Teaching and studying in a multilingual environment – Case of the new Bachelor’s programme in the Faculty of Science

English is emerging as the lingua franca of both university teaching and communication. The University of Helsinki acknowledges its obligation to protect national languages, but simultaneously actively promotes the use of English as an asset in the increasingly international and multicultural operational environment. The new Bachelor in Science programme, starting in Autumn 2019, is a good example of the practical ways in which the demand for teaching and learning in English is addressed. What challenges does an entirely English language programme pose for pedagogical leadership in a trilingual environment?

University of Helsinki language policy

The University of Helsinki is officially bilingual (Finnish and Swedish), but the use of English language is encouraged in order to ensure that the University of Helsinki will attract and produce competent experts and researchers. The language policy of the University of Helsinki (2014: 48, 55) states that the university “promotes fluent communication and interaction between people from different linguistic backgrounds who share English as a common language”. For example, the steering groups of Master’s programmes regularly operate in English.

Until recently, university pedagogy courses, Bachelor’s programmes, as well as department and faculty meetings, have experienced little pressure to use English. Different disciplines also give different weighting to English and national languages. The use of English is more common in natural sciences, while humanities are more often grounded in national languages (Kuteeva & Airey, 2014; Herlin, 2000). The choice of language is also connected to the different “research markets” favoured by different disciplinary groups (Ylijoki et al., 2011). Despite the popularity of English in the field of natural sciences, English language Bachelor of Science programmes remain rather rare in the Nordic countries. In addition to the nascent programmes at the Helsinki and Aalto Universities, only Lund University and Roskilde University offer English language BSc programmes.

Simply trilingual

In late 2018, the University of Helsinki has launched the “Simply trilingual” campaign to encourage its staff and students to communicate boldly in Finnish, Swedish and English (University of Helsinki, 2018). This campaign is a tangible way of addressing the different disciplinary traditions and rationalities behind language choices, and acknowledging the university’s responsibility to protect Finland’s national languages, while fostering the use of English. As noted by Doiz, Lasagabaster and Sierra (2013), especially minority languages (such as Basque in Spain, or Swedish in Finland) will inevitably be threatened by the increasing use of English – the University administration is responsible for minimizing its negative effects by providing clear language policies, and explicit objectives for each language.

The campaign accordingly pays attention to good and bad language policies. An example of a bad language policy is automatically switching to English when a non-Finnish-speaking person enters a room. In the spirit of the campaign, native speakers should encourage foreign staff to practise their language skills, while being considerate and asking what language they prefer to use. The trilinguality campaign favours parallel language use, for example having slides in English while speaking in Finnish (or Swedish), so that it is easier for non-native Finnish speakers to take part in the meetings and also to support learning Finnish.

Language policies in the Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes

In the so-called Big Wheel degree reform of the University of Helsinki, separate international Master’s programmes were integrated to the national ones, and at the same time majority of the University of Helsinki programmes became multilingual (https://www.helsinki.fi/fi/koulutustarjonta). Our faculty has 12 Master’s programmes that are formally trilingual (English, Finnish and Swedish), and in addition one Master’s programme and seven Bachelor’s programmes are bilingual (Finnish and Swedish). Most Master’s level courses in our faculty are taught in English, but students have the right to complete the course and write their Master’s thesis in Finnish or Swedish.

In courses taught in English, students have the right to return the course work, reports and exam answers also in Finnish or Swedish. Basic Bachelor’s level courses are taught in Finnish (or Swedish), and students have the right to complete them in Swedish (or Finnish), but teachers are not obliged to accept reports and exam answers in English. However, in practice, many teachers in our faculty have been supportive to the use of English on their courses and, for example, exchange students have been getting translated instructions and exam questions and the use of language has been flexible. Nevertheless, so far completing a whole Bachelor’s degree in English has not been possible.

Bachelor in Science taught in English

This gap is filled by the faculty’s joint Bachelor in Science programme, containing four study tracks: Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Computer and data science (https://www.helsinki.fi/en/bachelors-programme-in-science-bachelor-of-science-and-master-of-science-3-2-years/ A maximum of 50 students will start their studies in the programme this autumn, with a study right to continue to one of 9 different Master’s programmes. The Bachelor’s programme in Science is given fully in English, meaning that, in addition to the courses, also the Bachelor’s theses are written in English. In addition, the degree includes language studies in English, as well as six credits of compulsory language studies in Finnish, Swedish, or a combination of both. Students can also attend courses given in Finnish or other languages and include these in their degree, as long as at least 75 % of the studies are completed in English.

