In 2012 when I was on holiday on the Greek island of Crete with my friends, I met a Norwegian girl called Silje, who would become my girlfriend. In the months that followed, I spent more and more time travelling to see her in Norway, as well as travelling to and from airports when she visited me at my home in England. To start with this was lots of fun, but as time went on and the visits became more and more frequent, the travelling became tiring, and it soon became clear that one of us would have to make the big leap and move to the other’s country!
I had really enjoyed my time visiting Norway, and the people I met were all so friendly and welcoming once I got to know them! So after a year and half of constant travelling between the countries, I made the leap and moved to Norway.
Learning the Language
Before moving to Norway, I decided that it would be pretty important for me to learn the Norwegian language, or at least try to. Even though they all speak fantastic English in Norway, it would be important for my chances working as well as socialising. Also, it seemed like the respectful thing to do when moving to a new country. With this in mind, I embarked on learning Norwegian by using several different websites and apps, and also after buying a Norwegian book called På Vei. I felt that I had picked up the very basics quite quickly and felt that I had built a good foundation for when I moved over there a few months later.
I need a Norwegian job!
Around about the same time, I also decided to look to find a job in Norway ready for when I moved there. I had the opportunity to continue with my current job, as it was mainly remote working, but I thought that it would be a great idea to find some work in a Norwegian company to try to be part of the community, meet new people and also to help learn the language. I was then fortunate enough to get offered a job! This was a job within the tech sector, mainly focused around smartphone and tablet software, which was great as this is what I was doing back in England.
The big day finally arrives!
On January 2nd 2014, my big day of moving to Norway had finally arrived! It was terrible weather – around 3C and horrible wet slush all over. The next day, on my way to get all of my employment papers sorted, I slipped on a patch of ice and bruised my shoulder. Not a good start! On January 6th, my first day at my new job began. In Norway work tends to start at 8am, not the 9am I was used to in England. This, combined with the fact it was the middle of winter, meant that my walk to work was in pitch darkness, something which felt quite eery to a foreigner like me.
First day at work in Norway
My first day at work began with a warm welcome from the man who hired me, and a tour of the place. Everyone spoke to me in English and they were all very welcoming. In that first week I had many meetings and workshops that I had to attend. As I was new, these were all taken in English. However, I quickly noticed that even though the meetings and everything else was meant to be in English to help me out to begin with, they all tended to switch to Norwegian quite quickly and completely by accident by the other people in the meetings. I then realised that even though I had been busy learning Norwegian using the many websites and apps that I had been using for several months, I could barely understand a word that was said during these conversations.
Although people would try to speak to my in English, most of the websites, emails and documents I had to visit or read as part of my job were in Norwegian. Again, I found the same problem – although I knew the occasional word, I barely understood a word of what was in the text on each website, document or email. This was much more of a serious problem for me – whilst people could try to speak English to me to begin with, the documents, websites, emails etc of course could not be translated – there were just too many of them for this to be realistic.
All this time learning Norwegian, but it’s just not much use
As I realised to my horror that I could not understand them despite my language learning practice, I began using Google Translate on the text of the documents. This could at least give me some idea of what they were referring to. Although it was often too messed up to help me understand them too well (sometimes it was OK). However, doing this would never help me to get any closer to learning the language and being more comfortable in my job.
Next step, classroom lessons!
My next step was to start attending Norwegian lessons. In Norway they have something called Norskkurs (“Norwegian Course”) which is designed for people who are new to the country to help them learn Norwegian. I therefore attended this a couple of nights a week for a few months, along with 9 or 10 others. The teacher of the course was pretty good. She was certainly experienced, and patient, which helped considering the varying levels of previous knowledge of us students on the course. Some of us had just moved to Norway less than a month ago (including me) whereas others had been in Norway for much longer, including one man who moved here over 5 years ago! Again, I found that I was able to progress quite nicely, and understand some basics of the language. I became an expert at saying things such as naming zoo animals, and describing where items are placed in my kitchen. I could also ask people where they came from and how long they had lived here, and other such things.
