English in Nordic universities: ideologies and practices

Hultgren, Anna Kristina; Gregersen, Frans and Thøgersen, Jacob (2014). English in Nordic universities: ideologies and practices. In: Hultgren, Anna Kristina; Gregersen, Frans and Thøgersen, Jacob eds. English in Nordic Universities: Ideologies and Practices. Studies in World Language Problems (5). Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 1–26.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1075/wlp.5.01hul

URL: https://benjamins.com/#catalog/books/wlp.5/main


It is by now a well-documented fact that English is being used to a much greater extent at Nordic universities than was the case a couple of decades ago. With the proviso that cross-country comparisons are difficult because of differences in educational systems and methods of measurements, the proportion of academic articles which are published in English at Nordic universities is in the order of 70 to 95%; for doctoral dissertations, the order is 80–90%. The use of English as a medium of instruction differs at undergraduate and graduate level; at the former level some 10–25% of programmes are taught in English and at the latter the range is some 20–40%. The proportion of non-Nordic students is around 5–15%, though for all these areas, there are considerable differences between the disciplines, with the technical and natural sciences typically exhibiting a much greater degree of Englishization (Godenhjelm, Saarinen & Östman, 2013; Hultgren, 2013; Kristoffersen, Kristiansen & Røyneland, 2013; Kristinsson & Bernharðsson, 2013; Salö & Josephson, 2013). Universities in the Nordic countries, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, may be seen as being on the forefront in this process of Englishization, but we believe that the trend is universal and that the causes and consequences of the development are therefore relevant far beyond the region. It is against this backdrop of greater English language usage in key university activities that the present volume is set.

The purpose of this volume is to explore and contrast the ideologies and practices associated with the Englishization of Nordic universities. By ideologies we understand the ways in which English at Nordic universities is explicitly or implicitly talked and written about in the Nordic debate. By practices we understand the ways in which the phenomenon of language choice unfolds on the ground in the situated interactions of the social actors directly involved in it, i.e. primarily those who conduct their daily working lives at Nordic universities: students, faculty and other staff. As it shall be clear in the chapters to come, this dichotomy is, of course, a simplification, not least because practice and ideology influence each other. The primary difference between ideology and practice, as we use the terms, is thus that ideology is either explicitly or implicitly value-laden discourse about what ought or ought not to happen, while practices are what actually happens. Of course, nothing is ever just as it seems, so the account of practices that we offer in this book will extend only as far as the particular research methods employed. It seems to us that in the case of language choice at universities in the Nordic countries these two types of realities – ideologies and practices – have become exceptionally far removed from one another, in a way that we would suggest has become unproductive and unhelpful.

At the ideological level, two opposing discourses may be distinguished. On the one hand, we have what might be called the “internationalist” discourse. This is typically represented by politicians committed to making the nation internationally competitive. At the institutional level, the discourse may be carried on by university leaders concerned with internationalizing and advancing the rank of their universities. To these actors, language is often a non-issue (see, e.g., Phillipson, 2009; Phillipson & Skuttnabb-Kangas, 1999; Saarinen, this volume; Ljosland, this volume). In contrast to these arguments, we have what might be called the “culturalist” discourse. This is typically represented by politicians committed to safeguarding national culture and the heritage of the welfare state. Other representatives of this discourse may be characteristically Nordic institutions charged with the task of monitoring and regulating the national language, such as national language councils, or members of the cultural elite and professional linguists. To these actors, language is often highly salient. Ironically, they may be affiliated with both right and left-wing politics, albeit for different ideological reasons (see Salö, this volume). Safeguarding the national language in right-wing politics becomes a surrogate for protecting the nation state. In left-wing politics, it is a shield against commercialization and global homogenization. Thus, the ideological level is fraught with contradictions between “internationalists” and “culturalists” and even among the culturalists themselves.

As far as the practices are concerned, there has over the years been a growing body of work aimed at exploring this phenomenon (Haberland et al., 2013; Kuteeva, 2011; Mortensen & Haberland, 2012; papers in the special issue of Iberica, vol. 22, edited by Kuteeva, 2011). Some of the issues which have been explored at the level of practice have been how teaching and learning is affected by it taking place in a language that is not one’s first (Airey, 2009, 2010; Thøgersen & Airey, 2011), patterns of language choice (Ljosland, 2008; Söderlundh, 2010; Haberland et al., 2013), the emergence of new and non-native ways of using English (Mortensen & Fabricius, this volume) and the attitudes of students and staff to Englishization (Hellekjær, 2005; Jensen & Thøgersen, 2011; Tange, 2010).

In the chapters to come, we shall have a more detailed look at how Englishization plays out at the level of ideologies and at the level of practices. Before we go on to consider this in more detail, we will take a step back in time and consider how the role of universities have changed over time before considering the linguistic and cultural implications of these changes.

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