Academic Insularity and the Swedish Language Police

Thanks to The Chronicle’s Global Ticker RSS feed, the other day I read about a surprising – at least to me – impediment to academic internationalization in Sweden. It seems that the government’s Justitieombudsmannen, or Ombudsman for Justice, has reprimanded universities for requiring that job applications and promotion requests be written in English. This practice, according to the Ombudsman, violates the country’s two-year-old language law, which mandates that Swedish – now formally designated as the nation’s official language – be used by public institutions.

As it happens, in a couple of weeks I’m traveling for the first time to Sweden, a part of the world that I have always associated with a citizenry whose English is so impeccable it would put many native speakers to shame. I’ll be participating in a conference sponsored by STINT, the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education. But higher ed globalization efforts like STINT’s won’t succeed unless universities can require English in contexts such as employment decisions, according to institutions like the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) and the University of Gothenburg, which are among the linguistic wrongdoers critiqued by the Ombudsman.

The peer-review process for promotion, for instance, often relies on global expertise, which makes a common tongue like English vital, according to an appeal filed by KTH and reported in the English-language newspaper The Local. “An application written in Swedish will delay the recruiting process in those cases where international expertise is needed to assess scientific and pedagogical skill.”

It certainly isn’t news that English has become the lingua franca of global academe. As The New York Times reported earlier this year, in non-English-speaking European countries alone there are more than 2,400 university programs taught in English, from Leiden to Milan to Madrid. But it’s understandable that some non-native-speakers, whether academics or others, worry about the dominance of English and the potential demise of their own national languages. “I do not agree that Sweden is an ancient and archaic language that is destined for the dustbin,” wrote one of several dozen commenters who responded to last week’s story in The Local. “When in Rome, do as Romans do….When in Sweden, speak Swedish.”

Yet that approach won’t cut it when it comes to participating effectively in the global research enterprise, argued another: “It is not about losing one’s language that is at issue here. The international language of science is English. If a country is to progress in research and development then it needs to broaden its base of faculty and researchers. This is how it works in the rest of the world but not here in jolly old Sweden.” Insularity, in other words, is a recipe for scholarly marginalization. (“I prefer to submit all of my paperwork in Norse,” wrote yet another commenter. “Hopefully this won’t be a problem.”)

Given the immense benefits to universities and nations that come with full engagement in the global academic community, the Swedish government would be wise to call off the language police.

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