Armed with my new skills and a slightly empty feeling wallet from the cost of my lessons, I felt hopeful each of the following weeks that it was only a matter of time before I felt comfortable in my workplace in terms of understanding the documents, web pages and my colleagues. The Norwegian classroom courses certainly helped a little with my confidence in Norwegian, and also a little bit in terms of understanding parts of things to do with my job. However, once again, despite learning a lot of new content during my classroom lessons (and also my continued use of the language learning apps and websites), the content just wasn’t really of much use to me in my day-to-day life at work – For example, I mentioned that I became an expert at naming zoo animals, or knowing where the items in my kitchen were placed. Unsurprisingly, these things were not at all relevant to my work life and therefore of very little use to me despite having spent a lot of time and effort learning these and many other such things.
I’m still struggling! There must be a better way…
The problem was that every tool that I could find or lesson I went to in order to help me learn a new language taught everyone the same, generic content. Of course physical textbooks have to do this – clearly it is not possible to create a tailored, unique physical textbook for every individual based on their own needs! The websites and apps out there are still coming out of the shadow of old fashioned textbooks and their methods of teaching, and they also therefore tend to teach everyone the same content, in no way accounting for an individual’s own unique life situation and the needs that arise from this. This led me into doing quite some research into ways that could help me to learn the language more quickly and efficiently.
The 80/20 Rule and Language Learning
I quickly discovered something called the 80/20 Rule, otherwise known as the ‘Pareto Principle’. This essentially says that typically in life 80% of the output from a given task comes from 20% of the input. For example, (give examples here) . In language learning, the 80/20 rule actually becomes more like 95% / 2.5%: For example, in Spanish, which has around 100,000 words in total (depending on how you measure it), knowing just 2,500 words of these can account for 95% of all words that appear in someone’s life. This is a staggering revelation. A tiny 2500 words accounting for around 95% of all the words appearing in all sentences in your life.
When i discovered this, I did some quick experiments by looking at those websites and documents and emails from my work life,, and was staggered to find that it was actually correct! – 2500 words accounted for approximately 95% of the content of them all. Many of these words were highly specialised towards my work situation – words which are common for me but probably would not be important in your life. Other words that showed up were universal to everyone and pretty essential for all to learn. None of them were zoo animals.
Why did no-one tell me this earlier in life!?
I was amazed that this information was somehow not mentioned at all to me in my years of learning French at school, and also during the language learning classes, and particularly when using the various language learning websites and apps. With this new found knowledge, I began picking words out of my work documents, emails and websites that seemed to keep appearing. I picked out a few words at a time and then pasted them into an Excel spreadsheet. I then learnt these words, a few at a time, and I used flashcards to help me with this. Over time, I found it very beneficial to be focusing on the words that I had picked out from the documents, etc, and this really helped me to understand more and more of the content from my work life, not just from within the documents but also during the meetings, etc, as obviously they are usually concerning the same kinds of subjects.
Looking for commonly appearing words from documents, websites and emails was, however, a very time-consuming process. I soon therefore began looking around to see if there was any products on the market that could help me with this: To help me prioritise which words to learn based on how often they appear in a document or other item. Unfortunately and to my surprise at the time, no such product appeared on the market.
Progress at work and socially!
At this point, to help myself learn Norwegian more efficiently and become comfortable in my job more quickly, I decided to create a simple proof of concept of a product which would automatically prioritise what content to focus on in Norwegian from my life and work situations.
My prototype allowed me to select any web page that was important to me, for example a web page that I needed to read for my job. After selecting the page, the prototype looked into how often each word appeared in the document, stored that information, and then displayed the words in order of importance to me so that I could see what I most needed to focus on.
With nothing more than this existing at this point, this was still incredibly helpful for me – I no longer needed to spend time guessing which words I most needed to learn – this information was provided for me automatically. To continue my prototype experiment, I then spent some time learning these words to see if it helped me as I thought it would, and I very quickly felt the benefit of this through understanding more and more of the people around me in my work life.
