Language and Communication

So, I did promise you a post on this topic. And, I am currently trying to avoid learning lines for my performance that is on, in, oh, I don’t know, two weeks (I’m at that annoying point with line-learning, where I’m no longer lying awake at night paralysed with fear by the amount of lines I have to learn and then using that fear to propel me into spending every waking moment reciting words to myself, much to the detriment of my social life and the contribution of my image as some sort of crazy stalker-type lady. Instead, I am now sick to death of my script, of the lines, of the characters, of the story, of just looking at Times New Roman typeface on slightly off-white paper in general. I still don’t know the lines well enough, but I know them well enough to think, ‘Oh, yes, I actually really need a break from line-learning tonight and I think that, instead, I will re-watch ‘Three Men and a Baby’, which I considered an excellent film at the age of 8, so therefore must still be a very rewarding and fruitful use of my time’).

Anyway, the point is, I wanted to write a little bit about this topic and I need something to procrastinate with, so I am using this post to do that. Make sense? Yes, indeed.

Now despite the dry-as-bones title, I think this is actually a topic that is quite interesting. And it’s certainly something I had the opportunity to mull over a lot whilst I was in Norway. You see, my Norwegian language skills, which were always slightly lopsided to begin with (lots of knowledge of how to describe past drunken nights, foods, feeling unwell and/or tired, things that I liked or would like to do and places that I had been, but no idea of how to, say, describe something that I had thought about doing in the future and then decided not to, for a variety of complex and highly intellectual reasons), had become even more lopsided in the ten years since I had been in Norway. Thrillingly enough, after two or three days, I was understanding a great deal of the Norwegian that was being spoken to me. This was helped by the fact that my host family mainly spoke to me in Norwegian, so I was put on a pretty steep learning curve. Being thrown in the ‘deep end’ like this makes you realise how much of what you understand of conversation comes not just from the language itself. You understand from gesture, facial expression, context, tone of voice and a whole host of other things. There were many times when I would guess what someone was asking me to do, respond appropriately and then go back over what they had said to me in my head and work out exactly which word meant what. Interestingly, I also noticed that some people I understood really easily (mainly my host family), whereas other people I would have absolutely no idea what they were saying, no matter how many times they repeated themselves. Sometimes this was because they were speaking a different dialect, or spoke very quickly, or not particularly loudly (its a stereotype when talking to people who don’t speak your language to talk louder to them, but, honestly, from my own experience, it does actually help), but I think, also, when people took me by surprise (by, for example, suddenly asking a question, or asking a question when I wasn’t looking at them), it would be more difficult for me to immediately understand. The added panic of not knowing what they were saying would then contribute to my struggle to comprehend. Interestingly, I found that long conversations were often easier for me to follow then, say, a direct question or statement. Because a long conversation is constantly evolving, new words are constantly being thrown in and so I could use the extra time and the new information to build up a picture of what people were talking about. Sometimes I would still get it wrong, realising at the end of a conversation that someone’s opinion was the opposite of what I thought it was, because I had missed a negative somewhere along the line, but, hey I do that in English conversation, when I’m not listening properly to people, and, say, composing blog posts in my head instead. Reading (which, for me, was always the easiest skill out of the four language skills) was also pretty ok. Obviously, in the course of one magazine article, I would never work out absolutely everything that was written, and I am a hell of a lot slower reading Norwegian than I am reading English, but reading the paper, or magazines, or (the best, easiest and most enjoyable) comic strips made me feel pretty darn pleased with myself.

So, my comprehension skills were pretty decent, considering how little effort I’ve put into my Norwegian since leaving. Unfortunately, my speaking skills had not kept pace with my comprehension. They were dreadful. Even if I knew the words I needed to say and the order they needed to be said in (which was a rare occurrence), as soon as my brain commanded my mouth to speak, we got into trouble. I think it would be the equivalent of going back to yoga or dancing after ten years doing absolutely nothing. The muscles kind of remember what they are supposed to do, but often they just can’t quite stretch the way that they used to. Not straight away anyway. So, my mouth was attempting to form Norwegian sounds it hadn’t had to form for many years and, inevitably, vowels were sounding English, emphases were in the wrong place, dipthongs were appearing where no dipthongs existed. My brain was infuriated, but my poor mouth just couldn’t keep up. My tongue kept getting in the way of my teeth. My lips were all over the place, making all kinds of inappropriate shapes. It’s almost like learning lines. You may have lines completely memorised in your head, but its a whole other matter to say them out loud. And, of course, all the while I was struggling with my lips and mouth and teeth and tongue, the person I was attempting to communicate with would be watching me with deep concentration, trying to figure out exactly what it was that I was attempting to say. The more they watched, the more I said the wrong things, the more flustered I got and the chances of me making even more mistakes became much higher. So, eventually, I would give up and start speaking English.

