Norwegian leaders struggle in English

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Norwegians often think they speak and understand English well, but monotone delivery, poor pronunciation and a torrent of useless words can creep into their speech. That, in turn, can seriously undermine their message and their authority.

That’s the conclusion of language coach Rick Salmon, an American entrepreneur who’s lived in Norway for 30 years. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported this week on a method of speech analysis he’s developed in cooperation with doctoral candidates in linguistics at the University College of London. It measures, through a data program, speakers’ presentations and how their audiences most probably will respond.

‘Ummmm, eh, aaaah…’
He’s tested the program on the spoken English of such leaders as Prime Minister Erna Solberg and business executives like Berit Svendsen of Telenor, Petter Stordalen of Choice Hotels and Anita Krohn Traaseth of Innovation Norway.

Solberg was caught stuttering and stammering over what Salmon calls “parasite words:”  meaningless words and so-called “disfluencies” that also include noises like ummmm, eh and aaaah that probably emerge because of nervousness or uncertainty. They can crowd out the speaker’s message and bore audiences, or leave listeners straining to follow the speaker’s message. Once the unnecessary words are edited out, Solberg’s message was crystal clear and “dynamic,” Salmon said during an appearance on NRK’s Dagsnytt 18 program this week.

To hear a tape of how Salmon edited Solberg’s speech when interviewed on an NRK radio program, click here (external link) and on the arrow on the photo paired with the headline “Norske ledere er for usikre på engelsk” (Norwegian leaders are too uncertain in English).

Poor pronunciation isn’t as big a problem, Salmon told DN, as a monotone that many Norwegians can slip into as soon as they shift from Norwegian to English. Svendsen, who also was caught pronouncing the word “web” as “veb,”  readily agreed with Salmon.

“He’s absolutely right,” she told DN. “I know that I must become better to warm up and practice, to be able to tell the good and engaging stories.”

English is often used at Telenor Norge because of the firm’s international operations and because increasing numbers of managers are not Norwegian. Meetings of the company’s top leaders are always held in English, DN reported.

“In the transition from Norwegian to English, many of the nuances can disappear,” Svendsen said. “During discussions, you don’t always have all the words in your head. At the same time, English has lots of good words that we don’t have in Norwegian, especially within technical jargon.” She thinks being more conscious of her spoken English will help her improve.

‘Yust da ting’
Anita Krohn Traaseth, who headed Hewlett-Packard Norge before becoming head of the state agency Innovation Norway, has trouble pronouncing the “th” sound, so words like “thing” come out “ting.” That can be confusing for foreigners unaccustomed to “Norwegian-English.” Traaseth also recognized her shortcomings and noted she “absolutely has potential to become better.”

Owning up to a lack of proficiency may be half the battle for those keen to improve. Many other Norwegians all but refuse to accept that their English is poor, with some top leaders too embarrassed to admit they need coaching. At Norway’s foreign ministry, there’s an emphasis on English proficiency, with recruits tested both before and after training programs. “It’s very important to have a firm grip on business-related English, for example,” Kristine Hauer Århus of the ministry told DN. She’s familiar with the fact that many Norwegians aren’t always so good in English as they like to think they are. She agreed that most Norwegians are conversant, “but I’m not sure how much that helps when you need to negotiate at the United Nations.”

Others also point to a reluctance among Norwegian business leaders to recognize shortcomings and get help in English. “We can follow TV programs and order in restaurants,” said Glenn Ole Hellekjær, a professor at the University of Oslo, “but only the fewest of us are competent in conducting business negotiations in English.” His research shows that fully 80 percent of highly educated business leaders had stopped studying English in high school. “These are resourceful people who buy and sell products and services for billions,” he told DN, referring to the risks that can involve. “It’s a bit surprising that higher education doesn’t offer more English instruction as a part of the teaching.”

Of the leaders Salmon tested, real estate and hotel tycoon Petter Stordalen came out best. “He’s not held back by speaking English and manages to  maintain his lively and engaging tone,” Salmon told DN. Stordalen does make mistakes, though, pronouncing the “th” sound like “d,” so words like “that” become “dat.” Salmon said that reminded him of how Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa character talked in the movie Rocky: forceful, but perhaps leaving an audience to think that some intelligence was lost along the way. Neither Solberg nor Stordalen were willing to comment to DN on Salmon’s observations. Berglund

  • John Palmer

    I’ll be in Norway from 15 December to 15 January if anyone there would like coaching in American English. Oslo, Lillehammer, Trondheim, Sykkylven, and again Oslo. Meet for coffee and chat in English. 🙂 We can have fun. Don’t worry. I still have trouble with your ae, o/, and aa.

    • Cailin

      Just FYI, If you don’t have a keyboard that can type æ, ø, or å, the correct “translations” are: æ – ae, ø – oe, å – aa.

      • John Palmer

        Thanks. I could have found the letters online and pasted them. And I think there is a way to program the keyboard.

      • John Palmer

        Thanks for giving me a nudge. I found æ, ø, and å on my Macbook. Who says you can’t teach an old geezer new tricks, eh? 🙂

  • John Palmer

    Yup! No takers on my offer. Either no Norwegians reading this or else they think it does not apply to them. 🙂

    • inquisitor

      Don’t mess with…perfection.

      • John Palmer

        🙂 My French friend thinks he doesn’t need to improve his English because he already speaks the world’s best language. 🙂