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EMI Special

Ernesto Macaro close up

‘EMI is not a grassroots movement’

Introducing English as a Medium of Instruction can be laced with pitfalls and institutions need to make sure staff, students and parents are all on board, a leading expert tells Claudia Civinini.

There are currently four models for EMI, says Ernesto Macaro, director of Oxford University’s Centre for Research and Development in English Medium Instruction. There is the preparatory year model, the institutional support model, and the pre-institutional selection model, he explains. The fourth, which he compares to an ostrich, is the not uncommon ‘bury-your-head-in-the-sand’ model.

As EMI spreads like wildfire throughout Europe and Asia, Macaro’s work is becoming all the more important to understand what can go wrong when it is introduced.

For Macaro, it’s all down to institutional problem avoidance. ‘Pretending that teachers are all ok, that students are all fine and that you don’t have to put any money into the system. I am afraid it all comes down to money’, he says. ‘EMI works well when all stakeholders are being involved: students, teachers, managers – and head teachers and parents in a school.’

Policies should also factor in other elements, he adds, such as some sort of ‘accommodation’ for CLIL or EMI students – extra support and more time in exams, for example.

The collaboration between the language specialists and the content specialists also needs to be at the heart of the policy, he says. ‘In higher education, the language specialists need to become more specialised in the content, and the content specialists need to be more aware of the students’ linguistic needs’, Macaro adds.

Above the institutional level, there is some soul-searching to be done. ‘The EU has been unclear about what it wants to achieve through internationalisation’, he says. ‘The Bologna process was never meant to promote just English, it was about plurilingualism.’

Professor Macaro’s review of the research has revealed some other issues too.

One of the key findings, he says, is that the movement towards EMI is top-down. ‘Managers are making the decision. It doesn’t mean teachers are against it, but it’s not a grassroots movement – and all the theoretical research shows that if you are not in control of what you are doing, then it’s not going to work’, he says. Then, there is the ever-present question: does it improve English proficiency and teach subjects effectively? ‘This is not an easy question’, he adds. The evidence is not all clear-cut.

The authors of the research we cover on page 10 told us that to be able to learn content in a foreign language effectively, students need to be so proficient that they don’t need to think about the language anymore. ‘If you are expected to reach that level before you start English medium instruction, then we are not going to have internationalisation. About fifty percent of students wouldn’t be able to operate’, Macaro says.

Constantly reflecting on the language is the key for lecturers, he adds. ‘If I weren’t to think about the language I was using, I would be doing a disservice to my students.’ Lecturers need to be careful with idioms and metaphors, for example, and draw on their extensive vocabulary to find alternative ways to express themselves, he says. EMI is also about interaction. ‘The traditional lecture model doesn’t work in EMI’, he added.

Talking about language teachers, what does a former French language teacher who grew up in England but was born in Italy think of native speakerism in ELT? ‘I don’t think native speakers are better [teachers]. Bilingual teachers are certainly better – you need to speak the language of the population’, he explains. However, we have to be careful to not throw out the baby with the bath water, he warns. ‘Native speakers have a broad range of vocabulary and idioms, which makes a language rich. An Italian lecturer once said: “when I teach in English I teach in black and white, in Italian I teach in colour”’.

‘What is important’, he adds, ‘is to not expect your students to become native speakers. And to not have an employment system which only favours native speakers’. Since we are talking about hot topics in ELT, what does Macaro think of the industry’s complicated relationship with the evidence base? ‘EFL has tended to respond to the latest fads far too quickly, with people becoming famous too quickly. Teachers need to be more discerning, more careful about how they consume research, and the same goes for publishers’, he says.

Macaro is now busy working on two projects. The first one is laying the foundations for the creation of a certification for EMI lecturers. The second project analyses the level of vocabulary taught in CLIL classes at Italian licei (academic secondary schools) compared to that needed to successfully study in English at university. Initial results will be out by April next year. Watch this space.


andy kirkpatrick

‘Staff get really worried and fear being mocked by their students’

Institutions must consider the social impact of introducing EMI and should not sideline local languages, Professor Andy Kirkpatrick tells Claudia Civinini.

