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Language schools at museums | 12.mar.2014

Hangover, aeroplane, yes, and thank you!

It is Wednesday, it’s early in the morning, and murky winter darkness still hangs around outside the museum windows. Twelve language students from the Copenhagen Language Center, their teacher, the Danish artist Lise Harlev, and three members of staff from the SMK have come together to attend a workshop. The project OrdVærkSted has a specific objective: to develop activities and materials for teaching Danish as a foreign language at the SMK – together with the students. And today’s work is already well underway.

Everyone seated around the table share their favourite words with the rest of the group. These are words that we happen to like for a range of reasons – for example because they sound beautiful, look nice, or carry some important significance for us.

”My favourite word is wrestling (‘brydning’)”, says Vahid. He was born in Iran, lives in Denmark, and is currently learning Danish. “The word reminds me of my childhood,” he smiles. “And the first Danish words I learnt were those for ‘wrestling’ and ‘goodbye’”.

There are many different favourite words on the table. They include the Danish words for aeroplane, star, hangover, cozy, and wonderful. Thank you, umbrella, and toy. The students immediately take notes of any words that are new to them. The Language Center teacher provides explanations and illustrates relevant grammar points. And then the coffee arrives.

Being free to play with words
Lise Harlev has taken part in developing the day’s agenda. She comments on the workshop in the following terms: “The workshop is intended to enhance the participants’ language skills and to offer them a meaningful meeting with the two museums [the SMK and Thorvaldsens Museum]. To provide a starting point for these efforts we have sought to show the participants the joy of using words – irrespective of your current language proficiency. All the activities focus on individual words rather than on syntax and grammar; a deliberate choice, made to give the participants the freedom to play with Danish words, to work with them in a creative and humorous manner – things that you usually only have the ability and confidence to do once you have become fluent in a language.”


The artist Lise Harlev introduces her self-portrait entitled This is not really me, which are also the words featured on the necklace in the picture.

Lise studied art in Frankfurt and Copenhagen; the SMK owns her work My Own Country. Lise has previous experience with creating education resources: she took part in developing the project Nye ord til Thorvaldsen (“New Words for Thorvaldsen”), where secondary-education students create new captions for the sculptures at Thorvaldsens Museum.

”I think it is interesting to use the old museums and their collections in a new way, partly because museums offer such an obvious, clear-cut framework and are something to which most people can relate. The fact that the new project with the SMK and Thorvaldsens Museum focuses on learning Danish as a foreign language adds yet another interesting layer – and the theme has great resonance with me personally,” says Lise, who has lived and worked in Berlin since 2002.

”Many of my earlier works are very directly about the process of learning a new language and how this affects your social skills,” she says. “Words, texts, and – certainly not least – subtexts are extremely important components in my art.”.

Use words to describe the art

The group now leaves the meeting room to take a tour of the SMK’s collections of art. Working alone, the individual students examine various works of art, seeking to find words that describe their own perception of each artwork. The entire group reconvenes and then explores the museum together, visiting the students’ chosen artworks to share their experiences and words with each other. Twelve students, four works of art, many different approaches, an hour – and a lot of words.


Antonio and Vahid standing by the Danish artist Jørgen Haugen Sørensen’s sculpture Nationalfølelse (Patriotism). They noted down many words about this sculpture, including: Dead meat, intimacy, cartoon figure, childhood, tumour, not grace, not patience, chewing gum, volcano, cyst, lava, failure, not healthy.




Lezel and Benoit talking about Jaspar Beckx's Don Miguel de Castro. The painting made some of the students think of war, patriotism, warriors, courage, resolve, and sadness.


The words chosen by the participants to describe the artworks were noted down as they went along. Afterwards, the words were discussed by the entire group.

Being funny in Danish
Upon our return to the meeting room we all chose yet another favourite word amongst the many new words that emerged on our trip around the museum. With all our nametags, visitor’s tags, and favourite words on our clothes we are like walking dictionaries. And it creates surprising opportunities for new sentences and new connections when you suddenly see what the person next to you has written on their sign: Television and Freedom. Ethical Beauty and Butterfly. Thanks and Patriotism.


Two participants with their guest tags, nametags, and favourite words of the day.

The language students point to how it is great fun to do something different from what they are used to do in language class, and how the day has been full of humorous exuberance. ”It is such a relief to be able to – and allowed to – be fun in Danish,” says Joanne, who also thinks that “it has been really great to get creative with language, to create something and show that aspect of your identity in Danish.” Several participants point out that it is nice to practice their Danish skills with someone other than their language teacher. And many state that it was interesting to hear their fellow students’ personal thoughts and words about the works of art. One participant, Lezel, says: “This morning, before I came here, I felt lazy and felt that learning Danish was a little hard. But now I’m all ‘I can do this!’” Very importantly, many participants are very pleased to have been able to take many new words home with them.

The personal approach
The project group evaluate the day’s workshop. “I think it is important to feel that you can express yourself in the new language, that you don’t have to be afraid of it,” says Lise. “And in that spirit the workshop focuses on the participants’ personal experience of the art, not on the art historical presentation of them. Language is one way of expressing something personal, and in the same way the art in a museum is full of personal emotions, beliefs, and stories. It was important to me to accentuate the validity of the personal approach and to show the participants that the language, the museum, and the art is theirs, too.”

We all share the sense that the workshop was successful in this regard: it maintained a constant focus on the personal experience of both language and art.

Sharing your words
In our assessment we also discussed that it might be possible to set up a very specific criterion for success: That all participants should take home as many new words as possible.

Other museums who have also developed teaching and education activities for language schools had recommended following the “70/30 rule”: The students should speak for at least 70% of the time, and the teacher/educator should not speak more than 30% of the time. We had every intention of heeding this advice, but we did not entirely succeed. However, we did successfully focus on a lot of individual words. And on words and art. And the workshop actually took on a strong, seductive performative aspect. When the language students presented their own words about the artworks it all became a simple performance full of rhythm and humour. Here the students presented their own words about artworks they had never seen before. They were new visitors to the museum, taking up position in front of the artworks in order to present their interpretations. They took up the position usually occupied by curators and art educators. Sharing their words.


Leila and The Mountaineer

Next steps
Now we will employ three of the language students at the SMK. Together with members of the regular museum staff they will create a small film about words and arts. We will also carry out thorough evaluations with the language teachers, deciding on which elements should receive greater – or less – attention in the teaching activities and materials we are developing.

You will soon be able to read more about these things on this blog.

You can also hear more (in Danish) in the Sproglaboratoriets programmer om sprogskoler radio programmes about language schools broadcast by ‘Sproglaborariet’ on P1.

Sorø Kunstmuseum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Roskilde have also worked closely together with language schools, exploring and developing teaching activities and materials. They have compiled lots of good advice and recommendations in the folder Kunsten at lære sprog. Inspirationsmateriale om sprogindlæring for voksne sprogkursister på kunstmuseer (‘The Art of Learning a Language. Inspirational materials about language acquisition for adult language students at art museums’). You can find it here (in Danish) at the Sorø Kunstmuseums hjemmeside website or at Museet for Samtidskunst i Roskilde, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Roskilde


By: Annette Skov, Julie Maria Johnsen og Nana Bernhardt

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