Speaking in new tongues

EVERETT – Eighty-six is an unusual age to learn a new language. But not for Lucille Smith.

She’s Norwegian.

That means she comes from hardy stock: people who consider the arctic chill but a light breeze and think nothing of heading out to fish in it.

“My grandmother lived up in the northern part of Norway, just below the Arctic Circle,” Smith said. “There’s an old stone house that they lived in, where there were cows underneath and a grass roof.”

With a heritage like that, learning to speak the language of her ancestry is simply a long-overdue task.

Smith’s mother came from Norway to Petersburg, Alaska, in 1898. Her father arrived several years later.

“The only time they spoke Norwegian was when they didn’t want us to understand what they were talking about,” said Smith, who now lives in Lake Stevens. “I wish they had taught me Norwegian, but they were proud of being American.”

So Smith, decades out of primary school, eagerly appears in a basement classroom in the Normanna Lodge on Oakes Avenue in Everett each Monday evening to learn Norwegian, along with more than a dozen other students.

Smith’s story is common, Norwegian teacher Kristina Strombo said. Many Norwegian immigrants refused to teach their children the language for fear that they wouldn’t fit in.

“They wanted to be good, good Americans,” she said.

Her own grandparents, who arrived from Norway shortly after World War II, didn’t want their children to be mistaken for Germans. Years later, Strombo wanted to understand the hows and whys of the quaint customs she grew up with, so she went to Norway as a student.

“And then I just stayed,” she said.

When the time came to return to the United States, she chose to live in the Seattle area because of its strong Nordic heritage. There are more than 50,000 people of Norwegian descent in Snohomish County, and more than 100,000 in King County, according to 2000 Census statistics.

Now, Strombo teaches Norwegian for the Scandinavian Language Institute, a Seattle-based school, at Everett’s Normanna Lodge. The Monday night classes started about a month ago. The seats are filled mostly with older students who want to speak to Norwegian relatives or investigate the family history.

Dick Pedersen, 76 (“going on 26,” he said), speaks a little Norwegian, but he can’t be sure whether it would be understood in Norway.

“My grandfather never really spoke much English, so it was kind of half and half, a combination of old Norsk and American English words,” he said. “Many of my friends speak in Norwegian when I’m in Normanna (Lodge) and I want to be able to converse with them.”

The class moves right along, from Norwegian vowels with slashes through them and circles above them, to the importance of short and long sounds. The students carefully write out their notes in binders covered with maps of Norway.

Years later, they’re reclaiming a piece of themselves that their ancestors would rather have left behind. Years later, they realize how important it is.

“Nowadays, Norwegians are proud to be Norwegian,” Smith said. “That’s why we’re here.”

Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or kkapralos@heraldnet.com.

Ya sure, ya betcha

Some helpful phrases for the modern Norwegian:

Sorry I’m late. I got stuck in traffic: Beklager at jeg er forsinket. Jeg satt fast i trafikken.

When’s the Broadway flyover opening? Nr blir Broadway bruen pnet?

Are you a sailor on the Lincoln? Er du matros ombord Lincoln?

Where is the nearest Starbucks? Hvor er nrmeste Starbucks?

I’d like a short decaf with soy: Jeg nsker en liten koffeinfri kaffe med soyamelk.

Go, Tips! Heia, Tips!

I’d like fries with that: Jeg tar pommes frites med den.

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