Language Policy

Language Policy

  • Mynd af hressu ungu fólki

Kate Sevón (UHR), Eyrún Sigurðardóttir (Rannís) and Dag Stenvoll (SIU)


During the last decades, English has become the dominant international language for research cooperation and publishing in Europe. It has also become the lingua franca for educational cooperation and student mobility. Whereas studying in another country formerly meant that learning the local language would be part and parcel of the international experience, 25 years with Erasmus, typically as one-semester exchange, has contributed to a different approach: HEIs in countries where English is not the national language, have a growing catalogue of programmes and courses offered in English, in order to attract international students. This development has gone hand in hand with an increasing share of international staff, teaching and tutoring mostly, sometimes even exclusively, in English. The competition that national education systems have more recently faced from MOOCs and branch campuses, most of which operate in English, strengthens this move towards English as language of instruction in particular and of internationalisation of education more generally.

Linguistic homogenisation of international education is still controversial in some countries, such as France, Germany and Spain, with large national scientific languages and/or where many academics and students are not proficient in English. In these countries, many policymakers and academics also consider it natural that foreign students learn and take courses in the national language (Wächter & Maiworm 2014). There is also a greater will among international students to learn German, French and Spanish, than the smaller national languages found elsewhere in Europe.

Nordic governments and institutions, however, have largely adopted the view that in order to attract foreign students, they have to offer courses in English. Also, domestic students following courses in the national language often have to read a substantial part of the syllabus in English, since much of it may not have been translated. According to a recent study on English-taught programmes (ETPs) in Europe (Wächter & Maiworm 2014), these are most common in the Nordic region. More than 60% of the surveyed Nordic institutions offer one or more programmes completely taught in English. A fifth of all programmes offered in the Nordic countries are ETPs, and about 5% of all students are enrolled in them. This last figure varies greatly, however, between less than 2% in Iceland to more than 12% in Denmark. It is remarkable to note that Denmark has the highest relative number of students enrolled in English-taught programmes of all European countries and has the third highest actual number of students enrolled in ETPs, after the Netherlands and Turkey. [1]

In addition to the ETPs (degrees only taught in English) many institutions offer shorter English-taught courses for exchange students, and some Nordic students might follow these courses as part of their largely national-language degree.

The European Commission calls for a strategic approach to multilingual communication. Strong language and communication skills are seen as important for both individuals and businesses, and a study on the impact of the Erasmus programme (European Commission 2014) shows that graduates with international experience fare much better on the job market than those without.

Linguistic diversity and the promotion of language learning is, correspondingly, an objective in the Erasmus+ programme. The lack of language competences has been identified as a barrier to participation and mobility, and online linguistic support (OLS) is now available for the language used for a study period or traineeship abroad. The support includes a mandatory language assessment before mobility and another assessment at the end of the mobility period. This before-and-after assessment indicates that the measurement of progress is seen as an important part of OLS, and not just language learning. During the previous programme period countries could apply for funding for arranging “live” language courses in all languages. It could be argued that these Erasmus Intensive Language Courses (EILC) in the Programme for Lifelong Learning (LLP) had a more direct supportive function. There has been a fear that, despite declarations on the importance of strong language skills, the promotion of acquiring such skills has thus been weakened in Erasmus+. However, the number of students with the opportunity to take part in the online language courses in Erasmus+ has increased substantially compared to the LLP.

As of May 2015, the online courses cover six languages: Dutch, English, French, German, Italian and Spanish, which together cover about 90% of all student mobility within Europe. The European commission has also announced that the language tests will be expanded to six additional languages (Danish, Swedish, Greek, Polish, Portuguese and Czech) in the autumn of 2015, with courses at A1-level in the spring 2016. The goal is to expand to all official EU languages by 2020. Meanwhile, linguistic support in other languages should be provided through other means by the sending or receiving organisation, and the Erasmus+ programme provides funding for language support, included in the Organisational Support to institutions.

Nordic language policies at national level

Nordic HEIs have substantial autonomy, also when it comes to making their language policies. National policies nevertheless set the framework for institutional policies, and the five countries all have some kind of language policy at national level.


The Norwegian state policy [2] defines Norwegian as the main language of instruction, but for more than a decade, institutions have also been encouraged to increase the number of courses offered in English. These courses should be possible to take as part of a Norwegian degree, and thus be open to domestic as well as international students. The general approach, at institutions as well as in the ministry, is that a small country like Norway has to offer courses in English in order to attract international students in any significant numbers. As long as incoming students are seen as a valuable resource for HEIs and the labour market, the authorities are likely to continue encouraging institutions to deliver tuition in English. National policy also promotes studying abroad in other languages than English, through statements about local language and culture skills as a “second competence”. The main argument is that cultural understanding and business relations will work better with good knowledge of local languages than through English only. The Norwegian State Educational Loan Fund provides extra support for studying abroad in a language other than English. Nevertheless, English is on the whole expected to be the main language for cooperation and mobility of students and staff, both outgoing and incoming.


