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  • Writer's pictureIan Mac Eochagáin

Aalto University: international mediocrity

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

English is everything to Aalto University — except for getting it right.

Aalto University wants to be a renowned international university. Its strongest tool for achieving this aim is English. It provides so much teaching in English that it has been found by the office of the Chancellor of Justice has found it has broken the University Act. Under that Act, the teaching and research language at Aalto University is Finnish. However, over 80% of teaching in business and technical master’s programmes is in English. Complaints were first filed ten years ago to the Chancellor of Justice’s office about the dearth of Finnish-language teaching at Aalto, and almost nothing has changed. Well, something has: there is now even less teaching in Finnish and even more in English. The law does not matter to Aalto: English shall increase its footprint, no matter the legal technicalities.

Aalto’s attitude to English, however, is all quantity and no quality. One sentence on the For International Staff page says everything:

Finnish language is known to be a bit on the complicated side, but don’t worry, we Finns are fluent in English, and have an international mindset.

What they wanted to say was “The Finnish language”. The chutzpah in this sentence is gobsmacking. Aalto uses unproofread, unidiomatic English to tell the world that (all) Finns are “fluent in English”. Even if “fluent” doesn’t mean the same thing as “accuracy”, I think any advanced speaker of English knows we can refer to a language two ways in English: either as “the Finnish language” or “Finnish”, but never “Finnish language” without the article.

Maybe this is just an isolated incident. Maybe the rest of Aalto’s website is carefully edited, idiomatic English? Unfortunately not. A brief perusal of the Aalto site yields a rich crop of English that no one bothered to check or have checked:

Professor Minna Halme tells that she feels massively grateful for receiving two awards in one conference

“Says”, not “tells”. I remember teaching pre-intermediate students of English the difference between these two verbs. The author of this page didn't attend my class.

Welcome to participate in almost thirty lectures, studio visits and guided exhibition tours.

Finglish alert! We don’t say this in English: “We welcome you to participate” or “Come and participate” are better alternatives.

The Weekly workshop introductions at Aalto Design Factory provide everyone a chance to explore the ideation and framing techniques

It’s “provide everyone with a chance”.

Seats available on first come, first serve basis

It’s a “first-come, first-served basis”. The person who comes first doesn’t serve first; they are served first.

The page about the Creative Sustainability M.Sc. programme has the words “characterise”, with an -ise, yet “organization”, with a Z. Both are correct in British English, but a university claiming to speak fluent English should pick one and stick with it. That same page has “fulfill” with two Ls, the American spelling. So if the aim is British English, this double L is incorrect. On the other hand, if the aim is American English, “characterise” is incorrect. This webpage is not entirely correct in either major variety of English.

Aalto tenure track process is a standard professors’ career advancement process, which has been developed and approved widely in Aalto community.

Two articles are missing here: “the Aalto tenure track process” and “the Aalto community”. (Just one “process” would do, too.)

Hope you find these helpful.

(From the same page.) Who hopes? This isn’t a note left on a co-worker’s desk: it’s a professional advice webpage to potential tenured professors at your university. Make an effort and write a proper sentence with a pronoun: “We hope you find these helpful”.

Family members are most welcome to join but please note no separate children´s activities are arranged

So the Social Life and Recreation page tells us. That’s an incorrect punctuation mark, an acute accent (´) rather than an apostrophe (‘). Anyone fluent in English can see that it looks wrong when you type it: it pushes the word “children” and the letter S unusually far apart from each other.

If English is so important to Aalto that it breaks the law because of it, why is it so inconsistent and often substandard? This is not the written output of an organization that values English, specifically fluent English, above all else. The problem is not that non-native speakers of English have written this content; the problem is that they have not run basic spell checks or got someone else, such as a native speaker, to review what they have written.

Aalto’s message is clear: “we don’t care about our reputation”. It says this by churning out vast amounts of text in English, its raison d’être, and neglecting to have it checked for fluency or accuracy. When Aalto neglects the accuracy of its English — punctuation, articles, or consistent British/American spelling — it says “we are not a real university”. A university, of all places, should understand why accuracy is important: it is not just about looking good; it is about being correct. Do I need to explain to a university why this is valuable in itself?

I began by stating that Aalto wants to be a renowned international university. If it continues its current neglectful approach to its English, the language it has elevated into its reason for existence, it can be neither renowned nor a university. The more English, the better, and Finns’ rights to teaching in Finnish be damned, Aalto says. With its all quantity and no quality approach, however, Aalto is international — yet mediocre.

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Sep 23, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Is this satire? :D

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