English in a new linguistic context: Implications for higher education

Hafdís Ingvarsdóttir*, Birna Arnbjornsdóttir

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


This chapter describes how the extensive use of English has changed the linguistic ecology of Iceland strongly impacting higher education. This view is based on the findings of a recent five-year study that revealed how English permeates all levels of Icelandic society, effectively creating a new linguistic environment. Extensive exposure to conversational English has led to receptive rather than productive proficiency of Icelanders, and familiarity with informal rather than formal registers. The increased presence of English affects education in dramatic ways, especially tertiary education. Official language- and educational policies in Iceland still define English as a foreign language and English is categorized with other foreign languages for the number of allotted hours in the National Curriculum. The same is true for proficiency benchmarks. The chapter describes how the discrepancy between The National Curriculum and the linguistic context in which Icelandic children grow up affects their academic preparation in primary and secondary school, and especially at university level. While Icelandic is the official national language and the spoken and written language of the University of Iceland, over 90% of textbooks are written in English, and there is pressure on faculty and graduate students to write in English. The pressure to use academic English has significant implications for students and faculty who have received their prior academic training in Icelandic. More than a third of students struggle with English academic texts and with using two languages simultaneously in their studies. Faculty support is haphazard as some instructors do not see it as their role to assist students with their language struggles. In order to meet the English proficiency needs of Icelandic students and faculty, new thinking is required. Such reevaluation includes the development of new language- and educational policies that better reflect the new linguistic reality and which includes a more systematic English academic language support.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEnglish-Medium Instruction in European Higher Education
Subtitle of host publicationEnglish in Europe
EditorsSlobodanka Dimova, Anna Kristina Hultgren, Christian Jensen
PublisherWalter de Gruyter GmbH
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781614515272
ISBN (Print)9781614517252
Publication statusPublished - 26 Jun 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 Walter de Gruyter, Inc., Boston/Berlin.

Other keywords

  • Educational policy
  • English as a utility language
  • Higher education
  • Linguistics ecology


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