Languages of Norway
Did you know there are five different types of languages practiced in Norway? And did you know Norwegians ranks fourth in the world in English proficiency? Educate yourself on Norway's linguistic history here.
Moving to a new country almost always requires that you step out of your comfort zone and immerse yourself in a new language. Learning a new language, at least at a conversational level, is not only practical for navigating public transport, shopping at the grocery store or reading a menu, but it can also help you make friends and feel more comfortable as you explore your new city. Thankfully, there are many tools and resources available for learning Norwegian before and during your studies at BI.
Although Norwegians start learning English around the age of eight, making them almost fluent by adulthood, knowing more about the Norwegian language is both challenging and rewarding. In addition to learning Norwegian through BI’s Norwegian course, there are various courses offered around Oslo, and even free online courses, like the one offered by NTNU. Nevertheless, before you start practicing your “Hei Hei” and “Takk,” there is a thing or two you should know about Norway and its rich linguistic history.
Different Types of Norwegian
To no surprise, Norwegian (Norsk) is the official language of Norway. Spoken natively by nearly 4.3 million people, Norwegian is a Northern Germanic language similar to Swedish and Danish. In the medieval times, Norway was an independent kingdom and the language spoken was Old Norse. This was the language spoken by Vikings. However, after the Black Death, Old Norse started to die out and Danish became the language of the educated elite.
Today, there are two forms of written Norwegian, Bokmål (“book language”) and Nynorsk (new Norwegian), both of which are taught in schools across Norway. While the two are similar, it is important to keep in mind that there is no standard spoken Norwegian. With that being said, Bokmål is far more common and usually used for teaching Norwegian as second language since Nynorsk is first and foremost a written, rather than a spoken, language.
In addition to learning English, Norwegian also usually pick at third language at school. Some of the most common choices are Spanish, German or French. There are also a few minority languages spoken natively by select groups, mostly in the northern parts of Norway.
Bokmål is the written language used by 85-90% of Norway’s population. Despite being considered “standard Norwegian,” Bokmål actually has Danish roots and was officially adopted over 100 years ago following the Dano-Norwegian language Riksmål. Since there is no standard spoken Norwegian, dialects differ from region to region, which can sometimes drastically change what you hear when someone is speaking. Despite these variations, the Oslo dialect is sometimes considered to be the most neutral.
Nynorsk has been officially used alongside Bokmål since 1938. Nynorsk has a long and complicated history, but in short, it is meant to reflect the Old Norwegian language used prior to Norway’s union with Denmark. All students learn Nynorsk and school, but the everyday usage of Nynorsk is declining, with only around 7.5% of the population using it as their primary form. Most of these speakers live in the western parts of Norway. With that being said, it is still widely understood by all Norwegians and is seen regularly in the news.
Norwegian sign language
Norwegian sign language, or norsk tegnspråk, has been used since the early 1800’s and is used natively by approximately 12,000 people in Norway. It differs from other countries’ sign language in the same way that a spoken language does. There are two main dialects, Trondheim and Oslo, and they differ in their one-handed or two-handed usage. Norway is in the process of making norsk tegnspråk an official language.
Sami is a group of languages spoken natively by the indigenous people of Norway. With less than 50,000 speakers, Sami languages were granted official minority language status in 2005. The Sami languages are from the Uralic language family, making them somewhat related to Finnish and therefore unintelligible by a native Norwegian speaker. The ten variants of Sami are also entirely different from one another, meaning that someone speaking Ume Sami would not understand someone speaking Lule Sami. Although geographically concentrated in northern Norway, Sami languages are not exclusive to Norway, as they are also spoken in parts of northern Sweden, Finland and Russia.
Kven is another minority language spoken natively by fewer than 10,000 people, mostly in the Storfjord and Porsanger communities. Most native speakers are over the age of 60, making the language endangered. Kven has strong Finnish roots but also uses some Norwegian words.
Why are Norwegians so good at English?
Norway ranks fourth in the world in English proficiency, but why and how do Norwegians speak English so well? Firstly, Norwegian and English are both Germanic languages, and share the same sentence structure and many of the same words. This makes it easier for Norwegians to learn English than many other non-native speakers around the world. Additionally, not only do Norwegians start learning English from a very young age, but they are also immerse themselves in English media, American TV shows and English music. Norwegians also love to travel, which makes English the common language on many of their summer holidays. Finally, Norwegians have used their English skills to capitalize on international business opportunities that work to fuel their growing economy.
Learning Norwegian – What Resources are Available?
BI offers a Norwegian course to international and exchange students. The course is in-person and offered over the course of a semester. The course level serves a great introduction for beginners. More information on the course is made available to students at the beginning of each semester.
NTNU offers an online course in Norwegian. The course has ten chapters and is self-paced, making it ideal for students who enjoy learning at their own pace.
The University of Oslo (UiO) also offers courses both online and in-person. More information on UiO’s course can be found using this link.
There are also various companies that offer courses around the city. Prices, schedules and intensity vary, so do your research to find a class that you believe is right for you.
Hopefully now that you know more about Norway’s linguistic history what resources are available, you can start your journey to learning Norwegian. Lykke til!