“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.

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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?

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Good ELF in English-medium instruction

Note: this is the first in a series of posts reviewing the doctoral dissertation of Jaana Suviniitty, Lectures in English as a Lingua Franca: Interactional Features.

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The early posts of this blog have been dealing with the internationalisation of higher education in Finland, especially with current events in Aalto University. But Aalto’s Business School isn’t the first to switch to English-medium instruction (EMI), and ELFA project member Jaana Suviniitty has been deeply involved with the move to EMI in another division of Aalto – the Dept. of Forest Products Technology in the School of Chemical Technology. She recently defended her PhD, which is based on her work in language support in the early days of an MA program’s transition to English-only instruction.

In addition to providing support to department personnel, Jaana was tasked with evaluating lecturers’ English. To this end, she video recorded 21 lectures by different teachers, of which all but one were native speakers of Finnish. Since English as lingua franca (ELF) interaction necessarily involves speakers who don’t share a first language, only those lectures were included in which at least one audience member was not also a native speaker of Finnish. In addition to Finnish speakers, the students came from diverse first-language backgrounds: Swedish, Hindi, Spanish, Bengali, English, Japanese, Norwegian, Czech, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Estonian, German, Chinese, Hungarian, Thai and Lithuanian – typical ELF.

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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?

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Blogging about blogging about blogging

One of the base assumptions of ELF (English as Lingua Franca) research is that the English spoken between non-native speakers should be studied and understood in its own right. Lately, interest has also grown in written ELF, when English is the lingua franca of written interaction. To complement the spoken academic ELF in the ELFA corpus, we’ve started work on a new database of written academic ELF – the WrELFA corpus.

There are four main criteria we look for in a written academic ELF text:

  1. it is an instance of second-language use (SLU), not taken from a language learning environment
  2. it is authentic and naturally occurring, not elicited for research purposes
  3. it is ‘high stakes’ in the sense of its academic importance
  4. it has been written without native-English intervention

These four points are a good description of the academic research blog. Graduate students and experienced professors alike represent their research online. Unlike in the US/UK-dominated world of peer-reviewed journals, research bloggers can represent themselves in their professional lingua franca directly to the public and their peers, without linguistic barriers set up by outsiders.

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Getting serious about laughter in academic talk

Academic discourse is serious business. Lectures are delivered, conference presentations are discussed, great thoughts hang in the air like disembodied spirits. It’s not the kind of environment you’d expect to find a lot of laughter and joking. And yet, we academics can’t seem to stop laughing.

The frozen Baltic

The Baltic Sea is still frozen in February. We’re anxiously awaiting the sun.
© Nina Valtavirta

The ELFA project had our February meeting on Thu., 21.2, and MA student Jani Ahtiainen gave a talk on laughter in spoken academic discourse. He’s doing his master’s research on terms of address in the ELFA corpus, an area often connected to culture-specific norms and expectations. Likewise, the occurrence of humor and laughter might be influenced by culture as well.

Jani based his discussion on a 2006 article by David Lee that looked at occurrences of laughter in MICASE (Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English). The idea behind the article is that foreign students must struggle with the profound subtlety of American humor, so we should study laughter in MICASE to help these hapless foreigners cope. These are quite different research motivations than we have in the ELF field, but the question of laughter in academic ELF is still relevant.

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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)

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The Guardian: chat on English in higher education

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What better way to start an ELF blog than with ELF in the news – our very own Anna Mauranen was a guest for today’s live chat on English in higher education, hosted by The Guardian. The two-hour chat, entitled “Is English still the dominant language of higher education?“, was sponsored by TOEFL, who is understandably concerned with the question of dominance. The six panel participants reflected the Anglo-American orientation generally, with Anna being the only expert from outside the US/UK.

In terms of “camps”, there were two British Council administrators, and opposing voices from Theresa Lillis and Mary Jane Curry, who are critics of the disadvantages faced by academics outside the US and UK. Ben Wildavsky, an American scholar from the prominent Brookings Institute think-tank, presented another US viewpoint. Anna was thus the only voice from outside these “Inner Circle” settings.

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