Which language to use?

The role of language policy in shaping the language choices of students and academic workers


Keywords: multilingual users, multilingual university, higher education language policy, Estonian, English

In recent decades, the domination of English in higher education has triggered many language policy reactions from governments, universities, and language users. This paper examines the principles underlying the language choices of students and academic workers at a multilingual university to illuminate how top-down language policies could be developed to sustain the use of the local language. The study has been carried out at the University of Tartu, where Estonian and English are the dominant languages. The use of both is institutionally supported by the university and the state, although the stated priority of the official language policy is continued use of the Estonian language. Our analysis is based on two sets of qualitative data gathered in 2021 and 2022, and includes course observations and semi-structured interviews with course participants as well as written answers of academic workers to open-ended questions about their language use.

We apply the principle of language choice developed by Philippe Van Parijs to examine how multilingual language users choose their language of communication, as well as the reasons for deviating from this principle. Our study shows that multi­lingual users tend to choose their language according to their own language skills and their understanding of their interlocutors’ preferences, exactly as Van Parijs predicts. This choice may or may not agree with the prescriptions of top-down language policies. In other words, institutional policies only have a very limited impact on the language choices of speakers.


Kerttu Rozenvalde (b. 1986), PhD, University of Tartu, Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics, Research Fellow in Language Policy (Jakobi 2, 51005 Tartu), kerttu.rozenvalde@ut.ee

Birute Klaas-Lang (b. 1957), PhD, University of Tartu, Institute of Estonian and ­General Linguistics, Professor of Estonian as a Foreign Language (Jakobi 2, 51005 Tartu), birute.klaas-lang@ut.ee