Non-native speakers ‘do worse’ when taught in English

Authors of Swedish study caution that one experiment should not be used as basis for ‘radical overhaul’ of education policy but urge ‘more informed discussion’

September 16, 2023
Source: iStock

Being taught in English has a significantly negative impact on learning outcomes and dropout rates when it is not a student’s first language, according to a new study.

The study, by the KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Chalmers University of Technology, raises questions about the merits of such a large proportion of English-language teaching in countries such as Sweden.

Researchers from the two universities randomly divided about 2,300 Swedish students into identical English-language and Swedish-language versions of an introductory course in programming, which were entirely self-paced and digital.

The findings, published in the Applied Linguistics Review, show that those who studied in Swedish gave the correct answers to 73 per cent more test questions on average.

“It’s important to remember that the only difference here is the language of instruction,” said Olle Bälter, associate professor in human-computer interaction and one of the researchers from KTH.

“The fact that the students on the Swedish-language course performed significantly better indicates that the use of English as the language of instruction can have a negative impact on learning under certain circumstances.”

And the researchers found that 25 per cent more students dropped out of the English-language version of the course.

“Someone who drops out is not likely to have learnt as much as someone who completes the course,” said Viggo Kann, professor of computer science at KTH.

“So, in this respect too we see that English as the language of instruction can lead to poorer learning outcomes.”

Learning in English, which is increasingly used as the language of instruction in higher education in Sweden and across the world, should be at least as effective as that in a student’s first language, according to the researchers.

They said their findings cast doubt on this assumption and that under certain circumstances it could have negative consequences, but cautioned that it was too soon to jump to conclusions.

“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,” said Hans Malmström, professor in the department of communication and learning in science at Chalmers.

“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.”

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