A new study by Swedish language researchers has suggested a marked negative impact on students in higher education when taught in English, if they are non-native speakers of the language.
The research carried out by KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Chalmers University of Technology, highlighted more severe drop-out rates and lower grades within non-native English speakers in a test group of over 2000 Swedish students.
The students were randomly separated into two groups for English-language and Swedish-language versions of an introductory course in programming. The students who were taught in English obtained dramatically lower results, and more dropped out of the course prematurely.
“Our study is unusual in this field since the groups were assigned on a completely random basis. This means that the only influencing factor was the language of instruction, and we were surprised by the results,” said Hans Malmström, professor at the Department of Communication and Learning in Science at Chalmers University of Technology, and one of the study’s researchers.
The 2,263 students were observed through the fully digital and self-paced course, with their performance measured on the number of correctly answered exam questions, and on how many students left the course before completion.
When examining the results, the researchers compared the number of questions answered correctly in the two versions of the course. They found that those who studied in Swedish gave an average of 73% more correct answers than those who studied in English.
It was also noted that 25% more students dropped out of the English-language version of the course.
Viggo Kann, professor of Computer Science at KTH Royal Institute of Technology said “Someone who drops out is not likely to have learnt as much as someone who completes the course. So, in this respect too we see that English as the language of instruction can lead to poorer learning outcomes.”
English Medium Instruction (EMI) is more frequently being used within education globally, and Scandinavia has long-relied on English as an educational tool within university and high school institutions. As reported by the Language Council of Sweden in 2022, a crucial starting point for EMI is that the language of instruction must not hinder students’ learning quality. The widely regarded aim is that a student taking a course in English should learn just as effectively as a student studying in their native language.
The study is now being viewed as a critical piece of research highlighting the advantages and disadvantages of higher education instruction in English.
“It is important to remember that a single study should not be used as the basis for a radical overhaul of the language or teaching policy in higher education, neither at local nor national level. However, we believe the results from this research can contribute to a more informed discussion about the consequences of using English as the language of instruction,” says researcher Hans Malmström.