English moves into lecture halls

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More and more Norwegian schools are reverting to English in the classroom. There’s been a stunning rate of growth in the number of courses taught in English, but politicians and state officials are still struggling to master English and other foreign languages.

You can’t get very far in the world if you can only communicate in Norwegian. That’s why Norwegian schools have long emphasized foreign language instruction, with most school children starting English classes in the fourth grade if not earlier. Most are also obliged to study at least one other foreign language as well.

College boom
Now it appears English is taking off at the highest levels of education. Newspaper Aftenposten reports that more than 800 courses at the University of Oslo alone are now conducted in English, compared to 40 just six years ago.

Fully one in four master’s degree candidates are handling all their course work in English. At the business college BI in Oslo, nearly all master’s classes are taught in English.

While the students see it as an advantage, not least in terms of international job prospects, Norwegian purists are skeptical. They worry that Norwegian as a language will lose its importance, and that the Norwegian language needs to be maintained at the highest levels of education.

Room for improvement
Norwegian politicians and government bureaucrats, meanwhile, continue to struggle with their heavily accented or downright poor foreign language skills. Even though the vast majority have completed higher education, foreign languages often aren’t among their strongest talents.

Only one in five has had formal training in English, reports Aftenposten , and hardly any are fluent in Russian. There are exceptions, however. Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre speaks “elegant French, good German and satisfactory English,” reports Aftenposten . King Harald, who grew up in Washington DC during World War II, speaks clear English. Queen Sonja is said to be as convincing in French as she is in Norwegian, while the former head of the Progress Party Carl I Hagen is said to be “as effective in English as in Norwegian.”

One cabinet minister stands out at present: Helga Pedersen, deputy leader of the Labour Party, impresses most in her presence when she switches from perfect French to excellent English and then launches into Russian. Pedersen, from northern Norway, says she speaks Russian and Sami at home with her daughter.

Norwegian politicians “are getting better,” says Johanne Ostad, leader of the Foreign Language Center (Fremmedspråksenteret) , “but the vast majority still have a lot of room for improvement.”