Foreign Language Anxiety

“Just learn Norwegian.”

“Well you should really learn the language if you’re going to live in their country.”

“Have you learned Norwegian yet?”

“You’re such an English speaker.

There are two major things that I find stressful about living here. The first is the universal expectation that one day I will magically start speaking fluent Norwegian, and the other is that people are often uncomfortable speaking English to me. I don’t like the idea that I stress people out, and I tend to be overly empathetic. I sense their pain and magnify it to the level that I feel in language situations, then I feel terrible for being the source of such agony.

I’m not normally a very shy person. I tend to crave a lot less social interaction than most people, but when I am actually in social situations I think I’m fairly normal and well adjusted. Now however, I’ve started to develop feelings of social anxiety that I had no idea I was capable of. The absolute worst, the terror of my terrors, are greetings and formalities. These little rituals that were so casual and automatic at home are now a major nuisance.

There is this scene that plays out almost every time I go to work. I’m asked, “Hvordan går det?”, how’s it going? To which I reply…

nothing. I can’t do it. What’s wrong with me?

I freeze up, my throat closes, my face goes flush and I start to sweat.

Someone asks me how it’s going and I actually break into a sweat. I can’t even remember what words to use, despite their appearance at the beginning of every kind of Norwegian lesson out there. I’ve seen this conversation a thousand times in text, in real life, in lesson videos. If I do manage to squeak something out, it comes out trembling, barely audible, and just pathetic.

All I have to say is “Det går bra!” That’s it!

It’s the simplest, most common thing you could learn in a language and I can’t even manage that. Even in writing this I am resisting a very powerful urge to go double check that this is the correct response… this level of insecurity is unimaginable if you’ve never experienced it.

No amount of alcohol can cure this kind of anxiety. Source:

The issue is an overpowering need to be flawless. I have no idea where it comes from, but I actually feel like if I make a silly mistake or sound like a toddler I will be viewed as an idiot and not respected.

We can talk all day about how much Norwegians love and appreciate when English speakers do attempt to speak their language, and how much fun it is when foreigners mispronounce things, but it doesn’t change anything. This kind of anxiety is physical pain, it’s no different than trying to wish away a headache or a broken limb. The worst part, for me, is that people take my hesitation as unwillingness.

I know the cure is practice. I know. I know that the cure to this is to face the fear repeatedly until it goes away. “You have to get over it, you have to just do it!”

Easier said than done.

(If anyone out there has some more useful and practical advice or some kind of actual strategy, I’d more than love to hear about it.)

Why is this so hard?

I grew up in Canada, which is supposed to be a bilingual country, but the attempts to teach us French in school were weak at best, and I learned nothing. I grew up 100% monolingual, and this has put me at a huge disadvantage here. I am so envious of people who grew up bilingual, and this is one factor that has increased the anxiety for me being here, because I know that I’m being compared to:

  1. everyone here who is already bilingual (at least) and takes it for granted
  2. people who come here from other European countries and learn Norwegian as a third (or fourth etc) language.

So I feel like I’m being held up against that standard. These people can naturally flip back and forth between languages and have been doing so for most of their lives… it’s not impressive to me that they are “more willing” to attempt speaking Norwegian. For me, the basic act of speaking in another tongue feels even more foreign than the second language itself. When the words actually do come out, it’s like someone else is speaking with my mouth. It is very unsettling.

I didn’t grow up doing this, I have only one set of noises that I’m used to making to people. My brain needs to be exercised in this way for the first time. Those poor attempts at French classes in school honestly don’t count.

I was once told “You’re such an english speaker”, and this hit me really hard. It was my first summer here, and I still can’t shake that feeling that people are judging me as this dumb American (I am Canadian but over here it’s all the same, maybe I’ll talk about that another time) who can’t be bothered with other languages, because everyone else speaks English anyway. Everyone else has to be uncomfortable speaking my language, and I get to feel comfortable and superior with my smooth English skills.

I want to emphasize that people are NOT making me feel this way. By far the vast majority of people are incredibly nice and welcoming, but when you get this anxiety you focus on the one comment that one person made two years ago, and can’t let it go. This idea that they are all judging me like this is entirely built up in my own head, and I am well aware of that.

I desperately want to converse in Norwegian, and it gives me deep anxiety to think that people might assume that I don’t want to. I like Norwegian, I think it’s a lovely sounding language, and it’s really not hard to learn. I am also a big fan of diversity (I lean more towards biodiversity, but language diversity is important too) and I think people should damn well be able to speak their own language in their own country. Beside that, I can see how uncomfortable many people are with English, and I can see the obvious relief on their faces when I say they can speak Norwegian to me.

The other issue, which is admittedly rather stupid, is that I actually feel a bit pretentious when I try hard to say the words perfectly… I literally can’t win.

This combination of feeling judged, insecure, and incredibly self conscious has made this big paradoxical pileup of anxiety which is becoming the major roadblock to actual progress in overcoming all this fear.


There is hope for me yet..

One thing that might help actually, is that I’m getting to the point where I am comfortable to tell people they can speak Norwegian to me, if it’s ok with them that I use English back. I simply don’t have the vocabulary to carry a practical conversation (eg at the driver’s licence office) in Norwegian, but I can understand quite fluently in situations like this, as long as it’s one on one, not too fast, and I get an occasional chance to pause and make sure I’m following correctly. If other people talk to each other I usually get lost pretty quickly if they don’t include me directly.

Being able to understand at this level is a big step up. It means that I don’t need to be completely surrounded by English anymore. I can let people speak Norwegian to me most of the time, which means I will start rapidly picking up and confirming words more and more… and the more sure I am that I know a word, the more likely I’ll be able to use it. It still takes intense focus for me to follow the conversation, so I can’t do it all day long, but it’s a start.

This is a painfully slow process, and I can guarantee that there are many more tears of frustration to come, but I have to remind myself of the huge amount of progress I’ve made since I first came here and was afraid to even say “Takk” in the store (I froze up and said nothing, just smiled, which was way worse than just saying thanks in English). People must have thought I was mute or something. But it doesn’t matter. I can do that now, and even if that’s all I can manage, for now that is good enough. The rest will come, however long it might take.