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Ryan Johnson, Forum Communications Co., Published January 31 2011

UND teaches Norwegian language online in first-of-its-kind program

Ut på tur, aldri sur,” a much-used Norwegian saying that roughly translates to “out for a hike, never a gripe,” may seem like a strange phrase to summarize a group of 16 UND students now practicing pronunciation and memorizing vocabulary words in Norwegian 101.

But instructor Kim Pedersen said it’s a good fit because the students are stepping out into the great unknown while keeping a positive attitude – they’re the first class in the country’s first university-based, four-credit, online Norwegian language course.

He said the first class has both traditional on-campus students and people from Maine, Texas and Calgary, Alberta, who wanted to learn more about their ancestry.

“There are a lot of people who have a Norwegian background or have been interested in learning it, but often there’s no real good way of doing it,” he said. “And trying to do it on your own is just too hard.”

The class is a goal that assistant professor and UND Norwegian Program coordinator Melissa Gjellstad had since joining the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures in 2008.

The university already offered Spanish language classes online, but Gjellstad said the strong Scandinavian heritage in North Dakota and Minnesota made UND the right place to start the first online Norwegian course.

“There are lots of good, logical reasons for learning Spanish in today’s work world, but my question was, ‘Why not Norwegian?’ ” she said.

Pedersen said people in the region are still passionate about their Norwegian ancestry, even if they are several generations removed from their ties to Scandinavia.

Gjellstad said the online class is convenient and sometimes easier to fit into a schedule. A typical language class meets for 50 minutes a day, four days a week, while the online version’s assignments and tests can be completed day or night.

“We have a rough guideline of about a chapter a week, and all weekly work needs to be submitted by a certain deadline,” she said. “But the pace at which you complete that can be decided by you, and you can work ahead.”

Olaf Berwald, associate professor and chairman of the languages department, said the university also offers three online sections of first-year Spanish.

The department hopes to offer more online language classes in the near future and will have an online Norwegian 102 class this fall, he said, because it’s a way of reaching a wider range of students and keeping up with the latest technology.

But Berwald said the online version is missing the traditional language course’s face-to-face interaction with other students, something that can help rookie speakers pick up the language and hone their pronunciation and listening skills.

“We do what we can to approximate that in the online classes,” he said. “But I see that as an innovative addition to our course offerings, not as a replacement.”

Gjellstad and Pedersen worked with the author of “Sett i gang,” the Norwegian 101 textbook, to figure out how to best organize the class so students still learn the basics of reading, writing, speaking and listening.

They learn basic Norwegian speaking skills by listening to an online question and recording their answers using “voice boards,” which allows students to have a virtual conversation with Pedersen at their own convenience.

Ryan Johnson is a writer for the Grand Forks Herald