Multilingualism as a challenge to universities

How do the increasingly international activities of universities affect the status of national languages?

As the use of English continues to spread in Finnish universities, concerns have been raised about it threatening the status of Finnish and Swedish as languages of science and education. A seminar held at the University of Helsinki on 7 March 2013 focused on the multilingual reality of Finnish universities.

“Universities all around the Nordic countries are wooing international students with English-language education,” says Taina Saarinen, university lecturer at the University of Jyväskylä.

Not only do universities offer specifically designed English-language study modules, they may also change the language of instruction at random. A course may be held in English, if exchange students sign up for it.

“What’s to prevent us from suddenly facing the situation of all education being given in English?” wonders Pirkko Nuolijärvi from the Institute for the Languages of Finland.

Jukka Mönkkönen, Rector of the University of Eastern Finland, encourages teachers to integrate multilingualism into teaching independent of the language of instruction.

“Key terminology can be provided in multiple languages, and different languages can be used in teaching material, lectures and student presentations,” he says.

The impact of the language of administration

Matti Räsänen from the Institute for the Languages of Finland emphasised the importance that the language used in administration has to internationalisation. If administrative matters cannot be handled in English, people who do not speak Finnish may soon find themselves excluded from the work community.

“For the sake of fairness, we should ensure that administrative duties are not handled solely by the Finnish-speaking staff,” Räsänen explains.

Aikalainen, the University of Tampere magazine, even floated the idea of all administration being organised exclusively in English. Räsänen, however, believes it would be enough to use Finnish and English equally for administrative purposes.

Who benefits from internationalisation?

The seminar also touched on international students’ employment opportunities in Finland. Taina Saarinen believes the English-language Master’s degree programmes are most beneficial to Finnish students, who acquire multilingual expertise. However, international students rarely learn enough Finnish or Swedish during the two-year programme to find employment after graduation.

“If we want international students to stay in Finland, we should be offering first-cycle degrees in English, and then transfer to Finnish or Swedish in the second-cycle phase, when students have sufficient language skills,” she suggests.

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Text: Katja Bargum
Photo: 123rf
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