International = English?

09.06.2004
English, Nordic or both? The balance between foreign languages and mother tongue in research was discussed during a conference on multi-lingualism organised by the Nordic Language Council in Oslo 7-8 June.
On the one hand the universities are faced with demands to internationalise their activites through exchange, publishing articles in international publications and the Bologna process. At the same time there is a danger of desintegration of the Nordic languages as cultural components and tools for debates in society if the research environment fail to use them in scientific communication. The objective of the conference was to discuss the balance between the use of English and Nordic languages in academia.

Several speakers expressed a fear of English taking over so that one loses the ability to express oneself academically in one‘s mother tongue. Gudmund Hernes, director of Unesco and former Norwegian minister of education, emphasised language as identity. He recommended the simultaneous use of mother tongue and foreign languages to avoid analphabetism in either category.

Head of department at Sweden‘s National Agency for Higher Education, Torsten Kälvemark, thought that many overestimate their ability to communicate in English, a point which was also discussed in the concluding panel session, as it was mentioned that some universities offer courses in academic writing. Kälvemark stressed that a lingua franca is a prerequisite for research. In the following discussions one of the speakers argued that the lingua franca needs not be English and the position of English is stronger in Northern Europe than in the South, where scientific communication also can take place in for instance French or German.

One speaker expressed the need for more research on the process that takes place when English replaces the students‘ mother tongue as the language used in lectures. If there is a need to offer courses in academic discourse in English, should this be offered within the frames of the existing programmes or as an addition, and who will finance such an offer? The need to learn academic discourse in foreign languages was humoristically illustrated by the statement that one loses 30 percent of one‘s intelligence when one is forced to speak English!

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