The role of languages at Finnish universities

Sabine Ylönen, Mari Kivelä



The promotion of multilingualism is one of the objectives of the European Union. However, in academic contexts, internationalisation and multilingual expertise are often understood as using English as a medium in teaching, research, tutoring and administrative communication. To explore the role of different languages at Finnish universities, an online survey was conducted in November – December 2009 among their staff, with 3605 respondents across disciplines and occupational groups. In this paper, we will present some of the results focussing on the following questions: How important are different languages considered in a university working environment? What are the language skills and use of the Finnish university personnel? Why languages other than English ought to be used? The results show that 92.8 % of the respondents judged different languages as very important or important but the majority highlighted the importance of English. English and Finnish were used by almost all staff members, whereas Swedish was known by 92.6% but used by only 73%. The second most important foreign language was German with 75.4% knowing but only 48.3% using it. The languages of Somalis, Thais, Iraqis and Turks that form the largest immigrant groups were known and used very seldom. Older staff members and higher professional groups used a greater number of languages than younger and other occupational groups. An important argument for the use of foreign languages other than English was their being a “resource for scientific research” in keeping with the socio-cultural nature of science. Today, internationalisation and multilingualism seem to contradict: the more important internationalisation has become, the more English rules the academic world. The plurilingual potential of Finland’s university staff members could be used to extend and intensify multilingual practices with the help of strategic decisions, for example language policies, on the European, national, and university level.

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Apples - Journal of Applied Language Studies