Language Use in Higher Education : the Student Perspective
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The present thesis has aimed to investigate students’ attitudes towards language practices in their education, and to investigate if and how these voices can inform anguage policy making in higher education (HE). Two of the three studies that make up the present thesis, investigate group-level differences in attitudes towards language practices, focusing on variables such as country/ institution, disciplinary field, gender, and language confidence. The third study investigates students’ perspectives on language practices through a content analysis of survey comments. The survey was distributed to students at seven universities across the five Nordic countries, within the three disciplines law, philosophy, and natural sciences. My reason for singling out these disciplines is found in the different traditions and characteristics they represent, traits that manifest themselves in very different approaches and attitudes towards language(s), both in research and in teaching. The natural sciences is a field with an extensive use of English, while law is characterised by being in part based on legal documents written in the national language. Language wise, these two fields can be placed more or less at opposite poles on a scale. The language traits within the field of philosophy paints a more complex picture. Whereas the local language(s) and English seem to be important within the discipline, other languages such as German and French have played a significant role in shaping the field. Despite these differences, one common characteristic of all three fields is that in the universities where I have conducted my research, none of them are pure EMI programmes where teaching is conducted in English exclusively. Hence, this thesis explores how students experience the use of both local language(s) and English in their education. Study 1 looks into the extent to which attitudes towards language use, perceptions regarding language and learning effect, and language confidence in English vary between disciplinary fields. A total of 346 students at a Norwegian university participated in the study. A majority of the students reported to learn most efficiently in their first language (L1), and for most students their L1 was Norwegian. One of the aims of this study was to investigate attitudes in conjunction with study field, and to find out whether high English syllabus load led to more positive attitudes towards English (i.e. an “exposure hypothesis”). Previous research (Jensen & Thøgersen, 2011) found a correlation between Danish university lecturers’ high teaching load in English and positive attitudes towards the language. I found that independent of study field, students displayed positive attitudes towards English and the potential benefit of acquiring English skills as part of their education. I did not, however, find a clear correlation between students’ amount of syllabus in a given language, and their attitudes towards that language. Compared to natural science and law students, philosophy students had a higher amount of syllabus in English, but their attitudes towards English were less positive than those of natural science students and equally positive to those of law students. These patterns do not support the exposure hypothesis. Rather, the attitudes seem to align with the languages used in journal articles within the given field. This could suggest that students are socialised into common language attitudes and language ideologies within the fields. Another focus of study 1 was if and how language confidence influences attitudes towards English. I found that language confidence in English, to a greater extent than disciplinary background, predicted attitudes towards EMI. Students who were confident in their own skills were also more positive towards English. In addition, language confidence also correlated with students’ plans to study abroad. Students who planned to study abroad were on average significantly more confident in their English skills, than those students who did not have such plans. The aim in study 2 was to explore the extent to which attitudes towards language(s) in academia can be explained through gender differences. There has recently been a call for investigations concerning gender and language in academia (Macaro et al., 2018). With study 2 I sought to contribute to this body of research. My results suggest a complex pattern where both male and female students report positive attitudes towards EMI. However, female students are also slightly less language confident, and report more challenges coping with English in their studies. Whereas study 1 had a focus on disciplinary differences, this study thematises the heterogeneity that exists within the different study fields and the implications this has for the language practices students are met with in their education. The survey was distributed at two universities, one in Norway and one in Finland. In total, 571 students participated, 305 women and 258 men. Study 3 explores the student perspective using mixed methods. In this study I combine content analysis of students’ feedback in an open commentary field with quantitative data concerning students’ disciplinary field, in which country they studied, their age, gender and language confidence. Whereas students from all five countries were included in the study, due to too low response rate in the Swedish study, and few comments from the Danish students, the comments presented in this study represent the three Norwegian universities, and the universities in Iceland and Finland. In total, approximately 1250 students participated in the study and are included in the quantitative part of the study. Of these, 110 students gave additional comments and through the analyses, 12 were extracted as illustrative quotes. In the analyses, I used a stepwise approach in NVivo, where I conducted preliminary analyses on all student comments to discover recurring topics and later to group these under three broad themes. The themes include: language confidence and the need for language courses, lecturers’ competence in the target language, and parallel language use and its implications for learning. As suggested in studies 1 and 2, students with high language confidence are generally positive towards EMI, however, the content analysis also show that both high and low confident students call out for a greater focus on language in their education, and they further question what they perceive as coincidental language practices in their studies. Based on these comments I discuss the applicability of two significant concepts in Nordic language policies and language research within HE, parallel language use and English as lingua franca (ELF). I find that both concepts, though initially implemented as means to manage language use within HE, seem to have little support when analysing students’ comments concerning language practices within their education. All three studies show that students’ perspectives on, and experiences with, the language practices in their education can be understood through theories connecting language use to socialisation and social identity within the disciplines, as well as gender and confidence. The three studies also clearly show the complexities of language practices within academia, and the difficulty of developing one-size-fits all policies that are viable for all areas of the institution. My research has pointed to the necessity of an awareness of language for lecturers and policy makers in the development of institutional language policies. We must acknowledge that learning through different mediums of instruction can pose a challenge for students, especially within their first years of studies. Language learning needs to be viewed as a central goal for students’ learning outcomes, and languages need to be given a special focus in the learning of a subject. In conclusion, more deliberate effort should be made to develop language strategies that consider the role language learning should play within HE.
Has partsPaper I: Bukve, T. (2018): “Students’ Perspectives on English Medium Instruction: A Survey-based Study at a Norwegian University”. Nordic Journal of English Studies, 17(2):215-242. The article is available in the main thesis. The article is also available at: http://ojs.ub.gu.se/ojs/index.php/njes/article/view/4305.
Paper II: Bukve, T. “Students’ perspectives on language use within higher education – exploring gender differences in Norway and Finland”. The article is not available in BORA.
Paper III: Bukve, T. “Fast track to success or derailing communication? Exploring students’ views on the role of languages in Nordic higher education”. The article is not available in BORA.