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The expansion of English-medium instruction in the Nordic countries: Can top-down university language policies encourage bottom-up disciplinary literacy goals?


Recently, in the wake of the Bologna Declaration and similar international initiatives, there has been a rapid increase in the number of university courses and programmes taught through the medium of English. Surveys have consistently shown the Nordic countries to be at the forefront of this trend towards English-medium instruction (EMI). In this paper, we discuss the introduction of EMI in four Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden). We present the educational setting and the EMI debate in each of these countries and summarize relevant research findings. We then make some tentative suggestions for the introduction of EMI in higher education in other countries. In particular, we are interested in university language policies and their relevance for the day-to-day work of faculty. We problematize one-size-fits-all university language policies, suggesting that in order for policies to be seen as relevant they need to be flexible enough to take into account disciplinary differences. In this respect, we make some specific suggestions about the content of university language policies and EMI course syllabuses. Here we recommend that university language policies should encourage the discussion of disciplinary literacy goals and require course syllabuses to detail disciplinary-specific language-learning outcomes.

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  1. Note that there are also a number of minority languages in the Nordic countries that account for the discrepancy between population and numbers of native speakers.

  2. Note that since it was not possible to obtain similar data for the four countries, the data presented here should not be seen as comparative but rather as a description of the situation in Nordic Higher Education.

  3. Note however, that other authors have taken a quite different view, suggesting that such issues are overstated (see, for example, Bolton and Kuteeva 2012; Björkman 2014; Kuteeva 2014; Kuteeva and McGrath 2014).


  5. See Mežek (2013) for a more detailed discussion of the introduction and expansion of parallel language use. See also Källkvist and Hult (2014) for an ethnographic discourse analysis of a Swedish university language policy committee, mapping the introduction of the term parallel language use and the committee’s subsequent negotiation of its meaning.

  6. See Linder et al. (2014) for an empirical discussion of disciplinary literacy goals in undergraduate physics courses.


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Airey, J., Lauridsen, K.M., Räsänen, A. et al. The expansion of English-medium instruction in the Nordic countries: Can top-down university language policies encourage bottom-up disciplinary literacy goals?. High Educ 73, 561–576 (2017).

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  • University language policy
  • Bilingualism
  • Disciplinary literacy
  • English-medium instruction
  • Nordic language policy