Transnational Scholars’ Language Practices

In this section, the reported practices of transnational scholars at the University of Tartu and the University of Copenhagen are compared.

Fieldwork at the University of Tartu was conducted during the academic year 2013-2014. In the autumn semester, a series of seminars on English for academic purposes were observed and recorded; subsequently, in the spring semester, a series of in-depth interviews and focus group discussions were conducted among scholars at the university. 20 of the participants were transnational scholars, whom we concentrate on in this paper. They represent different nationalities, most of them were of European origin, but also Asian. Their time of residence in the country varied, from less than a year up to seven years. The range of disciplines present in the sample also varies, from Social Sciences and Humanities to Science and Technology.

In addition to these in-depth interviews, one focus group discussion was conducted with ten scholars from the IT Department. The ten faculty members came from mixed backgrounds and academic ranks, from Ph.D. students to Professors. Only two of them were Estonian nationals, the rest were international members who had been living in the country for at least one year. The group discussion lasted one hour, it took place in English and it was held in the university premises.

The empirical data from UCPH was gathered in the academic year 2010-2011 and consists of a questionnaire with 203 respondents and 14 individual questionnaire- based interviews. The questionnaire on Danish language needs, including 39 questions on language use in academia and outside, Danish language courses and professional and personal background, was distributed to transnational faculty members of all the disciplines through UCPH’s International Staff Mobility mailing list, including at the time of the survey approximately 750 transnational scholars. All faculties and job positions from Ph.D.-scholars to professors are represented by the respondents, the majority belonging to the natural- and health sciences and being between twenty-five and forty years old. All together, the respondents share 34 different first languages. Subsequently to the survey, 14 in-depth interviews were conducted to delve more into the topics that arose from the preliminary analysis of the questionnaire. The empirical data from UCPH included in the comparison has been published in Jurna (2014).

Some dominant tendencies that emerged from our ethnographic fieldwork can be summarized in the following four points:

  • • Estonian/Danish are useful, but not really necessary (“everyone speaks English”)
  • • To learn Estonian/Danish is seen as an extra effort, not always considered worth the investment of time and energy it demands
  • • The former may lead the transnational scholars to actually focus on improving their English instead
  • • The route towards Estonian/Danish is externally-motivated (non-work related)

During the interviews in Tartu, one of the first topics of discussion was about their personal situation and how they felt, in general terms, in Tartu and in Estonia more generally. Those who had been staying in the country for a shorter period of time at the moment of the interview normally explained that they felt well and that generally speaking, they could manage well enough in English, a language sufficiently well known by most of the population (in their perspective). This had the consequence of them not being particularly forced to learn the language. This was expressed, for instance, by an Urdu L1 speaker who had stayed in the country for ten months in the following terms:

Excerpt 1

A: and I’m trying to learn slowly but you know I almost never had to ah how to say it like English is always you can use it pretty much everywhere here so it has been very smooth

Q: mhm mhm yea so you don’t find the need to actually push yourself more to learn Estonian

A: yea exactly even if I’m taking some courses this push is not there you know so that’s also on one hand it’s very ah it’s good because you can survive without it on the other hand it doesn’t force you to learn Estonian if people wouldn’t speak English here I would have put more effort to learn Estonian and I would get more opportunities to practice

Similarly, a respondent from the informants at the University of Copenhagen, a French associate professor, who has been in Denmark for over seven years, expressed himself in the following way:

Excerpt 2

I think that’s probably the trap in Denmark the fact that everybody speaks English ... in other countries you don’t have a choice I was working for one year in [X land] and I think that my [X language] is almost as good as my Danish because [there] I did not have the choice I could try to speak French Spanish English whatever language nobody would understand me (234)[1]

In addition, some of the transnational researchers perceive themselves as being in some kind of bubble, detached from their immediate surrounding. This can be a rather discipline-specific element, but it is an important aspect guiding their lan?guage behaviour. A postdoc in natural sciences with English as L1 and who has been working at UCPH for two years, describes the bubble as such:

Excerpt 3

We are very much in a bubble I mean I could almost not be working in Denmark because the institute language is English because our group is so mixed ... everybody speaks English in the lab all the communications from the administrative staff is in English and all the institute notices are in English so you could almost be in any country you know in any international scientific institute (233)

