WHEN my grandmother came to this country from Norway she already had four small children to look after. Four children and no English. Like many another immigrant, she was too busy setting up housekeeping, caring for the children, and getting her husband off to work to have time for the formal instruction in English she could well have used. So she taught herself.
The children were enrolled in school, of course, and began bringing the new language home with them. There was a solid Norwegian community in the town where my grandparents settled, and those who had been here a little longer could teach her a little more. Mostly, however, she was her own instructor.
She learned to speak English because it was all around her; she learned to read it, however, by propping up books in her sightline while she labored over an oven-warmed iron. She learned to write it (after her fashion) as one of the original ''phonetic spellers.''
In 1939, the year I was born, my grandfather retired from his job as a patternmaker, and he and my grandmother set out on a six-month trip around the United States. Friends in a ''Christmas Club'' had given my grandmother a diary before she left, and its title page, partly in her handwriting, gives a taste of what I mean. ''A Diary of the Travels Of,'' says the printed text, and underneath is Grandma's handwriting - ''Mr. & Mrs. John Loberg tru the midel vest and the vest coast.''
She wrote largely as she spoke, and it is always a joy to read her thus, since it brings back the sound of her voice very precisely. Perhaps it brings back the voice of any Scandinavian immigrant wrestling with the English language.
Her first entry in the diary, for June 29, has this note on the weather: ''Varm fogy, tunderstrom al night,'' The body of the entry says it was ''werry fogy for a viel.'' (One only need say it ''vie-ell'' to hear the Norwegian lilt in ''while.'')
By August they are well into the ''midel vest'' and she notes that there are ''miels of noting but wheat and a smal farm hous her and ther.'' (Sometimes, as in ''wheat,'' the spellings she may have seen along the road win out over the sound of her voice, which would have been better captured by ''veet.'')
In California she jots down the height and diameter of a ''gindt Reedvood tre ,'' and of the Grand Canyon she says it is ''to vonderful to discrib. It cant be doen.''
The diary isn't all that remains of her lovely spelling, of course. There is an account book from the early years of the century, which lists rent payments she and my grandfather received from a lodger in the house they inhabited most of their American lives. In ''desember'' he paid $5.74, and in ''yanuary'' he paid $5.62.
The recipes in her recipe box are also charming reminders of her voice as well as of her skills in the kitchen. Besides bearing notes on once-familiar family favorites, they include such instructions as ''Tek 2 ekks. . . .''
Grandma may have taught herself to read and write English, and in the process she may have broken most of the rules of spelling. But I wouldn't trade the ''voice'' in her jottings for anything. Anyone can learn to spell, but only Grandma knew how to leave behind the sweetest speech I ever heard.