“In the grip of English”: seminar on internationalisation in Finland

On March 7, a seminar was held at the University of Helsinki concerning language strategies and policies surrounding the internationalisation of Finnish higher education. In the following guest blog, ELFA project member Netta Hirvensalo addresses some key points raised in the seminar.


by Netta Hirvensalo

The language strategy seminar arranged at the University of Helsinki last Thursday set out to discuss the status of Finland’s national languages, Finnish and Swedish, in Finnish universities and the role English plays in all this. Ulla-Maija Forsberg, first Vice-Rector of the University of Helsinki, kicked off the seminar by outlining what internationalisation means for the University. She characterised the University as already very international, citing rather promising figures for example in terms of the share of non-Finnish postdoctoral researchers (30%), but admitted that the figures were lower on the higher career levels. As the University aims to be internationally attractive, and eventually reach the Top 50 in world university rankings, the direction certainly seems right. But how are we getting there?

From strategies to practice

The much quoted Section 11 of the Finnish Universities Act only dictates the use of Finnish and Swedish within each university and leaves the decision about other languages to the universities themselves. This is where language policies and strategies come into the picture. These documents seem a natural medium for making those decisions known, and it was encouraging to hear that several Finnish universities are in the process of updating theirs, no doubt as a result of desired and already achieved internationalisation. But therein lies also a problem: who ensures that universities actually follow through with the statements they make, when there is no regulation on the government’s part?

This question seemed a relevant one throughout the seminar. Matti Räsänen from the Institute for the Languages of Finland (Kotimaisten kielten keskus, or Kotus) reviewed the language strategy of the University of Turku and how it addressed the use of English as a language of administration. (As it happens, I was not able to locate said document in English.) The document itself appeared to be rather explicit about the use of English in various situations, but the questions Mr Räsänen posed afterwards about the practical applications of this document went without answers. Developing language strategies is a good way to get the discussion on language use going, but the next step would be to determine how those strategies turn into practices.

“In the grip of English”

Perhaps in an attempt to provoke discussion, the Vice-Rector referred to the national languages as being “in the grip of English” twice during her address. However, during the panel, the rectors sang in unison about not seeing English as a threat to the national languages, or at least, they were not yet concerned about it. Quite the contrary: Matti Manninen of the University of Jyväskylä went so far as to suggest that he would gladly see all Masters-level education done in English, much like the Business School of Aalto University has just done. Whether language selection needs to be this absolute is a question worth asking: others were inclined to think that language selection should be done based on course and programme content, rather than by default.

Mr Manninen also stated that the University encouraged academic publishing in English, even in fields where it has not traditionally been the language of publication. When asked whether English was seen as a threat to academic Finnish, Kalervo Väänänen of the University of Turku found the presence and effect of English significant for the continuing development of Finnish as an academic language. There was, however, some talk about English constructions finding their way into Finnish academic texts, and the panelists did acknowledge their responsibility for the preservation and use of Finland’s national languages.

Jukka Mönkkönen of the University of Eastern Finland emphasised the importance of making students aware of key terminology in both English and the national languages. His comment echoed what I had also encountered during the research for my MA thesis, and I was especially glad to see the Bank of Finnish Terminology in Arts and Sciences (Tieteen kansallinen termipankki) promoted in the seminar. It could provide at least a small consolation to those more concerned over Finnish and Swedish terminology loss under the “grip” of English.

To whom is internationalisation being offered?

On the administrational level, internationalisation clearly is seen as a goal worth pursuing and English as an integral tool in reaching this goal. All in all, there was very little debate or disagreement between the rectors over the most prominent issues; the more critical voices came from the audience. It was a good chance for the two sides of the phenomenon to meet and exchange ideas, but I hope it was only the beginning of a much-needed dialogue between university administration and their staff and students, to find a way to go from striving to be international to truly being it, for everyone involved. The question that concluded the seminar is also befitting here: To whom is internationalisation being offered?


2 thoughts on ““In the grip of English”: seminar on internationalisation in Finland

  1. Ray Carey says:

    Thanks Netta! I think this might be the best reporting to be found on the seminar. I couldn’t find anything about it in Helsingin Sanomat or on YLE’s Finnish-language website. There was one lame story on YLE’s English-language pages entitled “English-language invasion troubles Finnish academia” (http://yle.fi/uutiset/english-language_invasion_troubles_finnish_academia/6531683), but this rather laughable, attention-seeking headline fails to capture what we both saw at the seminar — these university administrators don’t seem very concerned about English’s dominance at all. Like you say, the critical comments only came from the audience.

    I was glad to see that the audience included Maria Pekkala, whose opinion piece in Helsingin Sanomat I earlier blogged about. I see from her blog that she’s published another opinion piece (http://www.mariapekkala.fi/2013/suomi-kuuluu-suomalaiseen-huippuyliopistoon/) in which she argues for the importance of keeping Finnish as a viable language for high-level research. She also notes how little attention the Aalto University Business School’s move to English-only MA instruction has received in the public sphere. This has surprised me too, and when I originally blogged on this story, I expected a firestorm in the opinion pages. But Pekkala’s opinion piece is the only one that has appeared in Helsingin Sanomat. To me, the public indifference which this story has received is more alarming than the dominance of English itself.

    Another aspect of the seminar I found interesting was the discussion on how to encourage/support/force foreign instructors and students to learn Finnish and integrate into the society. There was some talk about parallel language use and encouraging students to move into equivalent Finnish-language courses during their MA studies. But hoping for this in the course of a 2-3 year MA programme shows how far these administrators are removed from everyday reality. I completed the 40 credit (opintopistettä), 2-year program of Finnish studies in Helsinki University, and it prepared me for little more than deciphering word-level morphology. What foreign students/teachers need is Finnish skills of the arkipäivä variety — how to access government and university services, and how to understand real spoken Finnish, which is very different from the book Finnish taught in these classes. But English will remain their professional academic language, no doubt.

    I think you’ve highlighted a key dichotomy in these discussions — the strategic planning of administrators, whose goals seem quite abstract, and the everyday experience of teachers and students who are living out these policies. There’s surely a research opening here, and room for bringing language strategies “down to earth”.

    Thanks for helping me out with the blog, and for helping me understand those parts of the seminar that escaped my best efforts to follow along!

  2. […] March, I shared my thoughts on the language strategy seminar organised here at the University of Helsinki. Interesting as it was in itself, reporting on the […]

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