Studying multilingualism at the University of Helsinki

Lesley Li, a graduate from the English Studies programme at the University of Helsinki, sat down with us to discuss the process of writing her MA thesis “Exploring Linguistic Landscape in a Multilingual Finnish University”. In the thesis, she explores how the university's trilingual policy is visible on campus.

Lesley wrote her Master’s thesis about the linguistic landscape of the University of Helsinki, which entails the visibility of different languages. In the thesis, she examines how the landscape reflects the university’s language policy, which defines Finnish, Swedish and English as official languages. As her data she used photographs of all the signs in popular areas of the university’s centre campus, focusing on what languages were used, as well as interviews with multilingual students and staff members about their experiences with languages around the campus.

Motivations for an MA thesis

After working as a language teacher for several years, both in her hometown Beijing and in Helsinki, Lesley felt it would be beneficial to expand on her previous studies. She decided to pursue an MA to improve her academic skills and gain renewed perspectives on language use.

For the topic of her MA thesis, she was inspired by a course on language policy where she learned about the connection between policy and the visibility and distribution of languages on public signs. She wanted to interview international students, both because she was one, and because she felt they would be able to contrast their experience with other universities with the University of Helsinki.

Methods and the writing process

Lesley describes the planning phase as extensive. Her methods were initially informed by prior theses on language policy, but even with support from her supervisor, designing the final interview used in the study required multiple rounds of detailed revision. After photographing the signs, focusing on areas most commonly visited by students, she examined the distribution of languages across the centre campus. Practicalities related to the interviews needed to be adjusted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing Lesley to move from walk-around style interviews to Zoom.

After planning and gathering data, the process of writing the MA thesis had its challenges as well, proving to be more intensive than working on the BA thesis. One challenge Lesley named was balancing the time between her job and writing the thesis. She says that the writing process is a journey which requires patience to finish.

What helped Lesley during that journey was the support she got, from both her supervisor and her peers: “my supervisor was very patient and helped me a lot to revise my thesis in every detail”. She got good suggestions on the thesis from her peers, who helped her with finding interviewees. She emphasizes the importance of this network of support in getting her MA thesis done. Lesley wants anyone writing their MA thesis now to remember that they are not alone, to discuss with their supervisor if there’s a problem and to remember to share their thoughts and opinions with peers.

A worthwhile effort

Though the process was intensive, Lesley found it rewarding in many ways. Specific things she highlights are improvements in her writing skills and a deeper understanding of linguistic landscapes and multilingualism, which she gained both through delving into previous research and from the interviews she conducted.

Her research provides an important perspective on international students’ experiences of the multilingual campus. Both the interviewees and the analysis of the signs echo the same sentiment – multilingualism is seen as a norm. Despite this, Finnish was found to be in a more dominant position in many areas. The interviewees wished the trilingual policy to be fully put into practice in all aspects of university life.

Lesley believes her research is a valuable resource that could be used to inform future decisions about the language environment. She hopes her work can contribute to bringing truly equal status to Finnish, Swedish and English in daily life at the University of Helsinki.