Academic multilingualism

With a project on several languages on a written page, it’s just natural for me to start thinking about how I use the languages I know – when talking, but even more when writing. And I wonder how academia actually demands us to become at least bilingual.

ECR life

Academics, especially ECRs (Early Career Researchers), are nomadic by nature. Quite often, we find ourselves not only working apart from our hometown. We work in countries foreign to us in culture, academic tradition, and of course language. One factor contributing to this is the importance of mobility and international experience. Another is the fact that ECR and tenured positions are scarce, especially in certain fields, and many of us compromise on where we live so we don’t have to give up our profession. [Many choose the opposite, but that is a different matter.]

Many stops, many languages

So depending on our native language, as an ECR will have acquired another language: the lingua franca of the field. In many cases, that is English, but it could also be French or Cantonese. Then, there is the language of the country or region we studied in, possibly another language where we took our PhD, and a third one during the postdoc.

Often, it will suffice to use the lingua franca, especially if that happens to be English. However, if we don’t speak the same language as our surroundings, we might feel that we don’t belong. Everyday life can become difficult because of communication barriers with our colleagues or the bus driver. It can be comforting to know at least the basics of a language in order to manage some everyday communication – with other employees at work, staff at the grocery store, the hairdresser, or the child’s caregiver.

Learning another language takes time, effort, and focus. All of which are limited while we are building your career and juggling the demands of everyday life. And with a lot of contracts being temporary, chances are that we might find ourselves moving on in a couple of years. The next language might only be months away.

Between German, English, Norwegian and Danish

I am a native speaker of German, who learned English, Latin and French at school, then Norwegian, Icelandic and Polish at University. I studied in Germany and Norway up to PhD level. My first postdoc position was in Denmark, the second was in Norway, now the third is again in Denmark. Fortunately, Norwegian and Danish are so close that they can be understood by speakers of the opposite language. As a downside, they have a tendency to infiltrate one another if you aren’t careful. This is why I have now started to attend Danish classes in order to learn Danish properly, rather than having my Norwegian becoming increasingly Danish.

At home, I speak Danish and German. At work, it is mostly Danish and English. I have given papers mostly in English, though some have been in Norwegian. My notebooks are in German, Norwegian and English depending on what I’m taking notes on. My calendar is in German, Norwegian and Danish. Publications are mostly in English, though I have some drafts in Norwegian from the time when I was employed there.

In general, I would say that my vocab in those languages is complimentary: Everything related to everyday life I would talk about in German or Norwegian (while knowing the Danish passively). Text-related and grammar-related terminology at work is mostly in German or English. My head processes palaeography and codicology in English and Norwegian. However, I will need to use a second opinion no matter which language I am writing in — even in German. And I depend a lot on Google Translate and my editor’s spell checker.

I am able to switch between languages according to whom I am talking to, but I am hardly ever aware of it. I often find myself starting a sentence in Danish and finishing it in English, or substituting single words from German. There are days when I feel pretty confident about the languages that I regularly use, and others when I feel I cannot even produce one correct sentence in either of them.

What languages do you know? How do you use them? I’d love to know. Please DM on twitter or send me an email.