Students' attitudes towards the use of English in the context of Norwegian higher education

Trude Bukve

The internationalization of higher education in Norway has led to students having to adapt to an increasing use of English both in textbooks and the actual teaching. Previous research indicates that learning effects and memory decrease significantly when learning is done in a language other than one’s mother tongue. Guldbrandsen et al. (2002) proved in their research that medical doctors from Scandinavia scored significantly better in memory tasks when presented with scientific papers in their own language than when reading the same articles in English. Also, Hertzberg (1996) proves that students’ learning effect is better when they use Norwegian textbooks.

One must inevitably acknowledge the importance of English in science and academia. Increasing internationalization in research and science demands that students master English at a high level. However, that does not necessarily mean that developing Norwegian as a language of science would be unnecessary.

In my master’s thesis I studied Norwegian university students’ attitudes towards the use of English in the context of Norwegian higher education. The aim of my research was to discover whether students think about language issues and which languages are used in higher education teaching. I also wanted to examine whether the students believe the use of English has an effect on their ease of learning, and how they regard the role of Norwegian language in the Norwegian society.

The research consisted of a questionnaire survey, which was administered to economics students at the University of Bergen and the Norwegian School of Economics. A total of 117 undergraduate students (i.e. students who had not yet completed their bachelor’s degree) participated in the survey. I also conducted a small case study where I compared financial terminology found in Norwegian newspapers1 with terms I gathered from textbooks and dictionaries within the field of finance. Results of my study show that one English term might have a large number of Norwegian equivalents. However, when I examined newspapers and textbooks I discovered that often only the English terms are used.

The survey and its results

In the survey questionnaire the participants were asked whether they thought that English terms were too frequently used in the otherwise Norwegian tutorial setting, did they think the Norwegian terms used in textbooks and lectures were adequate, did they found developing Norwegian terminology important and whether they found English or Norwegian finance terminology more precise. The participants had to assess Norwegian translations of English terms and tell whether they found the Norwegian equivalents appropriate. Finally, the participants were asked whether they learned better in English or in Norwegian, and which language would be the best to use when presenting the research results to a public without special knowledge in the field of economy.

Out of the 117 participants studied, 77 students, or 68 percent, disagreed or somewhat disagreed with the statement that English terminology was too frequently used in lectures. The quality of the Norwegian terms used in the higher education was good according to 53 percent of the participants, and 62 percent agreed that developing Norwegian terminology is important.

A total of 60 percent of the participants thought English terminology to be more precise than Norwegian terminology. Some participants also commented that it was at times difficult to find Norwegian terms for certain concepts, and that English seemed to be more established as a language of science. This attitude was also apparent when the participants estimated the appropriateness of certain financial terms. The majority found the English term credit crunch to be better than its Norwegian equivalent. This was also the case when CFD (Contract for Difference) was compared with its Norwegian equivalent høgrisikoprodukt – only 14 participants found the Norwegian term appropriate, while 40 thought it was tolerable and 34 participants found it to be either wrong or useless. It appears that the participants liked best those Norwegian equivalents which least resembled Norwegian words, namely the hybrid term hedgefond. When asked to choose between hedge fund and the ‘norwegified’ equivalent hedgefond most of the participants preferred the Norwegian term.

The majority of the participants – 62 percent – thought that they learned more efficiently when Norwegian was used in the educational context. One participant noted: “It is more difficult to read student literature in English. I can’t grasp the meaning in the same way”.  However, 15 percent claimed that they learn most effectively when they study in English, while a further 18 percent did not think there was any difference regardless of the language used. Some participants commented on the positive aspects of using English as a teaching language, and one student argued “it’s better to use English terminology, because it’s more precise”.  Norwegian was also preferred for presenting research results to the public: the vast majority of 68 percent answered that it would be the best language to use, while only 14 percent of the participants considered English to be better.

Some participants in the survey considered English to be a more precise language than Norwegian. Even though there is little supporting evidence for an assertion that one language might be more definite than another, my case study reveals there could indeed be some truth to this claim. I do not suggest there is any inherent weakness in the Norwegian language per se, but as I mentioned before, a single English term can have no less than ten Norwegian equivalents. It can therefore be difficult for students to decipher which term best reflects the concept in question. One solution for this problem would be to standardize the Norwegian terminology instead of leaving different universities and researchers to use their own translations.

Significant differences between groups

The attitudinal survey revealed differences between specific groups. The most striking dissimilarities could be found between gender groups and students at different levels of education.

Previous research by Vikør and  Kristiansen (2006) has demonstrated that women tend to value the use of their mother tongue more than men. This was also ascertainable from my survey: overall, the female participants regarded the use of Norwegian as important more often than the male participants. Even though there were fewer differences between the genders in the answers to descriptive questions in the survey, the differences were statistically significant in the answers to normative questions.

The participants who had studied economics for a longer period of time (i.e. more than six months) considered the use of Norwegian less important than those participants who had just begun their studies, and were more prone to seeing English as the lingua franca of higher education. One potential explanation for this difference between students at different levels could be found in sociolinguistic theories, which prove that people can be socialized into certain beliefs and attitudes. If the attitude towards the use of Norwegian in research and higher education is generally negative, it may have an impact on students’ attitudes. The lecturers should take this possible influence into account regardless of which language they choose to use.

Turning attitudes into action

It is important to examine students’ attitudes towards the use of English in higher education teaching, because students on the threshold of starting their careers may bring attitudes acquired at university along to the working life. It is therefore essential that students, researchers and lecturers regard Norwegian terminology as a part of our language rather than an isolated unit. To further ensure this, Norwegian terminology should be developed and its availability to users facilitated. The main focus should be on ensuring the good quality of Norwegian terminology, so fewer researchers and lecturers would view Norwegian as a language not qualified for use in the academic world.

As demonstrated by my research students find it important to further develop Norwegian terminology to facilitate both their learning and their ability to communicate research to public. However, they also think English is more precise and find English terms to be better than Norwegian when asked to assess terms in the two languages.

One of the aims in my thesis was therefore to estimate how research on attitudes could be applied to the field of terminology and thus develop terminology in a more user oriented direction. This can also be seen as an attempt to relate the field of terminology to the society at large, and to prove that terms are not merely isolated names of concepts, but a part of the language we use. Thus I find it important to focus on the sociolinguistic methods in terminology. If the users of Norwegian terminology prefer certain kinds of terms, one could, as a terminologist, take this into account when developing new Norwegian terms. As my case study illustrated, there can be several Norwegian equivalents for one English term. However, if the intended users do not find the equivalents appropriate they do not use them. Efforts should therefore be made to develop a standardized Norwegian terminology which would answer the users’ needs. 

Language is an important tool which can be used to include or exclude certain groups of people based on their education and knowledge. Therefore the ability to express oneself in one’s mother tongue should be valued and promoted. As one student stated in the survey: “It is important to have terminology in the language of one’s own.”

1Terms found in Norwegian newspapers were sourced from a study carried out by Marita Kristiansen (2012).


About the author:
Trude Bukve has a Master's Degree in Linguistics from the University of Bergen.