Perceptions of Multilingualism in Europe Compared to America

The Arabic Film Festival is this weekend in Oslo. The festival is the only one of it’s kind in Oslo in that their films are completely from and about the Arab world. It’s one useful way to shine a light on the way of life for this population of people. I’ve been busy with school work so I wasn’t sure I wanted to set aside time to attend, but I’m grateful I chose to go. I was invited by Nadine, one of the Norwegian students I met at the dinner with the Cal reps. We were going to see Min Arabiske Vår. 

I met Nadine and her friends inside of the theater after the lights went down. I didn’t have reception inside the theater so figuring out where she was was a hell of a challenge, especially for someone who doesn’t want to walk in and see the dozens of faces peering back at me at I eagerly search the crowd. I walked in and stood off to the side, just on the opposite of the partition separating me from the crowd. I watch the movie from there for a few minutes. I noticed that the film was in Arabic with Norwegian subtitles. The website showed said the film would have English subtitles and that was not the case. As I was too nervous to go find her in the crowd, this was nearly reason enough to walk away. Ah the struggles of social anxiety, right? I continued watching the film even with the Norwegian subtitles.

A few things happened in that short span of time. One, I was incredibly surprised that I understood what I was reading and two, a woman walked in behind me and with just a few words, I joined the crowd of movie goers. She asked me if I wanted to sit down and I told her it was just too crowded. She told me I could sit anywhere and with that, I followed her in. She might have assumed I didn’t know where my seat was, but it didn’t matter. I point this out as an aside to the story. I am appreciative of those who support others in such small ways. I don’t know if she recognized what those few words meant, but they gave me the encouragement to walk in even though there was a slight language barrier with the movie, I still didn’t know where my friend was sitting, and I was truly looking for any excuse to leave.

I walked into the theater and very quickly found Nadine. She sat in the second and the seat she kindly saved for me was at the very end of the row. It was helpful that she chose such a seat because I no longer had to worry about disrupting the other viewers. I watched the rest of the movie, Norwegian subtitles and all. It wasn’t so bad. I laughed at all the appropriate times and understood the film beyond the pictures I was seeing. *I’m incredibly proud of myself for understanding it!!

The movie was essentially about a Turkish car salesman who is getting married shortly.  As with his culture’s customs, his family selected the bride and his input wasn’t so significant (even if he did have the internal strength to voice his needs at the time). When he goes to another city to sell these cars, he meets a woman at the hotel he’s staying in. She’s a dancer with the hotel entertainment and full of life. He feels alive when he’s with her and this feeling with her makes him question whether or not he wants to get married. He inspires him to speak up for himself and his needs. When he finally tells her that he’s actually engaged, she’s obviously upset. However, he later tells her that they will move to Paris and be together. Days later when they meet at the airport to leave, he tells her that he can’t leave. The film ends there with her crying, but getting on the plane nonetheless. She knew it would happen this way.

The movie ended and the director and moderator came to the front where there was a brief discussion about the movie. Aside from me being proud about understanding the subtitles, I realized what a strange situation I was in – a situation I don’t expect I would experience in America. I was an American in Norway, watching an Arabic film with Norwegian subtitles. The discussion that followed was a Turkish man speaking English and French.

The beauty of Europe and its open borders is the appreciation of languages. The skill of knowing other languages is seen as useful and a way to connect beyond the boundaries that language can often create. The discourse in America is often one of division. There is them and there is us. There is English and there is everything else. I’ve seen cases where someone will be speaking Spanish at a grocery store or somewhere around the city  and some wretched person will say ‘Stop speaking that! No one understands you! Speak English when you are in America!’ These people are also sometimes criticized for their accent. I haven’t seen that in Norway. When I hear a heavily accented person speaking, I’m more wowed that they have gone through the trouble of learning another language. Their broken second, third, or fourth language is more than a person’s monolingual self.

