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  • Linda Stegmeyer

The Power of Words

My first marriage took me to Norway, a land of spectacular beauty, a citizenry wary of foreigners, and a language over a thousand years old. At first, the novelty of this ancient language and my new surroundings fascinated me, but as the weeks turned into months and people tired of translating for me, the full weight of what had changed in my life became apparent: in this new culture, I was illiterate. My identity as an articulate, educated adult disintegrated as I found myself becoming as dependent as a three-year-old. I couldn't read the bus schedule, so someone had to walk me to the bus stop and put me on the right bus. I couldn't make a doctor appointment or visit the doctor without a translator going with me. I was at the mercy of shopkeepers who sometimes, but not always, gave me the right change. No matter how hard I tried or how much I studied, I couldn't learn the language any faster. For the first time in my life I was truly and profoundly challenged in my ability to communicate, and the isolation it produced was almost unbearable.

The husband who had promised linguistic support gave up, overwhelmed by my need. The language class I attended was chaotic. With no single language common to us all, the teacher was forced to translate into German, French, English, and what little he knew of the Slavic languages, before he could assist any single student. After three months of gaining little in the classroom, I decided to go it alone. Eventually, I did learn Norwegian. I taught myself by listening to British and American television programs while reading the Norwegian subtitles. I insisted on speaking Norwegian to everyone I knew, listening to them with fearsome concentration, practicing my speech with more humiliation than success, and applying the rules of the language that I began to pick up in spite of myself. One friend was willing to take the time to work with me. She helped me conjugate my verbs, use the correct adjectives, and move towards fluency. I never forgot how much her intervention meant to me, and I promised the universe that I would one day repay her kindness by teaching a language to someone else in need.

In time I found that I could breathe again. I became fluent in conversational Norwegian, and could read and write it as well. By learning to speak the language, I was accepted as far as Norwegian culture would allow, and found myself once again part of a community. By learning to read and write, I fulfilled my own expectations of what it meant to be literate, regaining my self-respect and independence. It was a lesson I would never forget. I share it with you now as encouragement; as a promise that things will get better as you continue to practice and believe in yourself.

Wishing you the best in your language journey,


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