Reporting on Norway (from China)

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Along with many other Penn Staters, I attended the 8th International Symposium on Bilingualism on 15-18 June in Oslo, Norway. Generally speaking, it was quite a transition leaving Beijing and waking up in Oslo. I'll leave the cities' and cultures' respective differences for another discussion, but what I found curiously difficult was making the transition from being in a foreign country where English proficiency is relatively low to one where English proficiency is widespread and very high. It seems that not being able to read the signs at the store is a pretty strong cue to inhibiting (socially and/or linguistically) my English production, as I did very little communicating with the Norwegians my first few days and ended up shopping at the Chinese grocery store where I was more comfortable struggling with Chinese than trying to convince myself it was OK to speak English with Norwegians. Fortunately (as I elaborate below), it proved to be a temporary condition...
Besides grocery shopping, I also gave a talk at ISB8 on behavioral and computational studies of lexical categorization. The talk was part of a larger colloquium on bilingual lexical interaction organized by Ping Li and Barbara Malt, which proved to be quite interesting. It's always reinforcing to see researchers at several different institutions doing projects that converge toward a common goal (and hopefully common results!!). A PDF copy of my talk can be downloaded from the PIRE repository (password required). Generally our findings in this study were:
  1. A cross-linguistically convergent bilingual categorization pattern can emerge through competition between two monolingual-like inputs from each language.
  2. The connectionist (computational) model we have previously used to describe lexical attrition can extend into simulating categorization in simulatenous and short-term L2 immersion with minor modifications.
After the conference concluded, Jason and I took a night train up to Trondheim, home harbor of famous Norse explorer Leif Ericson and the old capitol of Norway. After a few days of hiking and general slothfulness, we couldn't keep our minds off psycholinguistics any longer. At a small pub outside the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, I noticed two students playing Scrabble with Norwegian tiles. In what might have been the most awkward social moment of the week, I interrupted their game to ask if I could borrow just the instruction manual. Much to my dismay, there was no information on the letter frequencies for this version of the game short of violently overturning their board and counting the tiles myself, so we resorted to pestering the gamers once more with a barrage of questions about Norwegian language.

As we learned, Norwegian has a very interesting history of language contact and social response to the consequent change. Perhaps most interestingly, in the 1840s Norwegian lexicographer Ivar Aasen travelled the country documenting the Norwegian dialects and developing a standardized national language (now known as Nynorsk or "New Norwegian") hoping to restore Norwegian orthography to prominence over the commonly used Danish system and unite some of the phonotactic and morphological conventions of the various dialects. Our interviewees had learned both Nynorsk and Bokmål (the Danish-contacted Norwegian) in primary school and spontaneously switched between the two during simple tasks like counting the Scrabble score. Today the Norwegian municipalities are roughly split on which language to use as their official language, but Bokmål and local dialects remain the more popular languages while Nynorsk frequently appears in national television broadcasts.

On my last day in Norway, a friendly Norwegian and fellow-backpacker convinced a local drama company to let me into their very expensive production for free on the basis that I had no hope of understanding the dialogue anyway. Although the language experience may have been lost on me in this case, I enjoyed the exposure to traditional Norwegian culture as the play recounts a common legend of a Viking village and the brothers who ruled it. After the play I jetted off back to Beijing for PIRE Summer Round 2. More adventures to come, I'm sure!

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I was also really hesitant at first to use English with the people I interacted with in grocery stores and restaurants in Norway. I was told over and over that their proficiency was excellent and that I shouldn't worry about my limited Norwegian, but I still held back for the first few days.

From a sociolinguistic standpoint, it felt very strange to me to assume (even if rightly so) that I could just address every Norwegian I met in their L2 - in their own country! The funny thing is that I also ended up frequenting the Chinese grocery stores there, though it was more for the rice noodles and Thai pastes than because of any proficiency in Chinese!

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This page contains a single entry by Benjamin Zinszer published on June 29, 2011 11:20 PM.

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