Language demand needs reality check

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COMMENTARY: Some high-profile Norwegian politicians are trying to force the use of the local language in immigrant homes. A reality check seems in order: One question is whether Carl I Hagen of the Progress Party, who put forth new demands for Norwegian language expertise this week, would really drop his own Norwegian if he ever retires to his home in Spain. Another is whether he really would follow though on his language demands and accuse this writer’s own Norwegian grandmother of child neglect, because she continued to speak Norwegian in her new home in California.

It’s been endlessly fascinating to be an immigrant myself in Norway, a country constantly grappling with immigration issues. After growing up in a melting pot like California, it quickly became clear when I arrived in Oslo 25 years ago just how inexperienced my new country of residence was in dealing with things like culture clashes and, not least, language barriers. I ran into them constantly myself, and still do, despite having the advantage of being of Norwegian and Swedish descent. My challenge was, and still is, that Scandinavian language skills did not descend to my generation.

Norway is also a country that produced record numbers of emigrants itself just 100 years ago, when times were tough and opportunities limited for the vast majority of Norwegians. Politicians like Hagen often seem to forget that, and they could gain quite a bit of insight into immigration issues, possibly even empathy, by studying how Norwegians themselves have behaved over the years as immigrants in a new country.

Bear with some family history
Among the immigrants that Norway produced was my grandmother, a cook and housemaid in Oslo (still called Kristiania at the time) who headed for a new life in California in 1917. Her older brother Nils was already there, working as a cabinetmaker in San Francisco. He’d met and married another Norwegian immigrant and they’d had a son, but she got sick and died. My grandmother was summoned to come care for little Roald until Nils remarried.

When he did, to another Norwegian immigrant from Romsdal, my grandmother moved south to Los Angeles, where she cooked in a small café at LA Harbour that was run by yet another Norwegian immigrant from Stavanger who had learned enough English to handle the business. Norwegians, it seems, were like magnets for one another and clustered quickly, just as other immigrants often do in Oslo and other cities. My grandmother spoke little if any English, but it didn’t matter since she spent her time in the kitchen and almost everyone she dealt with were either Norwegians, Swedes or Danes. They could communicate well among themselves. Most of their customers were Scandinavian dock workers and fishermen anyway, so there was no pressing need for my grandmother to learn or use the main language of her adopted country.

When she met and married a Swedish immigrant from Öland, she quit working and stayed home to take care of the house he built and their three children. Among them was my mother Karin, who, along with her older brother Didrik and younger sister Alma, grew up in their Los Angeles suburb mostly speaking Norwegian. Their father spoke English, after getting a job as a carpenter at Union Oil Company, but at home the conversation flew in Norwegian and Swedish. In the relatively large Scandinavian community around the harbour at the time, which still boasts a Norwegian Seamen’s Church in San Pedro, they could also read Scandinavian newspapers, go to Scandinavian church services and socialize with other Scandinavians.

My mother and her siblings did encounter challenges when they started school and had relatively poor English skills. My mother said that she even came home one day and announced to her mother that she wouldn’t speak Norwegian anymore because she’d been teased at school (this was in 1926). She and her siblings quickly learned English at school and spoke it at home, while their mother answered in Norwegian. She died in 1932, and her obituary was actually printed in Norwegian in a local paper. Much of the family’s Norwegian expertise died with her, although my mother maintained Norwegian cooking and baking traditions to the day she died herself. As the granddaughter of a Norwegian immigrant, I wished the language skills had hung on, not least when I wound up living in Norway and felt functionally illiterate for the first time in my life.

Flash forward to the reality at hand:
On Tuesday of this week, politician Hagen of the Progress Party grabbed media attention once again for condemning exactly the sort of lifestyle that my Norwegian grandmother and her immigrant family had lived themselves, as have millions of other immigrant families like them, past and present. It’s a lifestyle that politicians like Hagen often have praised because it contributed to preserving Norwegian traditions “over there” in America. In fact, it’s only natural for immigrant families arriving in new countries to continue speaking their own language, at least in the beginning. Most eventually shift over to the local language, but it takes time, often at least a generation. Others, admittedly myself included, continue to think and function first in their native tongue. The new language just doesn’t come as naturally.

An impatient Carl I Hagen and his party colleague Christian Tybring-Gjedde, however, have now suggested that immigrant parents who fail to ensure that their offspring have strong Norwegian language skills by the age of six should be charged with child neglect. They called for home inspections by Norwegian authorities two weeks after the birth of a child, where immigrant parents would need to present a plan for how the child will learn Norwegian before they start school. Tybring-Gjedde wants all immigrant parents to read Norwegian fairytales to their children, to have their children watch Norwegian television, to become active in the local neighbourhood and to stop taking their children back to their homelands for long holidays. Hagen and Tybring-Gjedde also proposed, to the Oslo City Council, that Norwegian authorities also should demand that the parents attend classes in Norwegian life and society, history and language. The authorities, they contend, should be able to demand that immigrant parents place their children in Norwegian day care centers, if they don’t find other means of making sure their children can speak and understand Norwegian.

All in the name of integration, the two men said. The new state government minister in charge of family and equality issues, also from the Progress Party, said she would “take the proposals further” in her government work. The proposals otherwise were largely met with ridicule and rejection by both Norwegian officials and immigrants alike, who dismissed Hagen and Tybring-Gjedde as politicians who thrive on provocation.

Reality check, and legitimate concerns
A reality check, at the very least, is in order for both men and others who support their policies. They should study how Norwegian immigrants themselves still behave in new countries. It’s doubtful that Norwegian parents working in the oil or shipping industries who move their families to Houston or Singapore, for example, will instantly speak only English or Chinese at home even if they already can function in the languages. It’s also doubtful whether Hagen himself, who has owned a home in Spain for years, will speak only Spanish in it if he ever moves there permanently in retirement. Why should immigrants in Norway be any different, or be forced to meet Hagen’s and Tybring-Gjedde’s demands?

There are, of course, legitimate concerns about language and integration in Norway. The issues also came up last fall, when newspaper Aftenposten ran a series of articles about deficient Norwegian language skills among many immigrant children, and even editorialized that thousands of children in Norway are being “let down” because their parents aren’t “taking responsibility” to teach them Norwegian before they start school.

Personal experience, also with a Swedish grandmother on my father’s side whose English was frankly terrible after 60 years in California, suggests such fears are unfounded. My father used to marvel that despite our immigrant background and some “funny English” in the family, both of his daughters ended up making their living by using the English language, one as a teacher and the other as a journalist. I still rely on my English skills to make a living in Norway, ironically enough. And Hagen’s solutions would leave a Norwegian woman from Østfold spinning in her grave in Southern California.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund