By Dr Nicola Galloway

14 September 2017 - 10:48

'There is little research into EMI's impact on how much English students learn, and what content they absorb.' Image (c)
'There is little research into EMI's impact on how much English students learn, and what content they absorb.' Image ©

Tim Gouw, used under licence, adapted from the original.

We asked Dr Nicola Galloway, co-author of a recent report into English as a medium of instruction (EMI), about her research into the growing trend to teach university courses in English.

Why is English as a medium of instruction growing so fast?

Although the factors for EMI growth vary depending on the country, in higher education, the move towards teaching in English comes at grassroots level.

There are practical reasons for this. Most academic research is published in English (about 94 per cent of research in international, high-impact publications is in English). So if students want to stay current with their field, it makes sense for them to learn in English, given that the content is mostly in English. In many technical fields, much of the content and vocabulary is also in English, as are students' dissertations and research.

This is why universities in nations where students tend to be highly proficient in English (e.g., the Netherlands, Scandinavia) have often switched to English, especially for courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

However, the more general move to EMI that makes up the bulk of the current boom is due to a (mistaken) view that EMI is a simple way to speed up graduates' upward social and economic mobility. Many governments believe that EMI programmes will improve students’ English proficiency, and therefore result in a workforce that is more fluent in English. EMI is seen to give students a double benefit: knowledge of their subject, plus English language skills. Governments, and students for that matter, think that this will make them more attractive in the global job market.

Universities judge that switching to English will not only improve their graduates' job prospects, but will make them more tempting to applicants drawn by well-paid future careers. Also, because English is the language of research, having more staff on their faculty who speak English could increase the amount of English-language research they get published in international journals, raising the university's position in rankings.

In some countries, EMI programmes also attract fee-paying international students (and often domestic students, who pay higher fees for such courses. One study showed that students in the EMI programme of a Chinese university paid twice the tuition of their counterparts in the Chinese language programme). This can help generate revenue, especially important in countries where fewer domestic students are enrolling, such as Japan.

What does the research say about EMI and its effectiveness?

Despite this growth, there is little research into the impact of EMI on how much English students learn, and how much content they absorb. Provision is definitely outpacing empirical research.

This is a major concern, because it makes it difficult to tell whether EMI actually achieves its goal of improving students' English. One study found only a modest increase in EMI students' proficiency. The average IELTS scores of the students taking part rose by about 0.5 from the time of entry to almost four years later.

Students and teachers said this was because they were exposed to more English, but given that an intensive English language programme can achieve the same result in just ten weeks, it seems that EMI is not as effective as traditional language study. Bigger gains have been reported in students’ reading and listening proficiency, but this is unsurprising, seeing as EMI involves a lot of listening to lectures and reading texts.

Some studies show that students understand more content when learning in their first language, compared to studying in English. For example, in China, many universities run parallel courses in English and Chinese. Some Chinese professors have reported that when teaching in English, they water down curricular content, simplifying it to make up for students' language difficulties. In the same study, students said that the parallel Chinese language courses covered more content than the English language ones in the same amount of time. Tests of content knowledge have shown differences do exist.

This happens even in countries where students tend to speak excellent English, like Sweden. But it is more worrying in contexts where EMI is used with students whose English is less advanced, and who may not be able to cope as well.

How did your research work? Can you explain what you did?

I wanted to find out more about EMI in higher education in Japan and China. I used questionnaires, interviews, and focus groups with staff and students at various universities, to shed light on the differing approaches to, forces behind, and attitudes towards EMI. I was interested in the views of people with a vested interest in EMI, and wanted to compare the attitudes of students, teachers, and those providing English and academic skills support.

I also wanted to learn what support and training might be needed to improve my own course instruction on the MSc TESOL at the University of Edinburgh, where we have recently introduced an EMI case study into our course on curriculum evaluation and design.

And I was interested in whether EMI should always be a monolingual policy (i.e., taught in classes that only allow English, and do not permit the use of the student's mother tongue). Multilingual speakers use their entire linguistic repertoires, so there can be a mismatch between the way English is taught, and the more flexible way it is used as a global lingua franca outside of the classroom.

Why did you focus on universities in Japan and China?

