ELFA project

ELF in policy and practice: planning a study on language planning


The meltdown is nearly complete. Almost all the snow and ice are gone, and we again celebrate the pleasures of sidewalks and dirt.
© Nina Valtavirta

The April seminar of the ELFA project was held on 18.4, with Netta Hirvensalo speaking on her research plan for a PhD study on language policies and their impact in Finnish academia. In the following post, Netta reviews her seminar presentation.

by Netta Hirvensalo

In 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 seminar also offered a perfect way for me to put forth some of my ideas about possible research interests and, ultimately, to pave the way for my own research plans. Having been involved in the ELFA group for the better part of two years now, continuing on from an MA thesis to a full-on PhD project seems rather natural. And with a topic as current and as fascinating (no arguments!) as the one I have landed on, how could I not?

Niina Hynninen recently defended her dissertation on language regulation in ELF with a bottom-up perspective on the matter; that is, how speakers themselves regulate the language in use. What I plan to do is to instead look at the top-down regulation at work in Finnish universities: how language policies are made, what they hope to achieve and, most importantly, how they translate into real-life use of English as an academic lingua franca. This last point is crucial, since I hope that through this study I will manage to create what I also called for in my earlier post: genuine communication between those who do the planning and those with first-hand experience on how these policies actually work.

In order to get there, I will approach the issue of ELF in Finnish university language policies by taking into account all the major parties involved in and affected by the phenomenon: university administration – used here as an umbrella term for those who are responsible for policy planning and execution – as well as students and teaching and research staff. The aim is to begin from the planning, to establish how English-medium instruction and the use of English as an academic lingua franca in general is viewed by different Finnish universities. That is, how language policy makers evaluate the significance of English as an academic language in different aspects of university life. And what I am particularly keen to shed light on, especially when linking this to the other groups involved in the study: who are the policies and, subsequently, internationalisation and English-medium instruction aimed for?

Living the policies: students, teachers & researchers

When it comes to the student perspective, one of the most important questions will be how universities cater to the needs of Finnish (both Finnish and Swedish speaking) as well as international students. How different are those needs, and how are they taken into account? For example, what does English-medium instruction mean for native Finnish or Swedish speakers, who should have the right to use their first language when taking tests or submitting assignments? And, on the other hand, how equipped are Finnish universities to welcome international students from all over the world, and how are their expectations met?

As for teaching and research, the dynamics between these groups will again be of great interest, albeit in slightly different ways. Parallel language use, again an issue that was raised repeatedly during the strategy seminar and even eagerly promoted as a solution by some, will play a key role in my interviews with university teachers. How much parallel language use do teachers currently encounter in their work, and how do they cope with it? Teaching a course exclusively in English is, I daresay, a slightly different story to teaching in English while also grading papers and tests written in Finnish and Swedish. Or is it?

The dynamics between different languages will again be explored in relation to academic research, where the main goal is to discover what some of the most important reasons are for either publishing or not publishing academic material in English in the Finnish context. How much of these decisions are dictated or encouraged by the institution, and what other motives are there that drive researchers either towards or away from publishing in this lingua franca of ours? As with all of the groups, the results can be expected to vary even quite significantly between disciplines, which will naturally have to be taken into account when choosing the informants.

Real people, real events

As I keep saying, at this stage I have so many questions and very little else. That is, except for what is ultimately behind these questions: real events. Whether it be the high-profile changes made at Aalto Business School or some much more subtle manifestations of the growth of ELF in Finnish academia at the level of personal experiences, these are questions that need to be asked. Of course, with my ambitious aim of helping universities to better understand how their policies work in practice, I am now faced with the task of convincing university officials that this indeed is a worthy goal. Not to mention getting students, teachers, researchers and administrators to talk about their experiences and priorities without my background in English studies interfering with their honesty or willingness to participate, which can be a risk with such an emotionally loaded issue. But I am carefully optimistic, and will remain so until proven otherwise.

Having only just submitted my application for postgraduate studies to the Committee, the future of my proposed project is of course still uncertain. However, I hope to soon be able to move forward from the planning stage and to return here with a whole lot of new and exciting information and prospects to share.