IATEFL Harrogate 2014: English as a medium of instruction – zero for the price of two?

Until recently I had not heard of English as a medium of instruction (EMI). And judging by the audience at the IATEFL British Council (BC) signature event (English Medium Instruction: Cure or Curse?) neither have most ELT bods. I say this due to the number of people seeing EMI neither as a cure nor as a curse (see video below).

My interest is that I am involved in an EMI project and today was my first day on it. Though most of the work was proof editing, rather banal, there was an interesting period which involved chatting with a teacher. I was helping proofread their slides for a course on the science in some short stories. An extremely interesting insight into how one teacher is tackling EMI.

But I digress from my main aim to cover my impressions of the BC debate. The bolded questions were (paraphrased) from the audience.

Why is EMI a growing phenomenon, what is driving this and why is it a hot topic?

Naz Rassool identified new technology and neo-liberal economics as two main drivers. She referenced David Graddol’s talk on the impact of the service sector economy on English use. Teresa Ting tried to tie in concerns of being literate enough to be discerning when using the internet.

Jennifer Jenkins bluntly stated money as the driver, in the UK universities want to recruit international students as a profitable venture. In addition massive income is generated by training teachers to be EMI teachers. Outside the anglo-phone world there is more of a concern with the global reputation of the university though she notes that income generation reasons are growing here as well. It is also a hot topic for doctoral studies.

Eddie Williams focused on historical examples such as Africa in the 1960s where there were two main drivers of national unity and modernisation. He noted that EMI is currently a hot topic because politicians are for it and academics are “agin” it (new word for me, means against).

What is the damage done to local cultures by EMI?

There are anecdotes say of local catering staff being quite “intolerant” of foreign students when they were ordering food. Perhaps such encounters demonstrate cultural/language fault lines leading to damage? An audience member mentioned the concern that the official language in Tunisia, Derja, was in danger from French and English.

What is the difference between CLIL (Content and language integrated learning) and EMI and what impacts does all this have for ELT teachers?

Teresa Ting drew differences between CLIL and EMI as being one of difference in aims between learning language and learning content respectively. Hence if the content is already difficult to learn in L1 then it will be doubly (exponentially in various disciplines?!) more difficult in L2.

Eddie Williams stated EMI is the logical conclusion of communicative language teaching (the best way to learn a language is to use it for another purpose) which only works if the teachers have a good understanding of the language and students understand it enough. It is harmful to local languages because they will shrink in technical, scientific and academic vocabulary.

Naz Rassool agreed with Williams point about the shrinking of local language vocabulary in certain domains. She underlined the differences in support (or lack of support) for languages in Europe and in developing countries which had a significant effect on the outcomes.

What is the direction of EMI and what are the learning outcomes?

Jennifer Jenkins noted that the differences between CLIL and EMI that Teresa Ting talked about earlier (language vs content) were beginning to fade. Academic English is still seen as being that of a native standard and perhaps we should not be training non-native speakers to teach in English rather we should be giving cultural awareness training to native speakers teaching to multi-national classes.

Teresa Ting claims that CLIL is working very well because it reduces “frontal” lessons and leads to a “deconstruction of the learning process”. Teachers become aware of the language they are using to teach. Ting says the movement should be to “productive” literacy, to be able to use the language properly.

Williams points out that people read much more slowly in a second language so this will have a major impact on learning outcomes, however, we need more data. He made an interesting observation that native English speakers may be at a disadvantage in this day and age in terms of having no distinctive linguistic marker of identity.

As mentioned before the audience remained on the fence as to whether EMI is a cure or a curse. From my experience today I can see my interest in how non-native teachers approach this challenge in teaching in a second language. The wider organizational, political issues are also key concerns which this video has helped me with.

As Jenkins puts it Can universities eat their cake and have it?

Related reading:

Should English be used as a university’s language of instruction in a non-English speaking country? – British Council post

Englishisation of Higher Education by Duygu Çandarlı

Language and inequality: global challenges to education by Birgit Brock-Utne


A preliminary report from the British Council and Oxford University.

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