University language policies: How does Finnish constitutional bilingualism meet the needs for internationalisation in English?

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Saarinen, T. & Rontu, H. (2018). University language policies: How does Finnish constitutional bilingualism meet the needs for internationalisation in English? European Journal Language Policy 10(1), 97-118.


As a result of globalization, internationalisation has become a strategic goal among Western European universities. According to the International Association of Universities, internationalisation can be defined as a process that aligns and integrates policies, activities, and initiatives to orient universities towards being more global and internationally connected. In University language policies, Saarinen and Rontu (2018) explore internationalisation in terms of English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI) and analyze higher education internationalisation policies in two Finnish universities. More specifically, Saarinen and Rontu (2018) explore the relationship between English and the local languages at two Finnish universities and aim to uncover how these universities define themselves as monolingual, bilingual or multilingual through language policies.

Through an analysis of language policy documents and action plans, as well as student, staff and administrative interviews, Saarinen and Rontu (2018), research the following three questions: 1. How are national languages and English construed in the language policies of two universities Jyväskylä and Aalto? 2. How do students and staff construe their needs for national languages and English? 3. How do formal language policies and staff and student responses to these policies interrelate, at both universities?

Saarinen and Rontu (2018) utilized a discourse analysis research method and focused on discursive operationalisms, meaning the “textual ways in which a particular action is construed as a desired policy and is persuasively construed and presented as desirable” (p. 100). They focused on activities and actions that surrounded these actions and analyzed these discursive operationalisms of English as well as of Finland’s national languages, which are Finnish and Swedish. Furthermore, they defined language policy as being multisited or “rhizomatic” meaning activities surrounding the languages are interconnected and simultaneous. In other words, they acknowledge that language policy involves various stakeholders and, therefore, multiple motives and stances towards them.

Internalisation of Finnish HE

Saarinen and Rontu (2018) explain the history of legalism and constitutionalism in Finland in order to give a more holistic understanding of the history of language in Finland. In 1919 and again in 2000, Finnish and Swedish were designated as the national language and The Language Act of 2004 ensured that people had the right to use either of these languages. Saarinen and Rontu (2018) give this background as Finnish higher education language policies have been designed to align with language legislation in the country, thus, influencing internationalism strategy. As a result of the spread of internationalisation strategy among Western European universities, Finnish higher education legislation has influenced country legislation in regard to the use of languages outside of the national languages.

Policy Documents and Interview Findings

The official language policy of Aalto University defines Finnish, Swedish and English as the working languages of the university. Finnish and Swedish are designated as the language of choice for research, study, teaching, and all communication within the university. English, on the other hand, is not utilized across all systems like Finnish and Swedish. Saarinen and Rontu (2018) discovered that all three languages are mentioned in terms of studying and teaching, however, a deeper look into teaching revealed that the focus is on EMI and English competence. When it comes to studying, students have more agency in the choice of studying language (Table 2, p. 104).

The University of Jyväskylä was the first university to have an official language policy and designates the working languages to be Finnish and English and promotes cultural awareness and competence. Finnish and English can both be the language of choice when it comes to internal communication, whereas Finnish is designated to be the language of research and sciences, which is similar to Aalto University’s policy (Table 3, p. 107).

In general, at Aalto University, interview findings revealed a shift from a predominantly Finnish environment to a widespread Finnish-English bilingual environment. Students have many opportunities to study in English and staff members are required to be proficient in English. This is thought to be a result of the international influence and increase in international students and staff at the university. The use of English, however, generates challenges for staff and students as students feel as though their English skills are underdeveloped and there is a general perspective that English is often forced in situations. Awareness of the needs of Swedish speaking students is viewed as poor.

At the University of Jyväskylä weight is placed on the use of Finnish among staff and students and is even required for international staff to learn within three years of employment. English, on the other hand, is used more among international students. When it comes to Swedish, students and staff felt that Swedish was included in language policy simply because of the constitutional history.


In general, results from the study allow Saarinen and Rontu (2018) to confirm their initial observation that language policies are driven by the need for internationalisation in English, making English the main language when it comes to internationalisation. However, in order to develop competencies in languages, ample opportunity must exist for staff and students to learn and use these languages. At both Aalto University and University of Jyväskylä the general consensus was that there needs to be a strategic plan that designates proper use of each language, as there is often confusion amongst staff and students about which language to use in specific situations.

In my opinion, a disconnect exists between the strategic plan of internationalisation in both universities and the daily activities and actions that are taken by students and teachers. On paper, internationalisation is defined by English, due to globalization and the fact that English is a lingua franca. In this case, The Council of the European Union’s plan erected in 2004 to help Europe “become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world (García, Chapter, 9, 2009) can only put into action when enforced by educators, and students alike. In order to be defined as international, university policy outlines that English be used in specific contexts, however, it is not always the case that students and teachers feel that they can successfully develop their English language skills.


Saarinen, T. & Rontu, H. (2018). University language policies: How does Finnish constitutional bilingualism meet the needs for internationalisation in English? European Journal Language Policy 10(1), 97-118.

Garcia, O. (2009). Bilingual education in the 21st century: A global perspective. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Hudzik (2011). Definition of Comprehensive Internationalisation, International Association of Universities

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