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Background: English as the language of publication and instruction
English was used in the Swedish academy as the medium of scientific activity in Sweden throughout the 20th century as it finally shifted from German to English. English has established a firm position for itself through the years, and it is now, alongside Swedish, the main language of academic activity in Sweden.
It is important to make a distinction between the language of publication and the language of instruction. There have always been languages of publication, but only when a language is used in instruction, are voices raised. English has been the lingua franca of science in publication since the 1930s. Concerns were raised when its use was extended beyond publication to instruction. There are surely advantages of using English in instruction in higher education: mobility, employability and competitiveness/attractiveness, which are among the objectives of the Bologna Declaration. However, English, being both the language of publication and the language of instruction, has gained a much more powerful position. There are two main concerns here: if English is used in instruction instead of the local language, the local language might be threatened and if students cannot study in their native language but in English, they might not be able to learn as effectively as they would in their native language.
The first concern has been expressed in numerous studies; a number of scholars have focused exclusively on whether this unprecedented growth of English is threatening the languages of Europe or not. There are varying views on this very topical issue. Tardy, after investigating the way students view English, as a Tyrannosaurus rex, a term Swales uses (1997), or as a neutral lingua franca, says that although there are a lot of grey areas, students do not see English as a purely neutral ground the way the term lingua franca suggests (Tardy, 2004). The question of domain loss for languages that are not widely spoken has also been a topic of discussion as one of the biggest concerns for some time (Hellekjær and Westergaard, 2003). Brock-Utne maintains that the “Norwegian language is threatened as an academic language” (Brock-Utne, 2001). Griffin looks at the situation in Bulgaria, and his conclusions are that English is so “pervasive” in Bulgaria that a citizen without at least a working-knowledge of English would be at a “severe disadvantage” (Griffin, 2002). However, these concerns are not widely shared. Melander finds the claims to be exaggerated and says that a “wide-ranging language shift” is not underway in Sweden (Melander, 2000). House reports from a German perspective that English as a lingua franca is not a threat to multilingualism (House, 2003). Mauranen predicts that scholarly writing in Finnish will not survive although Finnish rhetoric may survive through the medium of English (Mauranen, 1993).
Whether or not ELF is threatening the local languages will not necessarily be within this discussion. The second concern, however, is of interest. There is already some work that investigates whether students learn less effectively when they learn in English instead of their L1 at higher education (HE) level. Some scholars from the Netherlands have found out that instruction and testing in English leads to poorer achievement results in comparison with instruction and testing in L1 (Jochems, 1991; Jochems et al., 1996; Vinke et al, 1998). More work from the Netherlands refers to the frustration among content teachers and maintains that English-medium instruction causes problems of expressiveness both for lecturers and students (Vinke, 1995) and the slight disadvantage for students studying through the medium of English in the Netherlands (Klaasen, 2003). Airey and Linder refer to the teaching of physics in Sweden through English, and in their tentative observations they argue that linguistic resources “would seem to be less well developed” in such situations compared to other disciplinary resources and oral skills in both Swedish and English would be the least developed (Airey and Linder, 2008). Another study that compares biology students’ reading skills shows that Swedish students reading biology texts in English do not read as well as the British students in Britain reading in English (McMillion and Shaw, 2008).
In Sweden, English is now appearing ever more forcefully as the medium of instruction. Naturally, in the absence of foreign students, Swedish is still the language of choice. So, in this sense, Swedish is the default language. Even so, “the rule seems to be that English takes over as soon as any individual is unable to understand Swedish.” (Gunnarsson, 2001). In 2007, there were 123 reported English-taught programs in Sweden (Wächter and Maiworn, 2008), which put the country in number four on the list of the leading countries as providers of English-medium tuition in continental Europe (Wächter and Maiworn, 2008).