The introduction of a clearly delimited “English only” BSc programme can be viewed as one example of clear-cut language policy (Doitz, Lasagabaster & Sierra, 2013), which may actually help safeguard the national languages. English-language Bachelor’s level courses can also assist in the integration of the University’s international staff, who have so far had limited opportunities for teaching below the MSc or PhD level.

Language challenges from the student’s perspective

Operating in a foreign language environment poses challenges for studying. An obvious challenge are weak English skills, but these can more or less easily be remedied through strong English skill requirements and support in the form of language courses. For example accent-related comprehension challenges are more subtle. Even native speakers can have difficulties understanding each others’ accents, if they come from very different dialect environments (think of Glasgow and Sierra Leone, for example). One can imagine how difficult it would be for a student to complain about the pronunciation of a classmate, with whom they need to do, say, pair work.

It is tempting to label “native language skills” as desirable for teachers and students alike, but one must remember that in a multilingual environment, it is not “native English” that will be used, but English as lingua franca, which forms its own communication paradigm. Native English speakers often tend to speak too fast and use phrases specific to their native tongue (for example ‘knackered’ for ‘tired’ and ‘rubber’ for ‘eraser’ – even for blackboards!). Instead, lingua franca users “skilfully co-construct English for their own purposes, by treating the language as a shared communicative resource within which they have the freedom to accommodate to each other, code-switch, and create innovative forms that differ from the norms of native English” (Jennings, 2011).

English is the language for scientific research today, and students who learn to master it early, will have a certain advantage. From this viewpoint, it is easy to understand that one cannot expect to gain such benefits without paying a price. Learning science is not easy, and doing it in a foreign language does not make it any easier. Teachers and programme leaders need to account for this extra challenge. For example, one should state explicitly that the programme is not only about learning science, but also about learning language skills. Students are not expected to know the vocabulary beforehand, or speak or write without any errors. Teachers and programme leaders could also set an example by “dumbing down” their own language, and by admitting their own weaknesses and mistakes. This would help set up classroom norms that alleviate the stress students are experiencing due to the foreign language environment.

Recommendations for those teaching in English at the University of Helsinki

View limitations in language skills (of both students and teachers) as opportunities rather than weaknesses. If your own English is not perfect, don’t worry: “non-native teachers may in fact be better qualified than native speakers, if they have gone through the laborious process of acquiring English as a second language and if they have insight into the linguistic and cultural needs of their learners” (Phillipson, 2003).

Remember that the students are learning not only the subject but also the language of their field. You can be a role model for this. Be supportive and flexible, and also share your own experiences. Be brave to admit your own weaknesses and mistakes.

Take time to talk about language issues with students. Let them know it’s OK to complain if they are not understanding, and it’s OK to take more time to explain things in English. Talk to the programme leader about the students’ needs, and discuss what to do if learning with foreign language takes more time than expected in the course.

Support your colleagues and students in learning both Finnish, Swedish and English in alignment with the “Simply trilingual” language policy. Provide them with low-threshold opportunities to practice and use the language(s) that they are learning, e.g. language-themed coffee breaks.

Consider taking language and/or pedagogical training offered by the University (e.g. a course on teaching in a multicultural and -lingual environment will be lectured in fall 2019). Also spread awareness to your colleagues about the available training opportunities! You can also ask for support from the university pedagogy lecturers, Liisa Myyry and Leena Ripatti in the Faculty of Science.


  • Doiz, A., Lasagabaster, D., & Sierra, J. (2013). Globalisation, internationalisation, multilingualism and linguistic strains in higher education. Studies in higher education, 38(9), 1407–1421.
  • Herlin, I. (2000). Tiede ja kansallinen tiede 1800-luvun Suomessa. Tieteessä tapahtuu, 18(6).
  • Jenkins., J. (2011). Accommodating (to) ELF in the international university. Journal of Pragmatics, 43(4), 926–936.
  • Kuteeva, M., & Airey, J. (2014). Disciplinary differences in the use of English in higher education: Reflections on recent language policy developments. Higher Education, 67(5), 533–549.
  • Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics, 1–7.
  • University of Helsinki. (2014). University of Helsinki Language Policy = Helsingin yliopiston kieliperiaatteet: Språkprinciper för Helsingfors universitet [Helsinki]: Helsingin yliopisto.
  • University of Helsinki (2018, November 6). Speak out in three languages. Retrieved from https://flamma.helsinki.fi/en/HY378303 (not publicly available).
  • Ylijoki, O. H., Lyytinen, A., & Marttila, L. (2011). Different research markets: A disciplinary perspective. Higher Education, 62(6), 721–740.

The text was written by Jokke Häsä, Salla Jokela, Theo Kurtén and Taina Ruuskanen during the University pedagogy course Pedagoginen johtaminen ja yliopisto-opetuksen kehittäminen.

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