Language and Transnational Scholars in the International University

In the context of globalization, language matters have become increasingly complex at all levels and scales (Blommaert 2010). Old patterns of migration have been substituted by new forms of mobility; technological developments have enabled new kinds of trans-local contacts and information flows (Castells 2010). For language policymakers and planners, this higher level of complexity has evolved into a source of difficulty. The context of higher education (henceforth HE) and its internationalization process is particularly illustrative of such a challenge. In this context, the national and the transnational scales merge and interact in a highly complex manner (Saarinen 2014). Mortensen and Haberland (2012, 191) note that presently, universities find themselves operating in a post-national setting, where the role of English and the market rules are important factors at play. Thus, the international university presents itself as an appropriate setting in order to investigate the interplay between the state, (educational) institutions, and individuals in the process of language policy-making and its uptake at the interactional level.

Indeed, in recent years, issues about language and the internationalization of HE have been placed at the forefront for many universities, particularly in Northern Europe (e.g. Hultgren et al. 2014). An aspect that seems to be of special concern in relation to this topic is how to find a balance between the use and status of a country’s national language and English, something that has attracted the attention of language policy scholars and applied linguists to a significant extent (e.g. Bjorkman 2014; Cots et al. 2014; Dimova et al. 2015; Doiz et al. 2013; Hultgren et al. 2014). In the context of a heightened growth of courses taught through the medium of English (e.g. Wachter and Maiworm 2014), an increasing number of university stakeholders have begun to question what role and what position should be reserved to all languages at play, and how institutions should adapt themselves to these renovated challenges from the point of view of policymaking (e.g. Hultgren 2014; Lindstrom and Sylvin 2014). This is particularly the case in smaller or mediumsized language communities in Europe (Vila and Bretxa 2015).

Nevertheless, until now little if any attention has been paid to the role of transnational scholars in the overall make-up of the international university. This seems paradoxical enough, given the fact that the internationalization of HE is often defined in terms of the capacity of attracting (highly-qualified) foreign students and staff. Ever since the Bologna Declaration (1999), mobility has become a central concern for both university and state educational authorities, so it seems relevant to try and find out how transnational scholars adapt themselves in their new sociolinguistic environments, what strategies they choose to follow, what language decisions they make, and why.

Jurna (2014) represents an exception to this lack of research, and the present paper builds up on her findings along that very same strand. In her paper on the language practices of transnational scholars in Denmark, the author finds that her informants usually value knowing Danish, but the reasons and the extent to which they do so varies. Commonly expressed opinions among her respondents were that “Danish is often helpful, but not required” (p. 229), and that “everybody speaks English” (p. 233). According to her findings, effectively incorporating Danish into one’s repertoire is associated with the prospect of staying longer in the country, having children, being part of a wider social network including local Danes, etc. In other words, it is usually non-work related activities that lead transnational scholars more decidedly to incorporating Danish.

In this paper, we conduct an analysis of the written language policies and speakers’ reported language practices at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and the University of Tartu in Estonia. The research questions that we seek to examine in the paper are:

  • 1. What is the position of Estonian and Danish in the two universities’ (language) policy documents analysed here? What stance do these documents project in relation to English and multilingualism?
  • 2. How do transnational researchers ‘on the ground’ adapt to their sociolinguistic reality? What are their reported language practices?

Firstly, we look at the universities’ language policy documents and analyse what stance (Jaffe 2009) they project in relation to the national language, English, and other languages. Secondly, we analyse the reported language practices of transnational scholars at these two universities. More precisely, by means of ethnographically collected data from two respective projects at the University of Copenhagen and the University of Tartu, we analyse what languages speakers report to use, for what purposes, and in what contexts. Of particular interest to us in our paper is to examine to what extent do transnational scholars experience and report to gain access, learn, and use (or not) the societal language, Estonian and Danish respectively (more methodological details below).

Thus, our view of language policy is inspired by scholars who emphasize the multidimensional characteristic of it (e.g. Blommaert et al. 2009; Halonen et al. 2015; Hult 2010; Hornberger and Ricento 1996). The term ‘ethnography of language policy’ has been proposed as a label to capture the idea that it is in the interactional level where one can explore wider-ranging processes (e.g. Johnson 2013; McCarty 2011). In other words, importantly enough, it is difficult to maintain a clear-cut strict division between the micro and macro layers of reality, since they are intertwined in complex ways. Hult (2010) suggests that ultimately it is always the researchers’ choice where to place the zoom of the microscope in their analyses.

Finally, and importantly too, the contrast between Denmark and Estonia from a language policy point of view is of interest as well. As Siiner (2012) has documented, the two polities can be contrasted as cases that illustrate two different approaches to language policy making: an ‘overt’ (or thick) language policy design (Estonia) versus a ‘covert’ (or thin) one (Denmark) (Siiner 2012, p. 38). This implies that Estonia’s legislation on LPP matters is more explicit, a consequence of the belief that language matters had to be strongly regulated in order to overcome Soviet Russification (Siiner 2006). By contrast, Denmark represents a more flexible approach to LPP, following the country’s liberal tradition of governmental non-interference on language matters (Siiner 2010). These are important matters of the overall sociolinguistic context, but the extent to which have an impact on transnational scholars remains unknown. We shall delve in more detail on this question in the discussion of the paper.

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