The Swedish government also encourages studying abroad in other languages than English. In the national strategy for internationalisation of higher education (Government bill 2004/05:162), an argument for rewarding knowledge of other languages than English with extra points when assessing qualifications to higher education, is language competencies as a precondition for transnational mobility. The bill not only emphasises the importance of offering courses in English at all levels of higher education, but also that education should be offered in other foreign languages than English, too, to a greater extent. Foreign students studying in Sweden are seen as an important resource for international cooperation, not least within the business and trade sectors, and consequently they should be offered courses in the Swedish language. The Swedish Government Authority for Educational Loans and Grants (CSN) provides loans for language studies abroad also at non-academic level which could be seen as a concrete encouragement for language learning (Government bill 2012/13: 152).


In Iceland the policies and guidelines regarding languages focus on preserving Icelandic. There is a law on the status of Icelandic, which states the right of all residents to learn and use it (Act on the status of the Icelandic language and Icelandic sign language. No. 61/2011 ). There is also an Icelandic Language Committee, whose role is to advise the authorities and propose language policies. Although the focus is very much on preserving Icelandic, the committee recognises the necessity in the academic community for the use of other languages, especially English, for example when it comes to publishing [3]. Laws on universities in Iceland do not address the issue of Icelandic, but it is considered imperative that the main language at the universities be Icelandic. The universities are expected to pass on knowledge and skills to the society, and the academic community should therefore use Icelandic. All Icelandic universities should set their own language policy, and some suggestions of what these policies should include are made in the proposal for a language policy – Íslenska til alls. For example, it is suggested that Icelandic should be the official language of all universities, and that courses should be taught in Icelandic as much as possible. It is also proposed that each university should offer international staff and students courses in the Icelandic language [4]. Keep in mind that this is an “Icelandic language policy proposal” and therefore the focus of it is to preserve and promote the Icelandic language. The proposal might therefore not be reflected in the language policies of the universities, where internationalisation is a competing objective.


Although Denmark does not have any legislation establishing the status of the Danish language, the preservation and development of Danish is an important part of the cultural policy. Firstly, there is  legislation on Danish orthography that applies to public institutions. Secondly, some institutions financed by the Ministry of Culture also have the task of contributing to the development of both Danish language and literature. At the same time as preserving Danish is important, knowledge of English and other foreign languages is considered a valuable strength for Danish society.[5] The language policy promotes bilingualism. Although Danish should have its place as the main language of instruction in higher education in Denmark, it is considered crucial that courses and education can be offered in English as well. [6] The Ministry of Higher Education and Science has published a strategy for internationalisation in higher education (Enhanced Insight through Global Outlook, 2013) [7], highlighting the need for better foreign language skills. In particular, the importance of more university students mastering a second foreign language is underlined.[8] After the latest reform of the Danish primary school system, English is taught to all pupils from the 1st grade and German and/or French from the 5th grade. The government emphasises that these skills should not be lost due to a lack of practice when studying at a HEI. For that reason, the government encourages students to go abroad to study or to do a traineeship. Overall, the language policy seems quite similar to the one advocated in Norway and Sweden.


When discussing multilingualism in Finland, the general Finnish language map has to be kept in mind. The country has two national languages, Finnish and Swedish, but the universities are autonomous and the languages of the universities are determined by the university law, not directly by the language law or the constitution (Statsrådet 2009:64). The general policy is that Finnish and Swedish should be the main languages in higher education. Universities have different language statuses; Finland has both monolingual and bilingual universities, and within the bilingual universities different faculties can have different language policies. According to a Nordic report [9], two thirds of Finnish universities have a documented language policy. English seems to have strengthened its position, but the national languages also receive increasing attention. The Ministry of Education and Culture requires an increase in internationalisation, including in- and outbound mobility, and today there is a large number of English-taught Master's programmes at universities in Finland.

Nordic level

In addition to these national policies, there is a joint Nordic language policy (NCM 2007). The basis of this policy is that the Nordic languages considered “essential to society”, which are the five main languages plus Faroese, Sami and Greenlandic, will remain “strong and vital”. The perspective is, moreover, multilingual: Nordic residents should, in addition to their national language(s), have the right to acquire “a language of international importance” (in practice meaning English) and also have skills in another foreign language. More specifically in the area of education and research, the declaration advocates the parallel use of English and the Nordic languages – in publications as well as instruction. It also encourages HEIs to develop long-term strategies for the choice of language and for the parallel language use. These declarations show that there is a will to maintain the national languages as vital academic languages, but also to ensure the acquisition and use of English.

Why analyse language policies, and how?

