Students discover fresh perspectives through old languages at UW-Madison

Johanna Weissing has long felt a special connection to Scandinavian history and mythology. As a young girl, Weissing remembers her father reading Rolf and the Viking Bow aloud. She became caught up in the story world of 11th century Iceland and craved more.

Further inspired by her family’s Swedish heritage and the history she studied in her free time, she found her way to the Department of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. There, she now enjoys the unique experience of studying sagas and skaldic poems in their original form.

Few universities compare to UW-Madison when it comes to the range of language studies offered, from major modern languages to ancient tongues, such Latin, Ancient Greek, and Old Norse.

Weissing, now a junior majoring in Scandinavian studies with a certificate in Medieval Studies, regards the study of languages as an important part of higher education.

Johanna Weissing
Johanna Weissing

The opportunity to learn Old Norse was the deciding factor when she chose UW-Madison for her undergraduate studies. Studying ancient languages like Old Norse places emphasis on reading and translation, which can reinforce basic grammar concepts in modern languages, she says.

“People like to talk about how impressive foreign language skills look on a résumé, or how helpful they are when it comes to learning about and understanding other cultures,” she says. “These are certainly valid points, but I think there are additional benefits that are also worth noting.”

For instance, she says, “It can give students new insights and a fresh perspective on his or her own language and culture.”

She explains, “Modern English is full of words either related to or descended from Old Norse words, and it’s so much fun to be able to make those connections when I’m translating. I’m also in my second semester of Old English, and I’ve enjoyed comparing that language with Old Norse as well.”

Studying Old Norse also has inspired Weissing to go abroad. She hopes to become fluent in Norwegian while studying at Telemark University College in Bø, Norway.

“Studying a language in the classroom is a good place to start, but there’s nothing like immersion to develop fluency,” she says.

Since Old Norse exists today only as a written language, it is unavailable for an immersion experience, so Weissing has opted for the next best thing. However, she plans to come back to her work with Old Norse translation.

Eventually, she wants to share her passion by becoming a teacher of Norwegian, Old Norse and Medieval Scandinavian history.

Weissing isn’t alone. The complexities of studying an ancient language also fascinate Lauren Poyer, a graduate student in UW-Madison’s Department of Scandinavian Studies.

Like solving a puzzle

Poyer’s study of philology – examining the structure, historical development, and relationships of languages – focuses on Norwegian and Old Norse.

Lauren Poyer
Lauren Poyer

“Learning a dead language means less emphasis on pronunciation and conversation, of course since there aren’t any native speakers,” Poyer says. “There is a greater emphasis on grammar and etymology, and a lot of times it’s like solving a puzzle.”

She finds the translation of texts particularly rewarding: “Sitting at a single table as a class and sight-reading texts – it makes reading a collaborative effort, and I like feeling like part of a team, like we’re all contributing our own knowledge to the project.”

The environment for learning languages in the Department of Scandinavian Studies differs from some of the other language departments on campus, according to Kirsten Wolf, Kim Nilsson Professor and Torger Thompson Chair in Scandinavian Studies.

With an average of 12 students per class, this environment provides a unique, private learning experience in the midst of a large public university campus, says Wolf, the department chair. This smaller class size fosters a constant level of high engagement from students, she says. The department strives to provide students with a setting where they can be critical in their learning while also developing an understanding and appreciation of culture.

In general, Wolf describes the study of world languages as invaluable, offering students a solid liberal arts foundation for their future, regardless of career path.

UW-Madison is well-known for offering a range of Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTLs).

“LCTLs is a broad category that includes languages more commonly encountered in educational settings in the U.S., such as Russian and Chinese, and those taught much less frequently in U.S institutions, such as some of the African and Asian languages taught here,” says Wendy Johnson, assistant director of UW–Madison’s Language Institute.

In addition, UW–Madison offers studies in ancient and classical languages, such as Old Norse, Ancient Greek, and Latin, which focus on reading rather than oral language.

Studying any of these languages, modern or classical, challenges students to think beyond their own culture and take a step back from their native tongues and everyday lives. And, in many instances, the study of language enables students to connect with their own roots.

– by Jennifer Anderson