Why Norwegians are so good at speaking English

Norwegians rank among the top English speakers in the world, according to a report which tracks the proficiency of language skills in more than 100 countries. 

Pictured is Bergen.
Norwegians have been ranked among the best English speakers in the world. Pictured is Bergen, where the local's scored the highest language skills. Pictured is Bergen. Photo by Shinjan Bhattacharya on Unsplash

Norwegians have a very high proficiency level in English, ranking third in Europe and fourth in the world, according to the 2022 EF English Proficiency Index.

The ranking is based on test results of more than two million adults in 111 countries and regions. Norway scored 627 points out of a possible 700, compared to Austria’s 628 and 661 in the Netherlands. 

The global average score was 502. According to the tests, Bergen was the city with the best English speakers. Residents there scored a very impressive 655 points. After Bergen, Oslo and Hamar were the cities with the best language skills. 

When it came to regions, west Norway came out on top for English language skills, followed by the east and northern parts of the country. 

The report also found that men had marginally higher language skills than women. Those aged between 26-30 scored the best. Overall, Norway has finished among the top five countries since 2011.  

Why are the language skills so high? 

English has been a subject in primary and secondary school education for decades. Since the 1960’s English has been a mandatory subject in the national secondary education curriculum. 

In 1997, it became a compulsory subject from first grade. English written and spoken communication, culture, society and literature are all taught as part of the Norwegian curriculum. 

Starting in primary school, formal education in English is the foundation for the high level of comprehension and spoken English in Norwegian society. The impact leisure time activities have made on many Norwegians’ English skills also deserves some credit.

For example, Norway is not a country known for dubbing international films and TV series, giving locals even more exposure to the English language. 

Norwegians rank high in Norwegian proficiency… but do they like to speak it? 

Doing well on exams is one thing. Actually wanting to speak the language is another. And when it comes to putting their skills into practice, Norwegians are typically more than obliging. 

Their willingness to speak English can be best summarised with the frequency in which those learning Norwegian find a local switching to English when they detect an accent. 

Additionally, many international firms are based in Norway, particularly Oslo, and have English as the day-to-day working language. 

Tourists can get by on English just fine pretty much everywhere in Norway, including in bars, restaurants and shops. 

Of course, these experiences vary. So we want to hear from you: What has been your experience speaking English with locals in Norway?


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Bergensk: A beginner’s guide to the Bergen dialect

So, you've armed yourself with Norwegian language courses and have acquired some proficiency in Norwegian – but now you're heading to Bergen. Prepare to have your linguistic confidence shattered.

Bergensk: A beginner's guide to the Bergen dialect

Most people who want to move to Norway spend some time trying to learn the language. Or they move and take steps to learn the language to feel more settled in. 

They take Norwegian language courses, watch educational YouTube videos, download Duolingo, join groups of like-minded people, and – eventually – they succeed in reaching at least a rudimentary mastery of the language.

Armed with your newly-acquired language skills, you might think you’re now ready to impress the locals in most Norwegian cities with your linguistic prowess.

You’ve heard nice things about Bergen, Norway’s second-largest city. It has amazing nature, it’s an international student hub, and there’s a lot of history and culture to enjoy in the city. It’s not only a great place to live, work and study but also to live. 

Now you’re thinking you might just move to (or visit) Bergen and hit the ground running (that is, swiftly expand your social circle, get job interviews, and use your Norwegian language skills to sort out the day-to-day aspects of city life).

Nice plan you have there… Would be a shame if something got in the way.

The Bergen dialect – Bergensk

To start off with a quote from American filmmaker Woody Allen, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

If you’ve decided to make Bergen your home (at least for a while), you’ll be in for quite a surprise, especially if you’re moving to or visiting Bergen from eastern Norway.

Note that, in a number of foreign language schools (even those in Bergen), the Norwegian language taught is very close to the eastern, Oslo dialect.

There are stories of people investing more than 40,000 kroner in Norwegian language courses, reaching B1/B2, and then having trouble understanding basic conversation among Bergen locals after moving to the city.

There’s no need to feel depressed. Even Norwegians from other parts of the country can sometimes have problems understanding Bergensk. So don’t be too hard on yourself.

Don’t expect the locals to switch to another dialect, however – they’re quite proud of the Bergen one. Therefore, you should take the time to upgrade your Norwegian language skills accordingly.

What makes Bergensk different?

One of the key obstacles that can prevent you from making a smooth transition between the Oslo and the Bergen dialect is pronunciation.

The Bergen dialect is more similar to Nynorsk (one of the two written standards of the Norwegian language, along with Bokmål) in pronunciation.

As online language school Skapago points out, the dialect stands out due to the pronunciation of “r” and the kj-sound. As most grammar guides will let you know, in the Bergensk dialect, the “r” is pronounced as a uvular “r,” not with the rolling pronunciation you’ll find in eastern and northern Norway.

Furthermore, since only dialects with a rolling r-sound can have retroflex sounds (which entails “rd,” “rl,” “rn,” “rs,” and “rt” merging into one sound) the Bergensk dialect does not have any of those sounds.

Instead, Skapago notes, these letter combinations are pronounced separately, as well as the combination of “sl,” which is usually pronounced “sh+l” in Oslo. Elsewhere, it is pronounced “s+l”.

Another interesting aspect of the Bergensk dialect is the pronunciation of the kj-sound. Usually, in Norwegian, this combination of letters has a distinct pronunciation. However, in Bergensk, the sound has merged with the sounds “sj” or “skj,” and is pronounced “sh” in all instances.

The words “kjøtt” (meat) and “kjøpe” (buy) and “ikkje” (not/does not – the Bergensk and Nynorsk form of “ikke”) are pronounced “shøtt,” “shøpe,” and “ishe.” This pronunciation is becoming more common across the country and growing in popularity among young Norwegians.

Furthermore, the Bergen dialect is one of two dialects in Norway with only two grammatical genders – other dialects in the country have three grammatical genders.

You should expect the transition to Bergensk to take a couple of months and might even want to consider a local language course “booster” (especially one that focuses on the dialect) to make the entire process as painless as possible.

You can find a short primer on Bergen dialect slang, compiled by the Bergen Municipality, here (in Norwegian).

Some common expressions

Study Bergen, an organisation aiming to promote Bergen as a student city, has put together a list of common expressions in Bergensk that you’ll likely hear around town after relocating.

Here are a few of the expressions they shared:

Ke det gåri (in Bokmål: “Hva skjer?”): What’s up?

Den e’ brun (in Bokmål: “Den er grei”): That’s fine.

Knall i padden (in Bokmål: “Kjempebra”/”kult”/”veldig gøy”): It’s super fun!

Belite seg (in Bokmål: “Gi seg”): Give up or admit that you were wrong.

Hallaien (in Bokmål: “Hallo”/”hei”): Hello!