During the last decades, English has become the dominant international language for research cooperation and publishing in Europe. It has also become the lingua franca for educational cooperation and student mobility.
Whereas studying in another country formerly meant that learning the local language would be part and parcel of the international experience, 25 years with Erasmus, typically as one-semester exchange, has contributed to a different approach: HEIs in countries where English is not the national language, have a growing catalogue of programmes and courses offered in English, in order to attract international students. This development has gone hand in hand with an increasing share of international staff, teaching and tutoring mostly, sometimes even exclusively, in English. The competition that national education systems have more recently faced from MOOCs and branch campuses, most of which operate in English, strengthens this move towards English as language of instruction in particular and of internationalisation of education more generally.
English as language of instruction
Linguistic homogenisation of international education is still controversial in some countries, such as France, Germany and Spain, with large national scientific languages and/or where many academics and students are not proficient in English. In these countries, many policymakers and academics also consider it natural that foreign students learn and take courses in the national language (Wächter & Maiworm 2014). There is also a greater will among international students to learn German, French and Spanish, than the smaller national languages found elsewhere in Europe.
Nordic governments and institutions, however, have largely adopted the view that in order to attract foreign students, they have to offer courses in English. Also, domestic students following courses in the national language often have to read a substantial part of the syllabus in English, since much of it may not have been translated. According to a recent study on English-taught programmes (ETPs) in Europe (Wächter & Maiworm 2014), these are most common in the Nordic region. More than 60% of the surveyed Nordic institutions offer one or more programmes completely taught in English. A fifth of all programmes offered in the Nordic countries are ETPs, and about 5% of all students are enrolled in them. This last figure varies greatly, however, between less than 2% in Iceland to more than 12% in Denmark. It is remarkable to note that Denmark has the highest relative number of students enrolled in English-taught programmes of all European countries and has the third highest actual number of students enrolled in ETPs, after the Netherlands and Turkey.
In addition to the ETPs (degrees only taught in English) many institutions offer shorter English-taught courses for exchange students, and some Nordic students might follow these courses as part of their largely national-language degree.
EU language policy
The European Commission calls for a strategic approach to multilingual communication. Strong language and communication skills are seen as important for both individuals and businesses, and a study on the impact of the Erasmus programme (European Commission 2014) shows that graduates with international experience fare much better on the job market than those without.
Linguistic diversity and the promotion of language learning is, correspondingly, an objective in the Erasmus+ programme. The lack of language competences has been identified as a barrier to participation and mobility, and online linguistic support (OLS) is now available for the language used for a study period or traineeship abroad. The support includes a mandatory language assessment before mobility and another assessment at the end of the mobility period. This before-and-after assessment indicates that the measurement of progress is seen as an important part of OLS, and not just language learning. During the previous programme period countries could apply for funding for arranging “live” language courses in all languages. It could be argued that these Erasmus Intensive Language Courses (EILC) in the Programme for Lifelong Learning (LLP) had a more direct supportive function. There has been a fear that, despite declarations on the importance of strong language skills, the promotion of acquiring such skills has thus been weakened in Erasmus+. However, the number of students with the opportunity to take part in the online language courses in Erasmus+ has increased substantially compared to the LLP.
As of May 2015, the online courses cover six languages: Dutch, English, French, German, Italian and Spanish, which together cover about 90% of all student mobility within Europe. The European commission has also announced that the language tests will be expanded to six additional languages (Danish, Swedish, Greek, Polish, Portuguese and Czech) in the autumn of 2015, with courses at A1-level in the spring 2016. The goal is to expand to all official EU languages by 2020. Meanwhile, linguistic support in other languages should be provided through other means by the sending or receiving organisation, and the Erasmus+ programme provides funding for language support, included in the Organisational Support to institutions.
Updated December 2016