Alongside the obvious benefits for institutions, there is a darker side to English as a Medium of Instruction policies. Beyond the usual questions regarding language and content learning, Professor Kirkpatrick warns that there is a social impact on students, staff and local languages that needs to be considered.

‘At times, we are putting the needs of international students in Asian universities above those of the local students’, argues Professor Kirkpatrick, an expert in language education policy. In his work across Asia, helping universities build a language policy that works for both staff and students, Kirkpatrick says he has seen this phenomenon in more than one instance. ‘One example is in Japan. I know of EMI courses who are only attended by international students, which seems to be missing the point’, he tells the Gazette.

‘EMI can often privilege English against other languages, and I think it’s a real problem’, says the professor. The local language shouldn’t be ignored, otherwise it starts to affect local students. In Burma, he adds, English is the only language for higher education. This mean that Burmese is removed as a language for instruction and scholarship. ‘This is a classic example of where English replaces the local language rather than complementing it’, he says. ‘But EMI should be an addition to the other languages, never a replacement’.

But EMI doesn’t just have an impact on students and their access to higher education. Staff are affected too. ‘It is really stressful for staff. They get really worried and fear being mocked by their students, too’, says Kirkpatrick.

‘They may be brilliant in their field but suddenly start feeling insecure and inadequate because they can’t teach in English, the new medium of instruction. I feel it’s an issue of justice here too’.

Any instances in which EMI works well? ‘To be honest, in the Asian context, I haven’t seen it working really well anywhere, except in places where English has been long-established as a medium of education, such as in Singapore’, says Kirkpatrick.

He then takes Hong Kong, where he spent six years working, as an example. There, six out of eight universities have EMI policies in place, but, in fact, a lot of Cantonese (and, increasingly, Putonghua) is used in class. ‘This is only natural’, he explains. ‘The problem is that people feel guilty about it, because it is supposed to be just English as a medium of instruction.’

EMI needs to be complementary to other languages, and staff and students must feel comfortable to use whatever language they may share, he says. ‘To deny students access to resources in their own language because they happen to be operating in an EMI context is counter-productive, really. The same goes for staff.’

But how can institutions negotiate a multilingual EMI? They can negotiate a language policy whereby English is used for assessment purposes, but students are allowed and encouraged to learn using the languages and resources they have, he explains.

This was the case at the Hong Kong University of Education, where Kirkpatrick was involved in the consultation leading to the university’s EMI policy. ‘It involved a lot of consultation’, he said. ‘It ended up with a difference between classroom language, where there was freedom for staff and students to negotiate the language they wanted, and assessment language, which had to be the language of the course. That came out of the debate – but it took three or four years’.

Consultation is key to a successful policy, he says. ‘Everyone wants EMI, it’s popular, but it needs to be introduced carefully, in consultation with all stakeholders’. This includes students, academic staff, and also admin staff. ‘It needs to be carefully thought out, with the consequences.’
Of course, there needs to be appropriate support for staff and students in the language before introducing the policy.

But what language are we talking about? What is the ‘E’ in EMI? Kirkpatrick is sure: it needs to be English as a lingua franca (ELF), not a native variety.

‘Otherwise, people are judged against some native speaker model, which is both unfair and unnecessary’, he explains.

How can ELF be introduced in higher education? For Kirkpatrick, we don’t just need clarity on what ELF is, ‘a way of using English which focuses more on intelligibility rather than native speaker correctness’, but also a cultural shift.

‘There should be a multilingual ethos in the university system that makes people feel good about being multilingual – rather than bad because they are not speaking a native-speaker variety of English.’

We certainly agree with that. Professor Kirkpatrick, affiliated with the Australian Griffith University, is still working on language policy in higher education in South East Asia. He is also preparing a monograph for Cambridge with an intriguing title: ‘Is English an Asian Language?’ What is the answer? ‘Yes’, he says. ‘But I shall take a little longer to answer it in the book’.