On learning French vs. learning Norwegian

Friday, September 12, 2008

Can't think of an image that encapsulates both Norway and France, so here's the centre of Oslo.

My post on why Norwegian is the easiest language for English speakers to learn garnered quite a bit of attention last month and a few days ago two people had a small discussion in the comments area about the relative difficulty of French vs. Norwegian. Here's what started off the discussion:
Very interesting, but I must beg to differ! No Germanic language would be the easiest language for an English speaker to learn. Yes, simple words are very similar in Norweigian and also these words in a Romance language like French are different. But as soon as you try and start talking slightly more eloquently, the words are completely unrecognisable in a Germnic language, even when there's similarities in the small words that make those words. I'm going to use an example of German: ankommen which means arrive (as you know probably). Yes you could learn that meaning by kommen and the prefix which sort of makes the meaning clear, but wouldn't you agree that the French word "arriver" is far easier to learn than that? And, the example you used in the article, well the French word for independence is "indépendance" which is almost exactly the same and far easier to learn than the Norweigian word. English is filled with Latin vocab unlike Norweigian. Therefore, I think that the Romance languages are easier to learn but I do agree that Romance grammar is probably harder than Scandinavian grammar.
A lot of languages have a similar situation to this when you compare one with another, where one language has a lot of basic vocabulary in common with another, but due to the influence of another language it will look a lot like the latter language in more formal forms - newspapers, encyclopedias, etc. English and French are a bit more like the latter, though they're both Indo-European languages so they do share basic vocabulary as well, just not as much as Germanic languages.

This means that French is easier to passively understand at first, and the more academic the better. Here are the first two sentences from the French Wikipedia on Barack Obama for example:

Barack Hussein Obama Jr. est un homme politique américain, sénateur de l'Illinois au Sénat des États-Unis depuis 2005. Obama est le candidat démocrate à la présidentielle américaine de 2008.

A lot of those words are easy to understand even for people who have never learned French before: politique, américain, sénateur, etc. The rest of the words are not so familiar however: de, au, des, depuis, le, à, la. In general however it's not that hard to understand.

Now let's take a look at the one in Norwegian:

Barack Hussein Obama jr. er senator for delstaten Illinois i USA. Han er den eneste afro-amerikaneren i USAs senat og den femte i USAs historie. Barack Obama er Det demokratiske partiets kandidat ved presidentvalget i 2008 i konkurranse med republikaneren John McCain.

Hm...much less there. You'll notice that the definite article is put on the end (delstaten = the state), and the only familiar word besides some terms like senat and demokratiske is the word for, which is used in much the same way as in English.

Okay, so French certainly has the edge in passive understanding. However, the original post from last month was not about passive understanding but rather going from zero to fluency. What Norwegian has for English that French doesn't is a similarity in grammar and basic wordstock that makes it a much easier language to jump into from the beginning (finding Norwegian people to practice with you is a different matter).

Here are a few examples.

Verb conjugation. The first thing you want to say in a language you're studying is something in the present tense. In Norwegian you put an -r on the infinitive and you're done. I have a book - jeg har en bok. I love you - jeg elsker deg. Do you have a book? Har du en bok? In French you have to do a lot more work on verb conjugation - J'ai un livre. Je t'aime. As-tu un livre? Basic words are just that much easier to use with confidence in Norwegian: komme (come), gå (go), ha, (have), like (like), svømme (swim), se (see). In French to use the word swim (nager) even in the present tense you have to know all the conjugations: nage, nages, nage, nageons, nagez, nagent. In Norwegian it's Jeg svømmer (I swim), du svømmer (you swim), svømmer han? (does he swim), vi svømmer (we swim), and so on.

Split infinitives, irregular verbs and word order. Often when reading a Norwegian text you'll come across verbs that are used just like in English. Some examples: Tok kontroll means took control. Ta (take) is a verb with an irregular past tense, but luckily it's the same as in English: take - took / ta - tok.

Some other examples:

Et palestinsk opprør mot israel brøt ut i 1987. - A Palestinian revolt against Israel broke out in 1987.
De forente nasjoner - the UN. Literally "The United Nations", nice and easy. The French term is Organisation des Nations Unies, lit. Organization of Nations United.
Nord-Korea - North Korea. In French it's Corée du Nord (Korea of the North), and don't forget the article la in front because you need that in French.

Those are enough examples for the time being. The main points I wanted to make are these:
  • French is quite easy to read passively. This actually is why languages like Interlingua are so easy to read, because they take from a Greco-Latin wordstock that has influenced European languages throughout history.
  • French is one of the easier languages to learn in the world (for us English speakers), don't get me wrong, but it has a lot of finer points that the language student has to keep in mind that can easily trip a person up in the beginning. Norwegian is that much easier to slip into right from the beginning.
  • What takes the most time in learning Norwegian is familiarizing yourself with vocabulary that doesn't come from the Greco-Latin wordstock: words that you can identify as being related to English cognates but not so obvious at first. That includes words like nabo (neighbour), selvstendig (independent, think self-standy), oppta (take up).

Of course, the largest part of learning a language is motivation, so a person really interested in Scandinavian mythology and Germanic languages will have more fun with Norwegian and a person interested in law/diplomacy/cuisine/Latin language etc. will learn French that much faster.


Unknown said...

Under Verb conjugation you translated "I love you" to "jeg elsker du" I'm not if that was on purpose because it's the mostly direct and translation of "you" and you was working on the verbs.
Anyways it actually translates into "Jeg elsker DEG" :-)
I love your artice though, keep it up!

Me said...

Thanks! Yeah, that was a typo.

Anonymous said...

I was the one who left that comment and I have to say you've shown me how Norwegian probably is the easiest language to learn. It feels more homely for an English speaker than French would.

Love your blog!

Norwegian guy said...

Don't forget that it's not only English that have French and Latin (and Greek) loanwords. Also Norwegian, German, and all other Germanic languages except Icelandic and Faroese have quite a lot of such loans.

Your Wikipedia examples actually shows this:
sénateur = senator (Norw.) = senator (Eng.)
Sénat = senat = senate
candidat = kandidat = candidate
américain = -amerikaneren = -American
démocrate = demokratiske = Democratic
présidentielle = president- = presidential

And in the Norwegian text only:
-staten = the state
afro- = Afro-
historie = history (of Greek origin)
partiets = the party's
konkurranse = competition
republikaneren = the Republican

Me said...

Right, but who is able to tell what a word like delstaten is at first sight? It's far too hidden to be a cognate for the beginning student. Same thing for republikaneren - it looks kind of like it has something to do with a republic or Republican but it's not clear without a bit of grammar beforehand. Same for partiets. Konkurranse of course means nothing to an English speaker.

In that way Norwegian (and other Germanic) cognates and loanwords are a bit hidden compared to those in French. Dictionnaire vs. ordbok for example.

Pauekn said...

Under Verb conjugation you translated "I love you" to "jeg elsker du" I'm not if that was on purpose because it's the mostly direct and translation of "you" and you was working on the verbs.
Anyways it actually translates into "Jeg elsker DEG" :-)
I love your artice though, keep it up!

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