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Should English be used as a university's language of instruction in a non-English speaking country?

British Council September 7, 2014



Warsaw (pictured) is one of the cities on the European continent where higher education institutions offer courses taught in English. Photo by Arian Zwegers / Creative Commons.


As more and more non-English speaking universities teach courses using English as the medium (or language) of instruction, the British Council’s Anne Wiseman and Adrian Odell look at some of the questions this raises for lecturers and their students.

You can also stream the signature event on the subject at the IATEFL (International Association for Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) conference on Wednesday, 2 April 2014, 1200-1305 UK time.


What is English as a medium of instruction (EMI) and how quickly is its use growing?

One general way of defining EMI is to see it as the process of teaching a subject through the medium of English, in a generally non-English speaking environment.

In Europe there has been a huge increase in the number of Masters programmes taught in English. In 2002, there were 560 Masters programmes delivered in English in 19 EU countries (excluding the UK and Ireland). By 2012, this had risen to 6,800 in 11 EU countries (excluding the UK and Ireland). This growth in EMI has raised a number of questions.

Why is EMI growing?

Answers to this question can vary, depending on where you’re coming from. Some universities choose English as the language of instruction as it is the ‘lingua franca’ of their country. Other universities see an opportunity to attract a wider range of students; or they feel that EMI strengthens their offer to those students who believe studying in English will make them more employable in a world where a quarter of the population speaks English – an issue mentioned in the EU’s policy document on education and training.

Clearly, European higher education policy (the ‘Bologna process‘) and the Erasmus programme in Europe have already had a major impact on student mobility, and with it the need to ensure that students are studying their subject in a common language which they understand. More often than not, this language is English.

Is EMI beneficial for students or does it put them at a disadvantage?

The question is whether students are concentrating on learning the academic subject or on improving their English.

According to research carried out at a private university in China, most students felt that, though their understanding of lectures was not high, they agreed that instruction in English helped them to improve their English proficiency. On the other hand, in Croatia, research showed that higher education students ‘were sceptical about the introduction of English-medium higher education because of the ability and motivation of teachers and students’.

How do the teachers feel about using EMI?

Although courses taught through the medium of English are on the rise, there are risks attached to them.

One risk is that the lecturer’s English, although good, may not be specialised enough.

There are further issues, such as the difficulty of assessing examination answers written in English since we might ask what is really being tested – the English language or knowledge of the subject? In other words, how do we test a subject taught through the medium of English to speakers of other languages? One solution to this problem, suggested by der Walt and Kidd, in the bi-lingual setting of English and Afrikaans, is to use both languages for test instructions.

We should also ask whether the lecturer’s role has changed from that of a specialist in his or her discipline to that of a specialist in his or her discipline who can deliver in a second language. Some lecturers feel that their role is not to help students with their English, but simply to deliver their subject in English. When asked about their role, one university respondent on a British Council EMI course said: ‘I’m not interested in the students’ English, I’m interested in their competency in biogenetics’. However, another said: ‘I probably won’t help their spoken English but I hope to give them more confidence and understanding when reading’.

This leads us to ask to what extent an academic teacher lecturing through the medium of English can or should also become a quasi-English language teacher and take time explaining specialist English vocabulary and grammar. The challenge EMI presents to them is how to present their subject clearly and concisely in another language.

The students’ view of the lecturer can also change when EMI is introduced. In Denmark, research has shown that students’ perceptions of lecturers’ English language proficiency correlated with their view of lecturers’ general competence.

Wider issues: Language and identity

One of the most important challenges is to do with language and identity. EMI can be seen as a threat to the status and development of the local language. In Croatia, students are concerned about Croatian becoming inadequate as a medium of scholarship and higher education. The prevalence of English as a medium of instruction could mean the demise of the local language. Also, possibly in some countries, courses in EMI might be considered elitist, leading to an ‘inner’ and an ‘outer’ circle of students and academics.

On the other hand, EMI can also be seen as an opportunity. At a related policy dialogue in Segovia, Spain, last year, participants almost unilaterally agreed that EMI provided an opportunity. Many governments are now identifying new recruitment opportunities for their country’s education institutions through EMI, and at a pedagogical level, students, lecturers and institutions are seeing the benefits of the international dimension EMI brings.

Looking to the future

In summary, then, there are a number of challenges: the role of language and identity, successful practice and methodology; the integration of EMI into an institution, language proficiency (of students and teachers), and the role of those who are involved in education. There is little doubt that the number of courses taught in EMI globally will continue to rise, not only at higher education level but also at secondary level, and with it will come more opportunities for training and development, and accreditation, possibly along the lines of that offered to universities by the UK’s Higher Education Academy.

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