The growing use of English as a medium of instruction

30 April 2014

A growing number of non-English speaking countries are using “English as a Medium of Instruction” (EMI), instead of their mother tongue. 

An interim report on new research conducted by the British Council and the University of Oxford’s Department of Education attributes the rise to the fact that many see English as a passport to global academic and business communities. However, in the 55 countries included in the research, opinions are divided on whether this is a positive development. 

University administrators tend to regard EMI as an opportunity to recruit high fee-paying international students and to rise up global rankings. Lecturers are more idealistic, saying it could improve the exchange of ideas and promote better relations between countries.

The report states that “EMI was a personal challenge, a way to improve personally and professionally as teachers advance their careers. Not only students but teachers too can become international in an EMI context.”

But there was some concern about the impact on the home language and culture, and fears that it could foster inequality between those – usually richer – students who could speak English and those who could not. 

Respondents, including university professors, administrators and public policy makers, had mixed views on its impact. Just over half – 50.9 per cent - said EMI was controversial but 38 per cent were in favour and none said they were against it. However, respondents in 83 per cent of countries said they did not have enough qualified teachers, with just 1.8 per cent saying they had sufficient numbers. Further research is needed into the level of English competence required to provide quality instruction and whether the learning of academic subjects is improved, says the report.

Professor Ernesto Macaro, Director of the Department of Education at the University of Oxford, said “More and more institutions across the world are using English to teach academic subjects, spurred on by a desire to internationalise their offer and their academic profile. This phenomenon has very important implications, in non-Anglophone countries, for teaching and learning as well as for language policy decisions.”

The interim findings form the first part of a research project into the spread and impact of EMI. The next phase will look at clusters of countries in more detail. The findings have been debated during Going Global, the British Council’s annual conference for leaders of international education on April 29 - May 1.