My name is Noah Betzen, and I am pursuing a bachelor of science in computer science through the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In August of 2013, I left the United States and travelled to Narvik, Norway to study as an exchange student through the north2north student exchange program. I spent ten months at Narvik University College studying nothing but Norwegian language and social studies.
There is an old joke that goes: “If you can speak three languages you're trilingual. If you can speak two languages you're bilingual. If you can speak only one language you're an American.” This joke was, in essence, my motivation for studying abroad. Studying abroad and learning another language have always been on my list of things to do before I die. I hoped that learning another language would broaden my perspective on life and the world. I wasn’t just going to learn another language; I was going to learn another culture by leaving my own. It was like a fresh start.
Before I got to Norway, I had no idea what to expect. I'd never really been out of the US before. I didn’t want to put much thought into it either, because in my experience it is best to go with the flow when it comes to big changes. I still had the occasional panic attack when setbacks came up, but for the most part I took things in stride.
When I got to Norway, I knew nothing and I knew no one. Very few people around me were speaking English, and so the background noise was mostly Norwegian. I felt out of place, almost as though the people around me could subconsciously know that I was an American, even though there were no weird glances or stares. I shortly realized that, as far as anyone else was concerned, I was just a normal person. Even if they realized I was American, it’s not like it mattered. I stumbled my way through Oslo and eventually to Narvik with English. Luckily, most people under thirty have a decent to excellent grasp of English; it almost felt like cheating when I spoke English.
Learning the Norwegian language was a roller coaster ride. The class itself was a single 30-credit class. We met five times a week for an average of four hours a day. In the beginning, things were reasonably easy. I learned the greetings, farewells, question words, and simple nouns/verbs/adjectives. Pronunciations got difficult with the letters æ, ø, å, and the different pronunciations of letters like o, u, and y. Things began to escalate quickly as we had to write our first 200-word essays in the third week. Shortly after we abandoned speaking English almost entirely. By December we were into advanced grammar and sentence structure. By February we were reading Norwegian novels and giving presentations. By the end of the course, we had gone through three sets of text books, had Norwegian-Norwegian dictionaries we carried around religiously, and I had compiled almost four-thousand words and phrases in an online quiz database. I spoke Norwegian whenever I could.
Now that the entire experience is over, I definitely feel like a changed person. I learned a lot more than a language. I learned a lot about being in new surroundings on my own. I learned to appreciate not only my own country and people but all countries and peoples. I made many good friends with other international students from countries all over the world, each with their own language and culture that was different from my own.
If there is one thing I’m trying to say with this writing, it is this: at least once in your life you should travel or study abroad for an extended period of time. If you can learn another language while you’re there, do it. No matter what happens, your experience will be worth it, especially if you embrace the fact that you are in a completely different country.