Multilingualism and the role of German in studying at Finnish universities from the viewpoint of students

Sabine Ylönen, Virpi Vainio

mehrsprachigkeit im studium, deutsch als verkehrssprache, austauschstudium, kulturgebundene diskursive praktiken, mündliche fertigkeiten


In most academic disciplines, German has lost ground – just as many other foreign
languages other than English. Especially in scientific publishing, English has become
the most important language (Skudlik 1990, Wilson 2002). In addition, the aim of
internationalisation in higher education is to increase the number of international
degree programmes in “foreign” languages for undergraduate and MA students, and
in practice this foreign language is today English (Ammon & McConnell 2002, Wächter
The aim of our study was to examine the impact of this development of English
becoming the dominating lingua franca in academia on the use of different languages
in studying at Finnish universities. We were particularly interested in the attitudes of
students toward multilingualism for study purposes. Because German has traditionally
played an important role in Finland (Hiedanniemi 1980, Piri 2001), our main emphasis
was on the questions of how widespread the knowledge of German still was among
students, and how they judged the role of German in their disciplines. In addition, we
assumed that in the times of increasing student mobility – with Germany as the most
popular target country for Finnish students – oral skills in the target language were of
crucial importance in making such an exchange a fruitful experience. Therefore, we
claim that special attention should be paid to the preparation of students for the
communicative challenges at the target university already in their home country.
Another aim of our study was, consequently, to examine what type of proficiencies
such preparation for studying in a German-speaking country should focus on. For this
purpose, students were asked to evaluate their skills in German, and those who had
participated in an exchange programme at a German-speaking university were asked
about their motives for choosing the host country as well as for their experiences and
possible culture-bound differences in communicative study practices compared to
Finland. Our research questions for the study at hand were:
1. What is the role of multilingualism in studying at Finnish universities?
2. What is the role of German in studying at Finnish universities?
3. What are the challenges for native speakers of Finnish in German oral
4. What differences were observed in discursive practices of the German-speaking
countries and Finland?
Our study is part of the project German as a vehicular language in Finland that focuses
on the role of German in academic and business contexts. The present study is part of
the first project phase in which surveys among students and staff at universities as well
as in enterprises in Finland are conducted to examine attitudes toward multilingualism
and the role of German. In the second phase, audio-visual recordings of authentic
situations are planned to gather empirically verified insights into the variety of oral
communicative practices in different disciplines, branches, and genres. The results of
the project aim to contribute to the development of new pedagogical concepts that may
help to further the motivation to learn languages other than English. We also hope that
they will provide stimuli for national and international political debates on the role of
different languages.
Our survey was sent to over 20 000 students in May 2008 as an onlinequestionnaire.
Within three weeks, we received 3516 answers (response rate 17.3 %).
The questionnaire consisted mainly of closed questions with possibilities for open
comments. In this study, we can only present some of the results. Our emphasis was on
the closed questions, and open comments were used only to illuminate the quantitative
The results show that the majority of the students (83 %) judged multilingualism
as important or very important. However, because multilingualism was not more
closely defined one can assume that for many students it meant using English in
addition to their mother tongue. This assumption is supported by the fact that two
thirds of the respondents had “at least some” knowledge of German but it was used by
only a third of them for study purposes whereas English was used by almost everyone
(“mostly – seldom”). Considering the status of Swedish (which was used “mostly –
seldom” by about 57 %) as the second domestic language in Finland, German is still the
second most important foreign language at Finnish universities but the majority of the
students (53 %) regarded the knowledge of German as of minor or no importance in
their disciplines.
At German-speaking universities, German was still the main language of
studying, and especially oral skills were judged to be of greater importance than in
Finland. Finnish students used oral German especially often in semi- and unofficial
situations such as for organising study-related affairs or in conversations with students
and staff of the host university. Also in actual study situations (such as lectures or
seminars) the importance of oral skills was considered great. These results imply the
need for preparing exchange students for their stay in a German-speaking country,
especially with regard to oral skills. This preparation should also focus on culturebound
discursive strategies because expressing opinions was judged as being more
commonly expected in German-speaking countries and their communicative culture
regarded as more aggressive than that in Finland.
The data collected in our survey can be characterised as off-site data, and the
results reflect the perceptions of students. Only an analysis of on-site data, i. e.
recordings of authentic study situations, would offer possibilities for finding out what
these perceptions are possibly based on. The compilation of a corresponding openaccess
corpus for oral study situations is being planned.
Our study shows clearly that the use of foreign languages other than English is
rather uncommon in studying at Finnish universities. Even though the use of one
lingua franca has many advantages one must ask whether the current development
toward the use of a single foreign language at Finnish universities is desirable and
what advantages a more multilingual practice would have to offer. At least in the past,
scientific cooperation over language borders has proved highly fruitful.
If academic multilingualism is to be promoted, possible ways to achieve this goal
have also to be considered. Among the reasons for the dominance of English in
academic contexts are also, undoubtedly, diminishing possibilities to choose foreign
languages to study at Finnish schools and the decreasing number of learners of foreign
languages (other than English), which mutually depend on each other. Compared to
the EU average, German as a foreign language is studied relatively more frequently in
Finland but while the number of learners is increasing in the EU average, it keeps on
decreasing in Finland.
Learning different foreign languages should, in our opinion, be started as early as
possible to provide a solid foundation for dealing with academic contents at the
university. At least elementary language skills that two thirds of the respondents in
our study mentioned of having obviously do not motivate them to use the language for
study purposes. Universities and other institutions of higher education should, for
their part, promote multilingualism more actively, and award students and staff who
possess versatile language skills and also use these languages for study and
professional purposes.
It is in any case gratifying that Finnish exchange students mentioned as their main
reason for the choice of a German-speaking host country their wish to learn better
German. This confirms our previous results (Ylönen 2006) and is in line with a survey
conducted by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMWF 2008)
according to which improving German language skills was mentioned as the main
reason for studying in Germany. In view of the international promotion of the role of
German, the tendency observable at German universities to increasingly offer Englishspeaking
degree programmes appears counterproductive. Universities and other
institutions of higher education in German-speaking countries should be aware of this
in their aspirations for internationalisation.

Download as PDF

Print this page

Apples - Journal of Applied Language Studies