The trials, tribulations and triumphs of a worthwhile commitment to learning a language!
Difficult Language Training by Eimear McLoughlin
If you are moving to a new country, grasping the language is one of the best ways to find your way into their world.
At lære dansk
Danish has nine official vowel sounds but depending on the position of the vowel in a word, there are actually up to forty different vowel sounds. Combine this with D’s that sound like L’s and R’s that erupt from the back of your throat and you have a notoriously guttural language where words fall out of the mouth in a drawl that is typically described as speaking with a potato in your mouth. As an Irish person, this should be second nature.
I am an ESRC funded (1+3) PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Exeter. I am currently on fieldwork in Denmark where I am studying the role, significance and impact of transparency in the production of meat and the management of zoo animal populations.
Thanks to the ESRC Difficult Language Training funding, I moved to Denmark in Spring of last year to commence a language course. However, I started learning Danish two months earlier on a fantastic website called ITalki. This connects language learners from all over the world with professional language teachers to facilitate language learning via Skype. With the help of my Danish teacher Lirón, my Danish competency advanced rapidly. It was possible to pay for these classes using my ESRC Research Training Support Grant and it wasn’t until I moved to Denmark that I realised how vital it was that I had started learning online.
Flytter til Danmark
(Moving to Denmark)
Whilst English is widely-spoken in Denmark, competency in Danish from the beginning made navigating public transport and rental contracts a whole lot easier. Furthermore, I am not ashamed to admit that the first few weeks of the move were very difficult due to self-inflicted pressure to speak Danish well and find a place to live. However, I persisted with the ITalki classes and developed my confidence. After only two months of one-to-one intensive classes prior to my DLT, I was able to skip six months of the language course in Denmark so that I was now learning at an advanced level. Starting at this advanced level laid the foundations for engaging with my participants primarily through their mother-tongue from the very beginning of the fieldwork.
The difficult language training funded group classes in Danish at a high level. These classes encouraged you to write and speak about Danish history and culture as well as discuss environmental, societal and political issues in contemporary Denmark. I began to build my confidence and would use Danish at the shop, the café and the library. Every interaction I had with a Dane, I would labour over the sprawling vowels and gulping diphthongs. Seeing a non-Dane struggle with the language is a common occurrence for a Dane and they would politely offer; ‘you can speak English if that is easier.’ But my stubborn determination to ‘snakke på dansk’ would take over and I would respond, ‘Nej tak! Jeg foretrækker at snakke på dansk!’
(The power of beer!)
It is also important to note that alcohol improves language ability… so they say… I remember I was in a bar in Copenhagen and went to order a drink. I had practiced my sentence several times in my head before pronouncing;
’Hej. Kan jeg få Tuborg, tak!’
The sharply-dressed Danish barman smiled and responded, ‘På fad?’ (on draught?)
I reply ‘Selvfølgelig!’ That is the Danish for ‘of course’ and is pronounced like ‘se -fewww -lee’. It is one of the more enjoyable Danish words to say as it has an inbuilt lyricality; it rises and falls like a good Irish accent would. It is rare to find such lyricality in Danish.
As he pulled the pint, he then added in English, ‘Are you from Ireland?’
Somehow, I had managed to speak Danish with an Irish accent! However that was two months into my stay and nowadays, it is more common that people think I am Danish and speak freely to me på dansk which can present another set of difficulties!
Vigtigheden af sprogindlæring
(The importance of language learning)
Language learning was not a choice for my research, it was a necessity! So if you are going to a country where English is not the primary language, take the time and make the effort to learn the language, regardless of whether you are social anthropologist like me or not. If you are moving to a new country, grasping the language is one of the best ways to find your way into their world. By developing my Danish, I could immediately interact with participants and at a very basic level, it was a conversation starter. When I started my fieldwork in one of two field-sites, I would open with Danish and eventually switch to English. Today, almost a year after moving to Denmark, I speak primarily through Danish.
If you are learning a new language for your doctoral fieldwork and thinking about applying for the DLT funding, here is what I would recommend. It is important to remember that it is actually a prerequisite of the DLT funding that you have already commenced language training so that the DLT funding can be as effective as possible so start now!
Tips til at lære et sprog
(Tips for learning a language)
There are great free apps as well as cheap introductory offers that you can take advantage of to start your language training. Duolingo is great for building a vocabulary. I bought the introductory offer for Babbel but didn’t actually use it that often as I found Duolingo better but that might just be me! Memrise includes clips of the locals speaking the language which is much better for developing pronunciation. I also used a flashcards programme, like Anki which I still use. Readlang is also a fantastic flashcard-making website that translates words on websites and makes them into flashcards you can study.
A typical piece of advice is to watch series on Netflix or another streaming application which was a great excuse for me to watch Scandi-Noir dramas like ‘Broen’ (The Bridge) and ‘Forbrydelsen’ (The Killing). It is also great to introduce the language into your social media applications by following a local newspaper on your Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. I found a podcast that teaches you Danish so if there’s one for Danish, there might be one for your desired language. I also started reading children’s books to launch my vocabulary.
The online classes on ITalki were ideal and I still have the odd class here and there to talk about grammar and practice presentations in Danish. If you want to develop your language skills fast, invest in one-to-one classes. These are without a doubt the best way to learn so invest time and your RTSG in getting what you can. The DLT funding might not stretch to long-term one-to-one classes which can be quite expensive so ITalki is an effective, economical and flexible way of getting one-to-one classes.
While one-to-one classes are a priority, through the DLT, I attended group classes which were essential for building my confidence in speaking the language, developing my grammar skills and widening my vocabulary.
It can be like pulling teeth when you are trying to communicate with friends in a language that they are fluent in and it is just so much easier to switch to English, BUT do what you can. For instance, I am good friends with a Norwegian and we generally speak through English but we text solely through Danish.
Learning a language is painful at times, torturous even and unfortunately, sometimes your effort just isn’t reflected in your competence which can be so frustrating. There’s no secret, you just have to stick in there. Language learning is not linear growth but you are always getting a little better, even if you don’t feel like it. You are good one day and woeful the next, but just keep going.
There is absolutely no point going to class and reading books and watching tv series if you don’t speak it whilst you are learning. Speaking it every day gives you a great sense of achievement and builds your confidence. One of my favourite Danish delicacies is ‘havregrød med mandler, æble syltetøj og yoghurt’ (porridge with almonds, apple jam and yoghurt). The mouthful to pronounce it is worth the mouthful of joy it brings when eaten!
(Seize the opportunity!)
I no longer attend group classes but as an independent student, I have an exam next month which, if successful, I will be at the highest level of the Common European Framework in European Languages in Danish. Furthermore, with this qualification, I am eligible to work in the Danish university system. The DLT afforded me the opportunity to learn the language while being fully immersed in the culture and has enhanced my career prospects. During my DLT placement, I was awarded a Carlsberg grant to participate in a PhD Masterclass at the University of Copenhagen. I also developed my research network during this period by being associated with the University of Copenhagen as a visiting researcher.
I organised the three month DLT placement to extend into my fieldwork in Denmark which is recommended by ESRC and also increases the likelihood of your application being successful. The SWDTP were very supportive throughout the application process so that the likelihood of being successful is high if you make a good case, demonstrate the effort made to learn the language prior to the DLT and have the support of your supervisor. Also, one final point to remember is that the DLT is an extension, so this means I have an extension of three months added to my PhD completion date. I’m sure I will be grateful for this when the time comes!