As a consequence, learning the local language can be regarded as an extra investment they need to make, something that demands an extra effort (of time and energy) that they are not necessarily ready to make (Norton 1995), especially given the prospect that they would leave the country in perhaps one or two years. A Russian L1 researcher who had worked at Tartu for one year expressed this idea thus:

Excerpt 4

No the truth is that no because I don’t believe in my own capacities to learn Estonian my husband who has been here already for three years started learning Estonian he is talented for foreign languages but the result is not so good because sometimes we still have trouble talking in Estonian sometimes my husband who has studied the language for three years taking courses and so on he is able to read the menu in the restaurant [.] And the truth is I don’t think we’ll live here for many years

The exact same idea of not wanting to engage with the language because of a lack of perspective to stay in the country was expressed by several respondents in the questionnaire at UCPH:

Excerpt 5

As I am only appointed on a contract basis for three years, it doesn’t make sense to learn Danish. Danish lessons take too much time . I rather work on my academic career than learning a language that I’ll never use once I leave Denmark (242)

However, the notion of time is relative, and another respondent of the questionnaire expressed an opposite view:

Excerpt 6

Since I’m doing a three year Ph.D. in Copenhagen, I believe that is “natural” and polite to learn Danish, even if it is not necessary. Moreover, it is always useful to know a language, or at least to try to manage it. (242)

The extra investment they perceive they need to make in order to learn Estonian or Danish may lead some of them to actually decide to focus on improving their English language skills, especially for academic purposes. This was the case of the L1 Russian speaker quoted above as well as an L1 Chinese researcher in Tartu. The latter did take some Estonian language lessons, but realising she was not able to keep up with the pace of the group and that the results of her learning were not paying off, she decided to drop out of the course and concentrate on improving her English.

Excerpt 7

A: yea like most of them yea most of them have some I mean the language they have some connection, but for me totally different Q: very different yea

A: so they made good progress and I had little bit difficulties Q: aha

A: aha and a maybe I’m not work so hard as them because I think I just want to learn some basic skills Q: yea

A: but I don’t want to be so good as them Q: yea of course

A: yea so after some time I found English lessons, so I talked to this teacher so she agreed and I gave up

In Copenhagen, a German Ph.D. scholar commented that:

Excerpt 8

So this Danish thing is helpful can be helpful but as for me it’s not strictly speaking it’s not really necessary but whereas taking a course for example in scientific English or written English they would something I would really really need for to publishing my Ph.D. thesis (233)

Finally, the informants’ level of engagement with Estonian or Danish respectively on a general level was a topic that emerged from the interviews and the questionnaire. In the cases of the informants that expressed a clear and active engagement with the language, the reasons that were given in support of that were factors of influence coming from outside the university, i.e. non-work related factors. A L1 Spanish researcher, for example, although he had never studied Estonian formally, he felt that at some point he was able not only to understand, but also to speak more than some basic messages. This happened, on his account, when he and his family moved from the city centre to a residential suburb, where their neighbours (with whom they started interacting more and became good friends) were exclusively Estonian, and in some cases not as fluent in English.

Respondents to the questionnaire at UCPH also manifested that if they speak Danish, it is more often in places outside work like when shopping, at Danish class, with family and friends, daily life in general, in town (cafe, restaurant, bar), and hobby/sports (Jurna 2014, p. 237-8).

In addition to the four dominant tendencies presented above, the data from UCPH also shows other aspects that can be pointed out in connection with the linguistic practices of the informants. For example the need for Danish was reported for specific tasks at work, as in communication with administration or the technical personnel, who might not be professionally skilled enough in English. Also, informants expressed a differentiated need between receptive and productive skills in Danish. Understanding written and spoken Danish was considered notably more relevant than speaking and especially writing. The scholars with a longer job perspective in Denmark or higher academic rank acknowledge the need for Danish competencies more clearly than those for whom Denmark is only a temporary place in their academic career. (For more details, see Jurna 2014).

  • [1] The numbers here and henceforth after the illustrative quotes from UCPH data refer to the pagenumber in Jurna (2014).
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