Granted, these perspectives are not so for every person. There is more appreciation and understanding for populations who know multiple languages themselves, come from diverse populations where it is common to know many languages, or have traveled around and have seen how knowing multiple languages is a skill and useful rather than a negative thing. What you should get out of this is the need to be more open to others who speak numerous languages, broken or not.




Taking the Language Classes at UIB

To be brief, don’t do it. * (Regarding the intensive language course, Norwegian 1 and 2.)

You think it’s going to be a great idea. You’ll be in another country and you figure the full emersion makes it the best time to practice your language skills. While you have casually learned what you know up to this point via Duolingo, you think being in a classroom surrounded by students will help you hold yourself accountable. By default, you’re certain you’ll be encouraged to study more often and memorize all of those vocabulary words. You believe that learning from a professor will somehow transform how you memorize the idiomatic expressions and grammar rules.

What I just described are likely your expectations of what it will be like to take a language course. You know what? You’re probably right if you take Norwegian 01 or 1, both of which are beginning courses. Let me say, I do not think this is the best time to take the intensive language course that I did.

There are several reasons why taking the intensive language course in Norway is a bad idea, why learning a language in beneficial, and alternative methods to learn Norwegian while you are in Norway.



  • Students come from all over the world with different intentions for attending this particular school. Some students come to focus on studies, while others go on Erasmus just to party. Remember that some universalities in Europe are free so it’s easier to not dedicate themselves to studies. Unless you are clear for yourself why you are in Bergen to begin with, you may find yourself influenced by what others involve themselves in.
  • Traveling while in Norway or throughout Europe takes time. If you weren’t in a class and just casually learning, you could go around

Time Commitment

  • I took the intensive 1 and 2 course, so that means it’s a 30 unit class aka a full schedule aka 8 hours a week. This can be quit challenging if you chose to take an additional-15 unit class like me. Furthermore, many Americans don’t have experience learning a second language since most US schools don’t focus on languages as much as European countries. Therefore, Americans may not know what it takes to learn a language, let alone level 2, intensive Norwegian.
  • I bring up teaching methods because the professors don’t talk about what is needed to master the language well enough to succeed on the exam. I think the professors make some assumptions when hosting these language courses. Norway is an interesting place in that as the country becomes increasingly heterogeneous racially, they encourage people to adopt the language and assimilate. They provide courses so people can learn, but I noticed that the method of teaching is full immersion. From day one, the texts are written in Norwegian. This wasn’t terribly awful for me as I took a course before this, but it is deterring. Small barriers like directions in a language you are just learning can make it challenging to fully understand the information. Unfortunately I left my coursework from home in California, so to best learn the language, I resort to Google translate, my Norwegian-English dictionary from home, and lots of online resources (which I’ll share with you).

Benefits to Language

Although I have just outlined several reasons why I don’t think taking the intensive language course is the best, learning a second (or third, fourth, and fifth language for many Europeans) can be highly beneficial. I have found it to be great for a few reasons:

  • You can better connect with the culture of Norway
  • Build relationships with Norwegians. Many of them appreciate it when you make the effort to learn Norwegian.
  • Increase your skills. Learning a second language makes it easier to learn even more
  • Not taking a formal class gives you more time to take other academic classes more relevant to your interests

Alternatives to a Formal Lecture

You may choose to opt out of the formal language course whether that is due to the fact that there weren’t enough seats available or you relate to what I have said. Regardless of what prevented you from learning the language, there are numerous options to learn the language including:

  • The Bergen Public Library offers a casual space to learn Norwegian through conversation and activities with others
  • Online websites such as Sett i Gang, Pågang, and NTNU Now, all of which are below under Tips.
  • Practice conversations with Norwegian friends. They are just as excited as you are that you are learning the language. Set up a weekly meeting!
  • Tandem Language program offered by UIB where they pair you with a Norwegian student to practice with

Tips to learn a language:

Settigang – Flashcards, grammar, exercises, games

Pågang  – Grammar/Exercises

NTNU Now – Trondheim University grammar practice

*You’re wrong if you take intensive 1 and 2.

** I say all of Europe because did I mention how cheap flights are?!