The purpose of this analysis is to map the spectre of language policies in the Nordic HEIs, identify patterns and promising measures, and present this variety back to the institutions and to education authorities. The analysis is based on the institutions' answers given under the following two points in the ECHE applications:

Please describe your institution's language policy for preparing participants for mobility, e.g. course providers within or outside the HEI.

Please describe your institution's language support for incoming students and staff with a minimum of 2-month mobility period.

For the analysis of outgoing and incoming mobility, we first did a schematic mapping of the language policies and the support given to outgoing and incoming students and staff according to the applications. The result of this mapping, organised by country and institution size, is presented in the next subchapter. Then we shall discuss the language policies in relation to the institutions' policies more broadly (e.g. geographical priorities) and to national policies.

Language policy and support – the Nordic picture

The mapping

We did a schematic mapping using a bottom-up approach. First we read a number of applications across the countries to identify recurring measures regarding outgoing and incoming mobility. After having decided on the most important points, we read through all the 96 applications, and made a note when any of the points chosen was mentioned in them.

For outgoing mobility we differentiated between “foreign language courses”, which includes courses in other languages than English, “English language courses”, “different levels of English language courses”, and “individual language support”, which could include, for example, language tandems (people who know different languages meeting to learn from each other) or a language lab where students can get individual help.

Incoming mobility is subdivided into “local language courses”, “different levels of local language courses”, “English language courses” and “preparatory courses”. Preparatory courses mean courses that are given before the beginning of the semester.

In order to get a positive score for one of these measures, the HEIs have to, according to their answers, either provide it, or clearly indicate that they are paying for it. This means that institutions that “encourage”, “recommend” or “advise” language training to outgoing or incoming students and staff, without a clear statement that they are either providing such training or covering the costs, are not ticked. The table shows the scores for the five countries, and for all the 96 Nordic institutions analysed.

Language policy outgoing
N Foreign language courses English  language courses Different levels of English language courses Individual language support
Denmark 16 25% 44% 6% 19%
Finland 27 93% 93% 59% 30%
Iceland 7 43% 0% 0% 0%
Norway 25 24% 36% 0% 8%
Sweden 21 43% 52% 19% 10%
Nordic 96 48% 54% 22% 16%

Language policy incoming
N National language courses Different levels of national language courses English language courses Prepara-tory courses Individual Language Support
Denmark 16 94% 31% 13% 31% 6%
Finland 27 96% 74% 52% 7% 30%
Iceland 7 71% 0% 14% 29% 29%
Norway 25 92% 36% 8% 4% 8%
Sweden 21 100% 57% 52% 24% 19%
Nordic 96 93% 48% 31% 17% 17%

Finland stands out

If we look at the outgoing measures first, we see that the Finnish HEIs distinguish themselves from their Nordic neighbours by offering much more English and other foreign language courses, as well as individual language support. There are less differences among the other four countries, but we see that the Swedish HEIs have some more measures than the other three, and that the Icelandic ones have the least – especially regarding the English language.

As for incoming policy, the pattern is somewhat different. Almost all of the HEIs offer courses in the national language(s), except in Iceland where the proportion is down to 71 percent (note that as the number of HEIs in Iceland is low, in actual numbers this means five out of seven institutions).  One explanation for this low number in Iceland is that the EILC is held and hosted by another institution than the university, and therefore this support is not included in these numbers. The Finnish institutions also seem to have the best measures for incoming students and staff, providing different levels of national language courses in more of them than in other countries.

Overall, we see that the Finnish institutions stand out in the Nordic context. They seem to give the best support to incoming students compared to the other Nordic countries, and they give almost an equal amount of support to outgoing students. Finland standing out when it comes to support for outgoing students is in line with the findings of a previous Nordic study on motives and barriers for student mobility (Living and Learning – Exchange Studies Abroad, 2013). When looking at overall guidance and support in the three countries studied (Norway, Finland and Sweden), considerably more Finnish students than others said they were offered support before studying abroad. The institutions in the other four Nordic countries, on the other hand, give much more language support to incoming than to outgoing students. These results should be read with some caution, because the ECHE applications don't make it very clear what language offers actually exist for international students and staff, because they might not always fully mirror the situation in real life, and because the national contexts are different. For instance, in Denmark there is a law that gives all foreigners with a residence permit the right to attend language courses at the local municipality – that is, outside of the higher education institutions. [10] In this context, there is less need for the HEIs to offer courses themselves, and many write that they give information about possibilities outside the HEI.

Some institutions state that they have compulsory language modules in their degree programmes (business schools often have English, some Finnish institutions have a “foreign language”); it's part of a language policy but not specific to mobility. Also, some HEIs refer to their language courses, but they seem to be the courses offered at language departments, or at a “language centre” that offers courses that are not targeted to a specific study programme or mobility scheme. And then there are HEIs like Aarhus University in Denmark that doesn't fit into the coding scheme used, but (since it's a university with 40 000 students) we can assume that there are plenty of possibilities for language learning, both Danish and other, at various levels. Some institutions are so international (which in this context means exposed to English) in the first place that a lack of specific measures takes a different meaning than in places without such exposure.

