because I’ve picked up just enough to already be interested 4) Because I’m still seriously considering moving to Norway in the not-too-distant future, even if it’s only for six months or a year and getting a job will be easier if I speak some Norwegian.
So I started with a phrasebook. That’s not a bad way to start. That’s going to give you sentences, for one thing, and they’re going to be useful ones. None of this “the pen of my aunt” stuff you get with your year or two of learning French at school. Rather than learning grammar and then having to figure out how to apply it for real, you get given the grammar and you pick it up in much the same way you do when you learn your mother tongue. How many Anglophones can explain why they say this or that and how they know to do it? That’s what I was going for at first.
And then I realised it’s 2016 and we don’t use paper these days. Everything is electronic, including learning. Why am I not using an app to learn my Norwegian? So I got an app and I love it! Granted, the free version only gives you the first lesson (“hello“). It’s £9.99 for a month’s subscription or about £48 for a year so I’ve gone for the month. Either way, I’m losing it at some point and I’m not paying £48 for something I don’t get to keep. Besides, I don’t know if I’ll still be interested in a year or if I’ll have graduated beyond the app. So £10 to become fluent in a month it is.
It’s great! There’s a lot of matching sounds to words, with both English and Norwegian visible, putting sentences in the correct order in both languages and as you progress, more and more writing it out for yourself – that’s where I’m struggling. Lots of Norwegian verbs seem to end -er and in French, that’s an infinitive, not a first person present, so that’s hard to get over. I’ve got enough very basic verbs and nouns to make simple sentences, and to mix up what I’ve been given to make my own new basic sentences. And one of the phrases from family is “Hun har en hund” – she has a dog. I never thought I’d make so much use of that phrase but I went to the Christmas market in Winchester yesterday and spent the entire day pointing at dogs and saying “hun har en hund!” or “han har en hund!”
I’m hoping that within the next week I’ll have graduated to phrases that are a little less pre-school but I’m already pretty proud of my progress. I started the app on Monday evening and on Wednesday night I caught myself dreaming in Norwegian. Admittedly, it was only dreaming over the lessons I’d been doing but it was still Norwegian and that means it’s gone further into my brain than most of my French or Spanish ever did.
Following Clare‘s comment, I’ve installed Duolingo and am giving that a go. Because I already know a few words, it threw me straight in at level 4 – skipping words that I mostly knew in favour of going straight to grammar. And because it’s attempting to teach plurals and definite plurals using words I already know/should already know, it gives me weird sentences like “villages have several elephants” and “birds don’t write newspapers” and “many teachers read books” and “who are the men?” I know, it’s about practicing the vocabulary and mostly it’s about getting the hang of how plurals are formed and how the equivalent of definite articles are added and how they’re added to plurals but it does result in odd sentences.
My verdict is… I’m using both. Mondly is giving me useful, usable phrases where I can learn the grammar through context. Duolingo is giving me the grammar. Also, Mondly doesn’t pay any attention to my phone’s inbuilt dictionary whereas Duolingo hangs onto it religiously, which means that every single time I use the verb eat, which is spiser in Norwegian, the stupid thing autocorrects to spider and I never notice and I always get my sentence wrong. I need to install and use a Norwegian dictionary but that almost kind of feels like cheating.