University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


Teaching in English makes a difference

Students can be made part of their discipline, using English terminology, or they can be made part of their society, using their own language. Swedish students illustrate the stark choices

»I didn’t understand why it wasn’t a real … er, vad ska jag säga?… tal … er, only when you har det upphöjd till två. But she said it was an imeg, imag—ett sånt där tal«.

It is a first-year Swedish student, and she is trying to explain some physics.

And the point is that she is code-switching, in this case from English to Swedish, something making her language only comprehensible to a Swede.

Price of being international

She doesn’t know the words for number, squared and imaginary.

In this case, the student’s code switching from English to Swedish will lead to a breakdown in communication. Code-switching in Swedish to English, at least among peers in her discipline, would be less problematic.

The example is from a study by John Airey of the University of Kalmar, Sweden, who presented his results at a seminar organised by the University of Copenhagen’s Centre for Internationalisation and Parallel Language Use.

Read the article Copenhagen staff: Yes to more courses in English here

It illustrates some of the many paradoxes to be surmounted at universities that woo international students and staff by teaching more courses in English to an audience that predominantly shares another mother-tongue.

Socialised into discipline or society

Tough choices have to be made.

John Airey follows earlier research by others in saying that universities must face up to two sometimes contradictory approaches:

They can produce graduates who are literate in the English-language terminology of their own discipline, thereby ‘socialising’ students into their own discipline.

Or they can produce graduates who can communicate the discipline to a wider audience in their own mother-tongue language community, thereby preparing students for life in society.

»While the first vision presupposes English language skills, the second vision presupposes local language skills,« John Airey says.

45 per cent slower in English

In reality, of course, university courses will strive to balance between these two visions, John Airey says.

In his study, he analysed the transcripts of physics classes and asked students to describe the same disciplinary concepts in both English and Swedish.

His research showed that Swedish students on average speak 45 pct. slower in their English language descriptions.

Hard to follow if taking notes

Interestingly, for most students, »the quality of their descriptions in both languages was independent of the teaching language,« he says.

»But this is not the same as saying that the teaching language doesn’t matter,« John Airey adds.

A small number of students had serious problems, and Swedish students who take notes had difficulty following the lecture.

Videos showed differently

One thing is for certain: Students think they perform better in the English language than they really do.
Most reported to Airey that there is no difference between being taught in English and in Swedish.

But analysis of video material showed otherwise.

Students ask and answer fewer questions when taught in English, and there is less interaction between lecturer and students in the English-taught classes.