We also analysed the results according to the institutions' size, which provided no surprises: Larger institutions offer somewhat more language support, both for outgoing and incoming students and staff, than smaller institutions. Differences can mainly be found regarding outgoing policy, since almost all institutions, regardless of size, say that they offer native language courses to incoming students and staff.

English in Nordic higher education

In all five Nordic countries, there is a recognition of the need to use English as an important language of international cooperation – expressed in various ways in national strategies, and in the joint Nordic language declaration as “parallel use”. This does not mean, however, that it is not controversial to use English more and the national languages less. There are ongoing discussions on pros and cons of using English. The quality of teaching and the preservation of national academic languages have been important issues, as well as equal access to higher education, regardless of foreign language skills.

The study of English-taught programmes in Europe, referred to in the introduction, found that the Nordic region is doing well with regard to all three dimensions examined: the percentage of institutions offering such programmes, the percentage of ETPs of the total number of programmes, and the percentage of students enrolled. There are, however, differences within the Nordic countries. On top of the combined list based on the above three indicators are Denmark, Sweden and Finland, only “beaten” by the Netherlands. Norway and Iceland score a bit lower, but are nevertheless above most other European countries (Wächter & Maiworm 2014).

According to our own study of the ECHE applications, many of the institutions state that the level of English proficiency is high among their students and staff. As a reason for not offering English language courses, several institutions say that mobile students and staff have or are expected to have the necessary level of English proficiency. Does this argument hold? It could be argued that the level of language needed for studies and research is considerably higher than the level needed in everyday life. Such a minimalistic approach may also be appropriate for a considerable part of students and staff, but at the same time disadvantage those who are not proficient. To assume that the English skills of domestic students and staff are good enough might thus reinforce existing differences in international exposure and competence.

Both a study on support to international students (Kelo, Rogers & Rumbley 2010) as well as the study on ETPs (Wächter & Maiworm 2014) find that students frequently run into language problems at their institution – not so much in the lecture room or when dealing with academic staff but when dealing with the administration: registry, finances, housing, student services, etc. Few institutions in our own ECHE study address this issue; the focus is mostly on academic staff, and their ability to teach, tutor, publish and cooperate in a foreign language. Language skills of administrative staff might thus be an area where there is considerable potential for improvement.

Final reflections

Our study confirms what is already well known, that in the Nordic setting “internationalisation” often means “in the English language”. It is pertinent to ask whether outgoing mobility from the Nordic countries would focus so much on English-speaking countries, if institutions offered more support in other languages. The EU advocates knowledge of all European languages, and not just English. This is doubtless partly due to the realisation that in order for cross-border mobility to succeed for work, and not only for studies, the prospective foreign workers need – in most cases – to master the national language to some degree.

According to the study on English-taught programmes in Europe mentioned above (Wächter & Maiworm 2014), the Nordic countries display different patterns when it comes to language support for students. At one extreme is Norway, reporting that no English language training is provided to the students in ETPs, and only half of the Norwegian institutions provided training in the national language to foreign students. In Finland, at the other extreme, 78% of the institutions provided English language training and training in the national language for foreign students and 74% provided English training for domestic students.

As stated in the study “International Student Support in European Higher Education” (Kelo, Rogers & Rumbley 2010), a good practice in supporting international students requires a “whole institution approach”. Institutions that offer English-taught programmes should have personnel with sufficient language skills and a willingness to respond to students' questions in all offices, not only in the international office. The study also points out that with the spread of English-taught programmes new problems have also arisen; students who attend ETPs in non-English speaking countries might face a twofold language challenge: mastering English as the academic language, and getting by in the local language outside (and sometimes inside) the classroom.

As our own analysis shows, Finland stands out as “the best student in class” among the Nordic countries, with an active language policy and providing support to outgoing students and staff, too. One reason for this could be that there has been a lot of discussion in Finland of the language issue, and the high awareness of Finnish HEIs reflect this policy context. There also might be some truth in the statements made by institutions in the other countries that English language skills are sufficiently high. Nevertheless, more thought could be given to the difference between skills needed for everyday life and for academic study, including exam work. There could also be more focus on the large part of the student population that never goes abroad for academic purposes, and whether a lack of confidence in one's language skills might be a significant barrier. And last but not least, internationalisation should not only mean “studying abroad in English”; there seems to be potential to encourage more Nordic students to choose a destination and a language of instruction other than English.


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[9] Hvor parallelt. Om parallellspråkighet på Nordens universitet. TemaNord 2014:535.

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