For every language you learn, you live another life. Apparently people who live in Czech say that. I think I want to live in English now.
Most Norwegians understand English, but worldwide practically no one understands Norwegian. This makes Norwegian an inside joke I share with a selection of the people I know.
Growing up, Norwegian was the language I used with the three people who knew me best, the people with whom I barely needed spoken words to communicate with at all. Even though I talked non-stop (still do) in both languages, my parents and my sister could usually understand my face and tone of voice well enough regardless of vocabulary. My mom could tell how happy I was by the way I opened the front door when I came home in the afternoon. So Norwegian was our somewhat unneccessary secret code. American friends thought Norwegian was an angry language, because they only heard it when my parents yelled at me. I preferred English, but my parents insisted I speak Norwegian, because I would need it someday.
These days, communicating in Norwegian is my job. Since moving back to Norway two years ago, I have studied and worked in Norwegian full time. I consider both Norwegian and English first languages, meaning I’m completely bilingual.
Despite all that, after giving Norwegian a serious try, I have realized something:
English is just better. I’m better in English. I like other people better in English.
I’m more open and heartfelt and honest in English. Norwegians are so direct it borders on insensitivity, both in culture and in language. We won’t tell you to have a nice day unless we ourselves would really feel happier if you did. We won’t say "I love you" to people we just like. We won’t thank you if we don’t feel genuinely grateful. Any expression of sentiment in Norwegian feels like I’m exposing some secret part of my mind, usually only accessible to Norwegians when we’re drunk.
In English I’m more polite, although I might come off as relatively rude due to Norwegian bad habits. It feels easier to be sincere and emotional in English without feeling like I’m crossing the line into inappropriate. I’m more outgoing and animated, especially when I meet Americans. If I’m in a room full of Norwegians and one American, I might look like I’m giving the American much more attention, smiling and gesticulating more.
If I swear, it’s in Norwegian. If I ever swear in English, I’m just pretending. The one exception is if I say skitt (the Norwegian word for dirt, the sk is pronounced sh) when I really want to swear in secret and I’m in Norway. (Swearing in French doesn’t work at all.) This might be because I used to be American, and as a child I had no reason to swear.
Privately, I think that all the words I know, in English, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, French, German, Dutch, Khmer, Thai, Italian, Spanish, are all one big vocabulary. Sometimes I can use all my words, sometimes only a few, depending on who I’m talking to. Most of my close friends here in Norway are people who are also fluent in English. I don’t specifically search for bilingual people to befriend, but it’s obvious why it works for us: We have a shared vocabulary, and we often mix up our two languages in conversations.
But despite the fact that most Norwegians speak English, they don’t speak the whole English language. English has more words than Norwegian. So I think in English with an occasional Norwegian expression, not vice versa. And when I speak English, the connection between what I think and what I say is less complicated. So in English I’m more honest, more polite and I swear less.
And you know that scene in Love Actually about American girls who love British men because they speak British? I know American girls like that, but it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that English in general – British, American, Australian, Canadian, any version of perfectly pronounced, flawless, this-is-clearly-your-first-language English – works for me. Hearing someone speak English really well just makes me relax. Compared to hearing Norwegians speak English as a second language, it’s like hearing a singer with perfect pitch and realizing I’ve been listening to off-key music for years.
When I go through old notebooks and crumpled-up napkins at the bottom of my purse, I find quotes from novels I’ve read in English. Paragraphs I had to write down, because they made me shiver a little bit, because they were so well-written. Sometimes they become blog posts. I never feel that way about Norwegian.
Just listen to Stephen Fry talk about anything. Even when he’s making fun of the very topic of language, I just love it.
Sure, there are plenty of wonderful things you can say in Norwegian as well. You can say koselig, nydelig, jeg er glad i deg. And as a journalist, I love the intricacies and possibilities of the Norwegian language. But I love the English language more. Half the time when I’m writing in Norwegian, I am quietly wishing that I could write the same text in English.
So what do I do with this? Move? Try to find writing work in English? I don’t know.