Most research on EMI has been carried out in Europe, although there have been more studies in Asia recently. I originally wanted to run the questionnaire globally, but it proved too difficult to establish contacts in the one-year long project. Having worked in Japan for ten years in an EMI university, I was able to set up contacts at various Japanese universities, and students at the University of Edinburgh helped me to make connections at Chinese universities.

EMI is a rapidly growing trend in both countries. In Japan, about one quarter of higher education institutions offer undergraduate EMI, and there have been many government initiatives encouraging universities to increase the number of programmes taught in English. In China, the Ministry of Education issued a directive in 2001, noting that in the next three years, five to ten per cent of all undergraduate curricula in leading universities should be taught in English or another foreign language.

In both places, the EMI movement is closely related to government objectives to improve English proficiency. In Japan, English proficiency is a big motivating factor for student enrolment on EMI courses. EMI is also seen as a way to improve Japan's university rankings. With an ageing population and declining domestic student population, there is a lot of competition amongst Japanese universities, so rankings are particularly important. Japan wants to develop a globally minded workforce, so internationalisation is a priority.

Meanwhile, in China, the number of EMI courses has become an important performance indicator when assessing universities, and there is a lot of pressure for staff to teach in English.

Both countries have also experienced  developments in English language teaching over the years. In China, EMI was first introduced to tackle the problem of expensive – and ineffective – school English instruction, and there have been moves towards bilingual education. In Japan, there have also been several policies on teaching English in English, and EMI is often seen as a more authentic way to improve students’ English proficiency.

What did the staff and students you surveyed think about EMI?

Faculty members believed EMI programmes should only use English, but many also said that students' mother tongue could be a useful pedagogical tool within an EMI course. Teachers seemed to regard EMI more as a way to teach the content, rather than as a tool for learning English. Because they saw their main goal as delivering the subject matter, they did not see the use of the students' mother tongue from time to time as being detrimental to their learning.

In contrast, the students in the study preferred only English to be used (Japanese students more than Chinese students), because they saw EMI as a way to improve their English. The students were aware that they often found it hard to understand the content, but despite this, they still wanted to be taught in English, as they viewed improving their English as the primary aim of the EMI course. However, the interviews also showed that, although students preferred teachers to use English, they also wanted teachers to adapt and simplify the content of the class according to their English level.

Faculty members did not see a need for English support classes, and did not see these classes as being helpful. But students said this support was necessary. Japanese students were particularly likely to think that their content lecturers should also help them with their English proficiency, and that EMI classes should be supplemented with English support classes.

Both faculty members and students were in favour of EMI, and felt it improved students’ English and subject knowledge. Students felt that it boosted their English proficiency, but were less confident in it as an effective way to improve their subject knowledge. Japanese students were more confident than Chinese students about the positive influence EMI has on their English proficiency.

The faculty were worried that they didn't have enough suitable teaching materials, although students seem to think the materials were fine. Although they mentioned some benefits, both staff and students were more focused on the challenges of implementing EMI. Students were critical of teachers’ English competence and use of their mother tongue, and teachers were worried about the students’ low English competence. Students also complained about a lack of collaboration between departments, and between the content teachers and English for academic purposes (EAP) teachers. The teachers had conflicting views on whether there was enough English language support.

Was there anything in the results that surprised you?

The study showed that EMI is approached in different ways in China and Japan. English was used more in Japan than in China, and the Japanese students had started learning English from a younger age, and had more experience abroad. This is likely to change in the future, given the booming Chinese English language teaching industry, and the number of Chinese students studying abroad.

One of the most surprising findings was how differently staff and students think about EMI. When students enrol in these programmes to improve their English proficiency, they expect a degree of English language support. Universities need to provide a clear rationale for EMI programmes, what they hope the students will learn, and how much English will be used.

I was concerned that students see the teachers' use of their mother tongue as a sign of a lack of proficiency in English. This interested me, given that multilingualism, not monolingualism, is the norm in much of the world. English does not have to be acquired monolingually, nor is this how it is used as a global lingua franca. As part of a course induction, students could be introduced to the idea of 'global Englishes' at the start of the semester, and to the fact that the ideal EMI teacher may not be someone with a ‘native’ or a ‘native-like’ accent

The perceived benefits of EMI cannot be guaranteed. They require careful planning and curriculum evaluation. We need more research to ensure that the speed at which EMI courses are appearing does not continue to outpace empirical research.

Read Dr Galloway's research paper on the British Council's TeachingEnglish website.

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