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Sunday, October 30, 2011

The PhD applicant and the modern Scandinavian language: A Battle of Wills!

One of the major obstacles standing between me and a PhD in a Scandinavian Studies Department is the lack of a modern Scandinavian language.

I don't know if I could have taken it at University while I was there. I am about 98% certain there was no opportunity while I was doing a Medieval Studies degree at Queen's University in Kingston, though I did take Old Norse and Anglo Saxon. If I did have an opportunity it would probably have been during my MA in Norse/Viking Studies in Nottingham. But in my defense, I neither saw anything about it, nor at the time did I realize how much I was going to need one. I actually had the same problem with German, didn't quite realize how necessary it was, but the fix for that has been very easy. At the University of Western Ontario I took German in a class, but if I wanted to do some night school in German here in Toronto somewhere it would be quite easy.

Now, a modern Scandinavian language however, no such luck. No schools in Toronto offer any such thing. Spanish, sure. Greek, no problem. But Swedish? Nah! But to do a PhD in the departments that are most likely to have supervisors for my work, a.k.a. Scandinavian Studies departments, I need it. Right now the schools that I am particularly looking at are the University of Wisconsin-Madison and UCLA Berkeley. This is why it has become a Battle of Wills: my determination to do whatever it takes to get in. When it comes to my PhD, to quote the immortal Wayne's World, 'it will be mine. Oh yes, it will be mine.'

So this is the result of my research:

I have decided to start by learning Swedish. This choice is in part because, as my two specialties are Norse history and Public History eventually I am going to want to look at how movies portray Norse history. Then I should pick the language of the most robust film industry in Scandinavia. But I was on the fence with Swedish and Norwegian. It was the excellent website, and program, of the Uppsala International Summer Session that put me over the edge. Their intensive program, with easy to understand website and application process, put me over the edge. Since making the decision to go there I have also spoken with at least two other people who have gone there, making me feel more confident in this choice. So the plan is to peruse the Swedish grammar over the next six months, so that I do not have to enter the beginner-beginner program. I will probably sign up for Babbel, or try the University of Stockholm's free exercises. I will also probably get a starter grammar book and work through the exercises and vocabulary. Then I will do the course in Uppsala in the summer (hopefully with the aid of a scholarship, because otherwise it may be more of a problem.)

But in my research I came across several options for people trying to study Scandinavian languages in Canada/North America.


As I say, this is the language I have chosen, the language of Ingmar Bergman, the place of many runestones. I have chosen to study in Sweden because of the value this would be to admissions boards, and because there is no better way to learn a language than by immersion. Trust me. I studied French since I was 8, but it wasn't until I spent three months with a Francophone family that I could actually speak the language. But you can also learn from a local institution (though, as I have said this is not everywhere available), or you can learn online.

An excellent summary of options for learning Swedish is provided by Study in Sweden. If you choose to study online, for admissions purposes a paid course is better, as there will be evaluation. However, they cost just as much or more than regular university courses. Folkuniversitet looks like it may be the best. It ends up to be about $860(Canadian) a module. Because I want to study in Sweden, this is why I do not wish to pay for other courses.


I was also thinking about studying Norwegian, because I actually hope to do my dissertation on the King's Sagas. More specifically Harold the Hardruler, who was king of, well, Norway. So in many ways it makes sense, particularly for studying the historiography. However, I will still study this, just in an informal setting. The reasons I did not chose Norwegian is because they had no equivalent classes like that offered at Uppsala. The closest I found was the International Summer School at the University of Oslo, which does still seem to offer a lot for those interested in learning Norwegian in Norway. For a summary of how to learn Norwegian a list of options is provided by this Study in Norway website, which is not quite as comprehensive as the Study in Sweden equivalent.


Danish is an excellent option because, of course, politically speaking it was dominant for so long that many of the historiographical works from throughout Scandinavia are written in Danish. The University of Copenhagen has courses for students, but it is not obvious whether the classes are Danish. A list of other options is provided on the Danish consulate in New York's website. Those are paces that teach Danish in Denmark. Here is another list, from Work in Denmark that give options for learning Danish. I did less research here, as this was less interesting to me, so there may be a more comprehensive website, but as of now I am yet to find it.


It may be erroneous to say so, but from what I understand Icelanders read Old Norse like we read Chaucer. You can kind of read it. You have to have an open mind for interpretation, but it is possible. Therefore this, you would think, would be really useful for a student of Norse and Viking Studies. But be careful, because some of the Departments require a 'mainland' Scandinavian language. The University Centre of the Westfjords offers Icelandic courses, so it is already up on Denmark on having language courses easy to find over the web. Likewise, there are many online options. I am yet to discover a comprehensive list of ways to learn modern Icelandic, like there are for the other countries, but it may yet be out there.


Um, there are many good things to say about Finnish, but if you are a student of Norse/Viking Studies you are barking up the wrong tree. The other languages are in a similar linguistic group. Finnish has so many - was it cases, or maybe it was tenses - that it has been called one of the hardest languages to learn. It is closest to Hungarian, as opposed to anything else. And the history is rich, but different. I did no research here. I say go up and read one of the other languages I looked into.

So good luck to all PhD applicants out there, or people interested in Scandinavia. Hopefully your determination too will win out.