Category Archives: English in Finland

Whose English? A window into written academic ELF

A February sunset in Helsinki.© Nina Valtavirta

A February sunset in Helsinki.
© Nina Valtavirta

Though it’s easy to see that English has become the lingua franca of academia, it’s not always clear how widespread it is within a specific institution. Moreover, it’s not always clear whose English we’re talking about – while English is increasingly used as a lingua franca (ELF) between non-native English speakers and authors, English as a native language (ENL) is still in the mix. In an internationally oriented university such as here in Helsinki, how much of a presence does English have? And are we talking about ENL – native-speaker varieties such as in the US/UK – or English as a lingua franca (ELF)?

Any number of approaches could be put to this question, but our recent work on the WrELFA corpus of written academic ELF offers an intriguing look into language use within the University of Helsinki. We just finished compiling a subcorpus of preliminary examiners’ statements – the written evaluations by senior academics of newly submitted PhD theses. In Finland, PhD candidates must first submit their theses to obtain permission for a public defence. Typically two examiners evaluate the work and either grant or deny the permission to defend it.

These examiners’ statements are intriguing data for two reasons. First, they comprise a high-stakes academic genre that is part of the public examination as well as a demonstration of the author’s expertise. Second, they offer a unique source of written academic ELF. The examiners are often non-native English users who are writing statements to be read by Finnish students and faculty members. There are not native English gatekeepers in the writing process – as there are, for instance, in academic publishing – but ENL authors are also active in submitting evaluations. In short, it’s an unregulated window into linguistic practices within and across academic fields and faculties. Keep reading…


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 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?

Keep reading…

“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?

Keep reading…

The end of Finnish-language business research?

An opinion piece has been published on Aalto University's intention to drop Finnish from MA-level teaching in its Business School.

An opinion piece has been published on Aalto University’s intention to drop Finnish from MA-level teaching in its Business School.

When I earlier wrote about Aalto University’s decision to only offer their Business School’s MA-level instruction in English, I predicted a lively debate in Finland’s major newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat. But since then, only one opinion piece has been printed on the issue. The edition of 24.2.2013 contained a letter by Maria Pekkala and Matti Rudanko, a professor in Aalto’s School of Business.

Their opinion piece is measured and reasonable. On one hand, they recognise the necessity of English skills in a globalised world, and they also acknowledge that English has already been a part of business education for some time, partially because the equivalent material often isn’t available in Finnish. But their main point isn’t primarily about language – it’s the need for Finland to invest in the development of its own society.

If a Finnish student can no longer do MA-level research in her own mother tongue in the premier business school in Finland, what is the impact on the broader Finnish society? This is the key issue raised by Pekkala and Prof. Rudanko. Moreover, they point out that a solid knowledge of Finnish is still an important skill that is sought by Finnish employers. And finally, aren’t there areas of Finnish business that ought to researched – in Finnish?

Keep reading…

BELFA is born in Aalto University

Aalto_logoThis new blog has happily coincided with a series of ELF-related stories in the news. Yesterday YLE (the Finnish national public broadcaster) reported that Aalto University wants to offer all MA-level tuition in their business school in English, as early as this fall. Aalto University is something of a “super-school” created in 2010 by the merger of Helsinki’s universities of economics, technology, and art & design. It is also the teaching home of two of our ELFA project members.

This is a major development in the internationalisation of Finnish higher education. The English-language version of the story reports it fairly straight with the title “Aalto University goes for English-only business programmes”, but the Finnish-language version of the story is entitled “Kauppakorkeakoulu hylkäsi suomen – maisteriopinnot vain englanniksi” (Business school abandoned Finnish – MA studies only in English, my translation) and opens with the following line:

“Aalto-yliopiston kansainvälistyminen on saavuttamassa hämmästyttävät mittasuhteet.”
(Aalto University’s internationalisation is reaching astonishing proportions, my translation)

Keep reading…