Make more room for language issues in PhD studies

Svenska 2017-01-11

Greater emphasis should be given to language issues in postgraduate education and more resources are needed to manage multilingual environments at Swedish universities. This is the view of Megan Case, a doctoral student in education at Dalarna University and Örebro University.

As a board member in SULF’s Association of Doctoral Candidates, Megan Case is interested in the situation facing international researchers, with particular regard to language issues.

“Much of the universities’ official information is issued in Swedish. It can be very difficult for people who don’t speak Swedish to take part in what is going on at the university, in committees or in union activities.”

Megan comes from the USA but, despite the fact that she now speaks fluent Swedish, she can still sometimes feel restricted in certain situations.

“When I’m taking part in my work with the board, I’m aware that I’m not as talkative as I would be if I’d been speaking English – and I’m someone who is really interested in language and who has made learning Swedish my priority.”

Give everyone the opportunity to participate

She thinks that universities need to allocate resources to make it possible for everybody to participate. This could include measures such as ensuring that documents and emails are translated into English or giving employees the opportunity to learn Swedish.

“After a certain period of time, international PhD students and researchers are often expected to conduct tuition in Swedish. Sometimes they will be given funding to take part in a language course, but no working time is set aside for this.”

Her research focuses on how adult students learn a new language. Over a period of several years, she is following twelve beginner-level language students and conducts interviews with them about their progress, which resources they have found useful, and how they use the language. She has identified some incompatibility between the Swedish education system and the European objectives for the learning of languages.

“The European objective is that everybody should be able to speak two languages in addition to their native language. In the Swedish discourse a knowledge of English alone is considered to be enough, and learning a third language is not seen as being important.”

Mixes languages

Megan Case came to Sweden via Russia and has learned several new languages as an adult, including Swedish and Russian. She speaks English during the interview but drops in a few Swedish words, here and there.

“I believe that flexibility is very important. People often think that if one person speaks Swedish then everybody should, but it is possible to have a multilingual environment.”

Megan Case gives examples from her own experiences as a research student.

“At first, we all spoke English to make it easier for those people who couldn’t speak Swedish. With time, we began to speak more Swedish and, quite often, we now use a mixture of the two. For me, personally, this works fine.”

She talks about several interesting multilingual situations that have arisen.

“I was conducting a seminar in English, although the other participants spoke Swedish. One of the participants was hearing-impaired and there were two interpreters who translated the English and the Swedish into Swedish sign language. It worked really well! Everybody was able to use the language they were most comfortable with, and everyone understood each other.”

Missing support for writing in English

Megan Case is also interested in the difficulties that Swedish researchers encounter when they have to communicate and publish scientific texts in English.

“There is a lot of pressure for texts to be published in English in order to reach out to a wider audience, but there is not always sufficient support available for the writing of academic English.”

Different universities handle this issue in different ways. Megan Case thinks that universities should employ proofreaders who have English as their first language. She herself has performed this kind of work on a freelance basis, and it is a role that she has kind of fallen into by chance.

“It surprises me that not even the largest and most prestigious universities have systems in place to ensure that publications in English are reviewed – instead, they always have to search around to find a proofreader.”

Proficiency in English among Swedish researchers also varies and doesn’t necessarily correlate to educational level or the field of study.

“I would say that there is just as much variation in how comfortable Swedish academics are with speaking English as there is among Swedes in general.”

Include language studies

She would like to see universities including language studies as part of their postgraduate education – for example, international doctoral students would study Swedish, and the Swedes would study English academic writing or perhaps even a third language.

“Even if an increasing volume of research is being published in English, there is still much to be gained if researchers can master other languages”, believes Megan Case.

“In some countries, much research is still being published in other major languages, such as Russian, French and German. In order to be able to stay abreast of the latest developments in research, it is still very beneficial to be able to read and understand other languages.

“Furthermore, there are many countries where being able to read two languages in addition to one’s mother tongue is compulsory for the awarding of a doctoral degree. The reason for this is to ensure continued research communication that is not restricted by language barriers.”

Read more in Curie:

The problems facing foreign doctoral students

Text: Teresia Borgman
Photo: Olga Viberg

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