I had heard and read (in books and online forums) that learning Norwegian was key to being able to integrate and eventually get a job. I took that to heart and even though the words I heard around me sounded like garbled gibberish and it felt like an impossible task to achieve fluency – I set my mind to it.
Now, if you know me, you know that when I set out to accomplish something I get it done. I don’t just set my sights on things; I set out on a course of action for achieving them (no matter how daunting it may seem). Nursing school for example – once I decided to take a second bachelor’s I had accomplished it in two and a half years in spite of the long hours of study, care plans, tests and clinical hours. And after that was checked off my list I set out to pay off the repercussions of nursing school – thousands of dollars of debt and with careful budgeting and penny-pinching (and ignoring the culture of consumerism around me) - I did it within four years.
So when it came to Norwegian my plan of action was quite simply total immersion. In other words: NO ENGLISH. It took a couple of months to get my husband in line with my strict rule, but he eventually learned that if he had something to say to me it had to be in Norwegian. This meant no English books, radio or TV. If it wasn’t Norwegian, I wasn’t interested. I even shunned acquaintances I had to speak English with. I guess you could say I basically disowned my mother tongue (and a lot of the culture that came with it).
I know, I know, I’m a tyrant of a taskmaster. In practical terms this meant I ushered myself into long silent months of isolation. I forced myself to listen and absorb Norwegian rather than to talk and share myself (I would rather painstakingly look it up in the dictionary than say it in English). But this self-imposed seclusion brought tangible results – in ten months I had passed the higher-level Norwegian test (for entrance to University) and could claim complete fluency after a year and a half.
Now I had it, the key I had heard so much about. And sure, it unlocked a door or two for me. But I was coming to realize that the promise of integration was really too much for Norwegian itself to accomplish. Or maybe I had misinterpreted integration to mean “belonging” and had taken my quest for integration a step further to total assimilation. Whatever the case my isolated, starved American self began to protest in a big way – I was ready to commit mutiny on this adventure of life abroad.
My sister helped calm the threat of revolt by challenging me to reverse my immersion strategy. Quite simply: give myself permission to speak, read and listen to English anytime I wanted to (and while I was at it I could go ahead and be American too). After months of immersion I gasped gratefully at the fresh air, relieved to feel the free flow of breathe – in and then out – releasing the tension of holding my breath that had become so familiar.
The immersion strategy had worked, but I had taken it too far. I wasn’t capable of growing gills and surviving in a constant state of submersion. Instead I discovered I had to embrace my limitations; I could get a good deal wet but I had to keep my head above water. Maybe I can even learn to swim gracefully in this new world, while still drinking deeply of the air of my own world. And really, that’s my next quest. Except this time I plan on being a kinder, gentler non-taskmaster. I’ll let you know how it goes.