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These are the drivers propelling the EMI train forward

The drive to English as a Medium of Instruction is unstoppable, but teachers need support to keep it on track, argues Ernesto Macaro

Virtually every text on English Medium Instruction (EMI) that you may read, be it a research paper or someone’s opinion, will tell you that the phenomenon is growing rapidly worldwide. Whether they are for or against EMI, almost all authors agree that it is an ‘unstoppable train’. This is also my own view but I believe, if it is unstoppable, then we must do the best we can to make the ride for both students and teachers as pleasant and as fulfilling as possible.

The term EMI is generally used to describe classrooms in non-Anglophone countries, where content subjects are being taught through the medium of English. So, if Geography is being taught through English in Italy, or Chemistry is being taught through English in China, then those would be EMI classrooms.

EMI tends to be associated more with Higher Education (HE) than with other phases of education, but is certainly not exclusive to HE. The term is sometimes used synonymously with CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning), but I think there are problems with that association which space here will not allow me to explore.

The forces that are propelling the EMI train forward are many and complex, but English is now the undisputed world lingua franca and, given the steady increase in student mobility, universities increasingly need to offer academic content in English rather than in the local language.

This mobility can also be regional. In the European Union, for example, the ‘Bologna Process’ aspired to facilitate student mobility among member countries by standardising qualifications. The unintended consequence has been that more and more universities are obliged to offer courses through the medium of English. If you want to attract Portuguese students of economics to, say, a Dutch university, you are more likely to be successful if they are not expected to learn Dutch up to the level needed to get a degree. Similar pressures for offering EMI programmes operate in the ASEAN countries, where universities are competing for international students within their Southeast Asian region.

At a more general level, EMI is also seen as a mechanism for facilitating the internationalisation policy of an HE institution, potentially helping it to rise in the world rankings of universities. Internationalisation is not only about attracting international students but also foreign teaching staff. Indeed, universities in some countries are partially ranked on the percentage of EMI courses that they offer.

On a national level, many policy makers believe that teaching academic subjects through English is cost-effective in that students’ level of English will improve concurrently with obtaining expertise and qualifications in a content subject. Coupled to this is the general belief that EMI provides massive exposure to English, and this will improve a nation’s linguistic prowess, make students more marketable on the world stage, and do wonders for the national economy. For some linguists, EMI is also seen as vehicle for making language learning more ‘authentic’.

Finally, there is pressure from the private education sector on the state funded sector. At the high school level, the former often advertises itself as providing its courses through EMI. This may put pressure on state high schools to do the same in order to be seen as equally prestigious. This also exerts an upward pressure on universities to offer home students English-taught courses: they’ve been taught at school through English, why now go to university and specialise through the local language?

If these are the drivers propelling the EMI train forward, what might be putting on the brakes, or even risking a derailment?

First, there is considerable evidence that EMI is primarily introduced top-down via policy-makers; content teachers often having no option but to teach through English. A common complaint in the research literature is that some teachers are not linguistically confident enough to make the switch to EMI. They may feel their English is adequate for writing a research paper or making a conference presentation, but teaching students whose own English may be at an insufficient level requires more wide-ranging linguistic skills. Frequently-reported anxieties about students’ understanding of content are also heard from research on students. Second, so far, evidence that EMI really does have an impact on students’ level of English is quite scarce. It still isn’t established that two years of EMI produce better English linguists than an intensive EFL course.

Next, does EMI favour a socio-economic elite? To what extent might students be selected to start an architecture degree simply on the basis of their level of English, not on their potential as architects?

Finally, is there a risk of a detrimental effect on the home language and culture? For example, will publishers in a non-Anglophone country be likely to stop publishing science textbooks in that language because it is no longer profitable? This might contribute to a general trend of undervaluing the home language and culture.

“It still isn’t established that two years of EMI produce better English 
linguists than an intensive EFL course.”

If the train cannot be stopped, what can we do to make the journey one in which EMI students will truly thrive?

There is no doubt that EMI teachers need professional development to enable them to make the switch to teaching their subjects through English. But it isn’t simply a question of getting a higher CEFR score. Teaching through EMI requires increased knowledge, understanding and skills: the knowledge of the different registers involved in teaching a subject and enabling masterful understanding of its content; understanding whether students’ misconceptions are content-orientated or language-orientated; and acquiring the interactional skills needed to scaffold learning effectively.


  • Macaro, E. (2018) English Medium Instruction: Language and content in policy and practice. Oxford University Press

Macaro, E. (2019) Exploring the role of language in English Medium Instruction. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism.

Macaro, E. & Tian, L. & Chu, L. (2018) First and second language use in English Medium Instruction Contexts. Language Teaching Research, 1 -21. DOI: 10.1177/1362168818783231

Image courtesy of UNSPLASH
Ernesto Macaro
Ernesto Macaro
Ernesto Macaro is Emeritus Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Oxford and founding Director of its Centre for Research and Development in English Medium Instruction. Before becoming a teacher trainer and researcher he was a language teacher in UK secondary schools. His research focuses on learning strategies and on the interaction between teachers and learners in both second language and EMI classrooms.
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