14 August 2012

Coffee Table Norwegian

The universe has aligned itself such that I'm considering taking Norwegian language classes this fall at the Scandinavian Language Institute in Ballard (Seattle), Washington. The Institute, which was begun 30 years ago by Ed Egerdahl, has been attended by hundreds throughout the Puget Sound and beyond. Below is a piece that I wrote in 2004 when I first encountered Ed and his talent for making the language come alive. - Luci 

Coffee Table Norwegian

An airline flight attendant from Mesa, Arizona makes a weekly junket to Seattle. Her harried schedule involves flying to SeaTac Airport every Tuesday, then taking a city bus to the Scandinavian neighborhood known as Ballard in order to take a two-hour Norwegian language class. That same evening she returns to SeaTac in time for the last flight back home to Mesa. She’s made this junket for past six months in order to learn from the best, Ed Egerdahl, Director of the Scandinavian Language Institute.

Ed, a 45-year old first generation Norwegian-American, who comes to class dressed comfortably in blue jeans and tennis shoes, has slightly graying hair. He’s a 1978 graduate of the University of Washington’s College of Education with a degree in Norwegian. He remarks, with a glimmer in his eye, that he is the first and only student to have ever graduated with this degree from the UW.  He began his career by teaching Norwegian at Seattle’s Ballard and Lincoln high schools, then went on to establish the Scandinavian Language Institute in 1981. Over the past 22 years, his journey has touched the lives of over 2000 people.

“What’s interesting to me is that students that I’ve met along the way, I’ve met them where they are, not on their way to something else. In all the years that I’ve been doing this, I have several dozen students who have been with me the entire 20 years. We’ve simply grown old together.” Ed reminisces. “I’ve been with students as they’ve gotten married, had their babies, buried their spouses, and married off their children. I’m now into second and third generations with the same families.” He continues, “Together, many of us have buried those who have been students – it’s simply part of real life."

Ed teaches 170 students each quarter in 14 classes, taking each class on, what he calls a ‘wildly interesting ride.’ The ride is his unique style of teaching – different from the traditional classroom instruction at most colleges and universities. “Its been a long time ago now, that I decided the only way I could keep doing this was if I could be learning something at the same time that I’m teaching.”

His week begins with the advanced class ‘talking about what Norwegians are talking about.’ For example this fall his students discussed the Norwegian Women’s Soccer team who won the Gold at the 2000 Olympics and the talk of the Norwegian Crown Prince who is contemplating marriage to a woman who has a child from a previous marriage. As the week progresses Ed continues this dialog with the other 13 classes. This helps his students to build their vocabulary and develop their understanding of Norway and Norwegians – today, not just a snap shot in history.

“That’s where you end up with your best kind of conversational thing. It’s not standing at the ticket window asking directions. It’s sitting around the coffee table, where second cousins get to know each other,” says Ed. “It’s the most practical things that can be used in all kinds of situations.”

Ed starts his beginners class with a simple question – why are you here? The responses are as varied as his students. One woman responds, “I’m taking a trip to Norway and want to learn a few words.” A 20-year-old man says, “I just landed a job with a fishing company in Ballard and all of the correspondence is in Norwegian – I need help!” An older gentleman says, “My grandfather came from Norway, but I don’t know from where – I want to be able to read the Norwegian census records.” A shy young woman says with a twinkle in her eye, “I just got engaged to a gorgeous Norwegian guy—we’re taking our honeymoon to Olso to meet his parents.”

And so it goes around the room, each one answering Ed’s question. The last student, a mature woman in her early fifties, shares. “My immigrant father was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.” Her eyes brim with tears as she continues. “His doctor recommended that I take a language class to help him when he begins to revert to his native tongue, Norwegian.” Every student has their own reason for coming each week to learn Norwegian from this fun loving expert.

In addition to his rigorous teaching schedule, beginning on Monday with the advanced class and ends on Saturday morning with the kids’ class, Ed also accepts translating assignments. For the past two and a half years he has worked with a Seattle-based architectural firm who won the bid for a very large reconstruction job in Oslo, Norway. He has been translating all of their bylaws, articles of incorporation, job specifications and other business items into Norwegian for them.

One of his most memorable experiences was 10 years ago when he received a phone call from a casting company that wanted to know if he did Norwegian translations. He said yes. And when he went to Pioneer Square to meet the caller he learned that they were looking for a Norwegian interpreter for a role in a movie directed by David Lynch. He interviewed with Mr. Lynch, who cast him as the Norwegian interpreter in the pilot show for “Twin Peaks.” It was two days worth of shooting, the pilot for the TV series. “So I’m in the video stores – I’ve been typed cast as a Norwegian Interpreter,” Ed laughs.

As Ed reflects on his life to this point, he says, “It both amazes me and amuses me that I’ve been able to sustain the momentum for so long. After 22 years I can say that I’m still teaching my thing – my way. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather work for.” When asked where things go from here, Ed says, “I’ll keep doing it as long as I keep having fun doing it.”

As for the woman whose father has Alzheimer’s? Ed recalled that she was in class later in the quarter asking, “Ed, how do I say swallow? I can’t get my dad to swallow his food.” Ed smiles as he remarks, “That’s what it’s all about. If I teach no anything else, if I can teach her how to tell her dad to swallow, then I’ve made a difference in that one person’s life.”


Luci Baker Johnson

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