I was also surprised how some words that I would never have guessed as being words I needed to learn appeared very high in my list of high priority words. (for example the words ‘løsning’, which means ‘solution’ in Norwegian) appeared pretty high up.
Remember the new words
Whilst the initial confirmation that this already was of great use to me, it still did not help me to actually learn the words, so that they could be transfered from my short-term to my long-term memory. After extensively researching existing language learning solutions and speaking to experts and academics in linguistics and memory acquisition, I learnt that a spaced-repetition learning / testing solution is a fantastic way to learn new facts and store them in the long-term memory.
I realised that it would be even more powerful if my product could also accept additional items in addition to web pages: In other words, imagine if I could literally just magically add anything at all that is important in my life to my word box, such as Microsot Word documents, Powerpoints, PDFs and even images that contain text. And then the system would combine everything together and figure out even more accurately what was the most important stuff for me to learn. Was this even possible, I wondered? This was something I would look into later on.
This could really help other language learners
At this point, what had started off as a little experiment to help me with my job was becoming something much bigger than this – I was realising that I may well have discovered something incredibly powerful for people in situations like mine – people living abroad or planning to do so, who have a real need to learn a language for more than just a hobby.
I felt the proposition of helping people in situations like mine to have a better experience than I have had to be an awesome thought. With the progress in the project, things were becoming very time-consuming (I still had a job, of course!). Around this time, I attended a local event held in the small town of Hamar in Norway, which was called ‘Test Bonanza’. This event was for local companies, individuals, hobbyists or anyone interested in technology, really, to showcase what they have been working on. Anyone at the event can test out each other’s products, and then essentially give their feedback as to what they thought of it. Most things on show at the Test Bonanza were video games, as that is what the event was primarily designed for. However, a good friend of mine suggested that I took my language learning prototype down to demo, and see what people thought. This was the first public demo of my product.
Box of Words prototype demoed for the first time!
So I took my little prototype to the event, which at this point I was calling Wordiful, (turns out that name was taken, so later it was renamed). I demoed it to a few people down there, including a young man by the name of Ole Andreas. Ole was the co-founder and at the time CEO of a young and successful video game company called Krillbite Studio. The demo worked great, and he was blown away by what I had working at that time! It was so great to get such positive feedback and to move the project out from the office of my house into somewhere a little more public. Fast-forward a year or so and Ole gradually progressed from giving advice here and there to becoming a co-founder in what has turned into Box of Words. Ole is a genius when it comes to design, from games to otherwise, he seems to have a natural instinct for good and fun design, and essentially taking an idea and making it incredibly fun, and building on the idea further and getting something quite special. So the chance to work with him on what became Box of Words was a very exciting proposition!. His transition also officially completed the move from my little personal hobby project into a fully fledged company.
2016, an exciting year!
And now we reach 2016, marking 2 years since my own big move to Norway. It is amazing what has happened in that time, and I am pleased to say that, whilst not perfect, I am now happily speaking and listening to Norwegian, and have even begun to have the occasional dream in Norwegian, which is, apparently, a big thing! I have found moving abroad to be such an incredibly enriching experience. Whilst scary at times (a good kind of scary), I feel I have learnt so much in this time, about so many different things. It often feels almost like being a kid again, noticing tiny details about little things that no-one native to the country would notice. It also feels amazing to be able to say that I can now speak two languages, and feel comfortable in almost any situation that I encounter. I hope that my legacy from this adventure can be that it has led to something being made that others across the world can use to become comfortable in almost any situation in a new language much more quickly than I did.
To be continued!
If you have made it all the way down here in my story, then you must share some of my interest in learning a new language for a specific need, and learning it quickly!
We will very soon be releasing Box of Words to a limited number of users as the next phase in our release. If you leave your email address below I can give you an invite for this.