People often commented when I was in Ireland that I had picked up a slight Irish lilt. Whilst I didn’t do it deliberately, I was aware of going a little ‘Irish’ when speaking to Irish people. It seems to have mostly worn off now that I’m in London. Though, perhaps now I’m going a little English. The thing is that I find it quite difficult to speak in a wildly different rhythm to the person with whom I am conversing (that’s very difficult to explain properly without sounding like a wanker, so I apologise for the overly posh grammar). In Ireland, it would feel like everyone was in this specific groove, this particular lilting rhythm, kind of like a bunch of singing birds in a Disney film, and then along would come this big, hulking goose and make some horrible honking noise in the middle of the song and all the other birds would stop singing and stare at the goose and then fly away grumpily. Which is pretty much how I always imagined myself if I accidentally said something particularly nasal or broad or ‘Aussie’ in the middle of a conversation in Ireland. And the reason I’m bringing all this up now is that it was even harder in Norway to suddenly start speaking English when everyone around you was speaking Norwegian. It wasn’t that I was worried whether or not people would understand me – most of them would. It was just that everyone would be going along with these lovely, soft, rolling Norwegian sounds and then *HONK* out comes the flat, broad, boring ol’ English. There was also something magical about the Norwegian sounds, because I only just barely understood them. Oddly enough, English became dull simply because I could understand everything immediately and completely. It was much more fun trying to work out the Norwegian. I was always disappointed on the one or two occasions that strangers would guess I wasn’t Norwegian and just start speaking English to me.

However, because I was working so hard to understand and because I hated to open my mouth and let out the honking English, I spent most of my days in Norway very quiet (at least, I did in group scenarios – one on one conversations were different). Which, for any of you who know me well, is quite unusual. Most friends would realise that they way I connect to people is through words, words, words. Probably too many words, looking at the word count of this post. Conversation with some of my friends can often feel like a competitive sport, where you’re lying in wait for a moment to jump in with your next story, tackling to the ground any others who attempt to jump in with THEIR story before you. You’ve got to be quick on your feet, we’re running from Downton Abbey to the zombie apocalypse, to people’s love lives to Patagonia to feminist theory to the Little Mermaid to the changing face of journalism and we’re doing it all in under fifteen minutes! And, even if you can’t jump in with your own story, your own choice of topic, you’re always thinking of lines or quips to just throw in at likely moments, when people are taking a breath, to remind everyone else that you’re still there, you’re still in the game, you’re still part of the conversation. It can be exhausting, and there have been many times after an hour of two of particularly loud, animated conversation, I’ve taken myself off to the loo just to sit somewhere quiet for a little while and catch my breath. I’m not meaning to be critical here. I naturally fall into this style of interaction. No matter how hard I try to be the silent, mysterious girl in the corner, quietly observing everyone’s antics with a knowing look, or the girl who communicates with ‘body language’, with looks and smiles, I always end up being the girl in the middle, screeching with laughter and, without censorship, telling everyone within earshot every thought that has happened to cross her mind in the past 5 minutes (in hindsight, its amazing it took me so long to start blogging, really). I’m the girl whose ‘friends’ occasionally tell her she’s being too loud in the coffee shop (and on a side note, I reckon that’s a pretty shitty thing to do to a friend. It’s not like we’re in a library. It’s not like I was saying anything particularly rude. If I’m embarrassing you, maybe we just shouldn’t be friends).

But the point is, that style of interaction requires a speed of language I just don’t have in Norwegian. So, I almost seemed to become a completely different person. Quiet. Thoughtful. By the time I’ve worked out what everyone’s talking about and then considered how I could contribute to the conversation and then how to translate that into some form of Norwegian I could confidently speak (I had many tricks of how to avoid grammar or words I wasn’t completely certain of), the conversation would have moved on. There were about three times during the course of the week when I was able to make people laugh with the type of breezy, ridiculous throwaway comments that are my staple in English conversation. It was a very strange experience to suddenly be that quiet person. We so often think of personality as an unalterable, constant thing and yet a change of language and I feel like a completely different human being. I didn’t dislike that human being. It was intriguing to be that person for a little while.

Anyway, this post is probably long enough and I could babble on for another few paragraphs without coming to a satisfying conclusion. Suffice it to say that I got a list of private Norwegian tutors from the Norwegian embassy in London and I’m hoping to find some time to brush up on my language skills. So, maybe the next time I’m back in  Norway, I won’t be quite so quiet…

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Filed under Introspection, Norway

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