Calum Henderson: Bilingualism the way ahead for English speakers

Sometimes I am asked why, out of all the places I could have chosen to study abroad, I picked Norway. Was it out of a desire to go fjord-exploring, or some weird love of horrendously cold weather?
Scots are lucky to speak English. Picture: GettyScots are lucky to speak English. Picture: Getty
Scots are lucky to speak English. Picture: Getty

No. The reason I chose Norway is so lazy it almost shames me.

The only worry I had about going on exchange was the language, not much wanting to have to learn a second one just to understand a year’s worth of classes. So imagine my delight when I discovered that in Norway, everyone – the teachers, the waitresses, the taxi drivers – all speak English extremely well.

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While here, I could fall off a mountain or catch pneumonia, but it’s pretty unlikely I will ever be misunderstood.

‘No one speaks English better than the Norwegians,’ brags a local newspaper. For an otherwise welcoming and beautiful country, it’s the only thing about Norway that I find slightly intimidating – the almost arrogant ease with which Norwegians switch between two very different languages.

This tends to make a visitor assume everyone here is somehow smarter, which is doubtful. But it is still embarrassing to think most Norwegians have mastered two languages when they were half my age, when back home in Glasgow it wouldn’t be difficult to find people twice my age who are still getting to grips with their first.

It is only by coming here did I learn something us Scots, in our smugness, do not understand: how lucky we are to speak English, a truly global language. The governments of Scandinavia, knowing the importance of English in a globalised world, force their children into learning it along with their native tongue.

Not that forcing works on its own. After all, French is taught in every school here and despite the best efforts of our teachers, we have failed miserably to become bilingual. With Norway and its neighbours, however, they are not only taught English, but brought up with it, spending half their time in our bubble of Anglosphere television, films and music.

It is hard to imagine many Scots willingly plunging themselves into the cultures of other languages such as French, Spanish or Chinese – unless they really had to. And yet this is the only way a language can be learned.

Scotland often looks to places like Norway for inspiration on how to better ourselves, but we fail to appreciate their bilingualism, easily their greatest achievement. At the very least, this makes the place immediately more welcoming for an English-only speaker such as myself.

Perhaps bringing our children up on some French or Spanish TV or music, as well as English, rather than suddenly forcing a new language upon them at school, is the way forward. There are few things more reassuring than travelling to a foreign country and being spoken to as if you are still at home.

Our politicians say we want to be open to the world. This is one way we could prove that we mean it.

Calum Henderson is currently studying in Oslo. He is from Milngavie, near Glasgow