Implementing Norwegian Language Policy in China

How can the Norwegian two-form solution serve as a source of inspiration for resolving language conflicts in China?

Photo of Ms Yang Yang
Yang Yang has already stayed in Bergen for two years and learned to cope with the Bergen climate.
Mikkel E. Paulsen

Main content

Yang Yang is writing her PHD thesis with a comparative perspective on language planning and policy in China and Norway. She has lived in Bergen for approximately two years to collect data and gather information about the historical, social and political factors that have influenced Norwegian language policy making. Furthermore, she aims to map different language attitudes towards the two written standards in both countries. 

Why Norway, and why Bergen?

- Well, China and Norway have a similar language situation with respect to written standards. The official written form in mainland China uses simplified characters, whereas the standard in areas like Macau, Taiwan and Hong Kong is traditional characters. They are mutually intelligible to some degree, partly due to the fact that simplified characters are derived from the traditional, and that there is overlap between the two. What really matters are the different language attitudes toward the two scripts, and the different identities and values that traditional character users and the simplified character users hold. This poses a challenge for language planning, because one has to consider if both systems should be accommodated for. Since Norway maintains two equal written standards for Norwegian, it is useful to study the Norwegian language context and the development that led up to the establishment of two separate written standards. Plus, Bergen is an interesting city due to its hanseatic history and someone actually told me that Bergen is warmer than Oslo.

Norwegian Language Planning: More Bottom-up

Which questions do you ask in your research?

- With regards to the different language policies in Norway and China, I want to know the social, political and historical factors that have contributed to the different language ideologies, to dig out the deeper factors that are embedded in society.

Another more specific question I ask is who contributed to the language planning that gave rise to the policies we have today. Because on the surface at least, the Norwegian language planning process seems more rooted in the people, with Ivar Aasen and Knud Knudsen, than the Chinese language planning which to a large extent has been controlled by the government. So the Norwegian approach was perhaps more bottom-up, whereas the Chinese process was and is top-down. 

I would also like to find solutions for the Chinese language situation where citizens of Hong Kong and users of traditional characters are protesting to protect their own written form. They fear that the use of traditional characters will be diminished at the expense of the simplified ones as Hong Kong becomes a more integrated part of mainland China.

How do you seek answers to these questions?

- Since the current language policies were shaped a while ago more or less, I must study the context in which it was shaped. Consequently, my enquiry is to a large degree an inspection of history and the social background that spurred the ideologies at the time. How were people thinking at the time, and why have attitudes and policy changed over time? For instance, why was “samnorsk” at one point a political ambition, and why does it no longer play a big part of the Norwegian language debate?      

Important factors and future plans

Have you found any answers yet?

- Well, there are of course a number of factors that have created different mentalities. Norway and China are both historically and currently very different societies. China has been a centralized power for centuries, and we worship unity over diversity, perhaps. Therefore, the standard variation of the language has always had a high prestige. People would be ashamed if they were unable to write or speak Standard Mandarin. In Norway, linguistic diversity has a more prominent place.

Also, the different motivations of launching language planning play a crucial role. As a newly founded country in 1814, Norway wanted to have its own language to replace Danish. In China, the complexity of the patterns and the loose connection between sound and meaning, the Chinese characters were considered a big obstacle for educating the masses. In order to reduce illiteracy, which was as high as 80% in 1949, the authorities launched the simplification movement of Chinese characters and promulgated the table of simplified characters later on. I think it makes sense that the different motivations, to some extent, led to different language policies in Norway and China.

Where do you go from here?

- I will finish my dissertation next semester, and I am leaving for Wuhan in February. If it is up to me, I would like to continue working with Norwegian language, or Norwegian society in some respect. Bergen has been a great experience for me and I really enjoyed life here - perhaps except for this part (she says while glancing out onto a typical Bergen downfall).