10 truths (& a lie) about EMI

English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI) is a growing phenomenon in education and research. I say ‘growing’ because I recently read an article in The Conversation that talked about the number of undergraduate and masters programmes fully taught in English as having increased by 239% between 2007 and 2014. Within a Brexit horizon and growing concerns of a potential hike in UK tuition fees, I suspect that European institutions will continue to increase their EMI courses and this is where ELT professionals need to calibrate their training portfolios to meet the needs that EMI presents for trainees and trainers alike.

I define EMI as teaching a subject using English, without explicit language learning aims and usually in a country where English is not spoken by a majority of the people. I’ve been working on EMI as part of my job in a Ecole Centrale Paris (now Centrale-Supélec) for the last 5 years. This has involved the fun parts like coaching colleagues who lecture in English and learning about their subjects and the not-so-fun parts like proofreading and formatting 120 pages of a course in English on a very tight deadline. I’d like to say that it’s been more of the former than of the latter but let’s stick to the truths for now! The main subject areas I’ve been working on are physics, energy, industrial engineering and biomechanics. Obviously, apart from my high level of interest in these subjects, I have no specific expertise in them. I have however come to understand a lot of the processes that converge towards a successful EMI course, which is why I’ve started sharing some of the fruit of this labour within the ELT community with my IATEFL webinar earlier this and in my forthcoming talk with Bethany Cagnol this November at TESOL France.

I structured the webinar in June around ten truths (and a lie) about EMI, and here they are. In the interest of keeping this post as a digestible read for a lunchtime browse, I’ve chosen not to explain each point in detail: 

Number 1:

We need the acronym ‘EMI’.

The question I most often get is – ‘is EMI really a thing?’. I would say yes it is. I’ll even get specific and say we need the acronym EMI because English Medium Instruction is not exactly the same as Content Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), it is not a substitute for English for Academic Purposes (EAP) nor is it a refashioning of English for Specific Purposes (ESP), it occurs in the image of these practices in education but is a phenomenon of its own. Why do I say this? Because for me EMI has no explicitly stated language teaching aims. In my experience, no one teaches an EMI course thinking “great, I’ll work on my students’ English as well”. The policy makers who hover above may think this but my observations in the teaching sphere have been quite the opposite. What I mostly observe is the need present the goals of the course as clearly content-focused and to minimise any guarantees that the language exposure will have for the students- never have I heard an EMI teacher say “you will leave this course having really boosted your English”.

Number 2:

Not all students think EMI is a good thing.

Any EMI practice should occur in the spirit of a multilingual environment and not an English-only environment. I think we need to move away from the model of EMI perpetuating a language ideal that imitates a culture outside or beyond the local environment. EMI in France will feel a little French, EMI in Italy will feel a little Italian- conversations will flow in both languages and that’s a good thing. Academics and students will become more bilingual as a result of EMI as opposed to having the English-language proficiency bar systematically imposed and raised on their practice. It is undeniable that many international students perform much better when they can follow a course in English but equally, many question how this impacts their experience of studying abroad. I’ll share one quote from a student here, which is representative of what so many international students have said to me, across a variety of institutions:

“yes it’s nice that there are some courses in English here because my French is not so good but I came to Paris to improve my French… of course to have the option to study in English is easier but I don’t know if it’s good for me”. (Student interview, 2015).

Which brings me to my next point-

Number 3:

EMI doesn’t have to mean English only

Number 4:

Good EMI may not come from more English language training.

John Knagg made the point a little while back that one of the biggest fallacies in relation to EMI was the monolithic fallacy – the idea that there was only one type of EMI. Just like it would be so wrong for me to generalise as to what’s happening in the rest of the world based on what’s happening in French higher education, and there are so many reasons for which the EMI practices differ across institutions, across domains and across countries and cultures. But one revelation for me in talking to colleagues from all over the world is that there is no single formula for what works, and more importantly teaching academics English in order for them to teach in English is often neither practical nor quite simply possible.

Number 5:

EMI is redefining the job description of a language teacher / tutor / coach. 

I spent a lot of time discussing this in the webinar so if you’d like to hear the full narrative it’s probably best to just watch that section of it. The biggest journey for me as an EMI trainer as been shifting the focus from the person (i.e. the academic teaching the EMI course) to the course content (the lectures, slides, course materials, assessment and feedback). I believe more than ever that at the end of the day it’s all about the materials. If we can collaborate with an EMI teacher to plan and produce materials in their domain of expertise in good, clear and communicable English, everything that follows in the classroom will flow with more confidence and more conviction.

Number 6:

Good EMI will not come from more testing.

I was approached a while back and asked if I’d be interested in writing an English language test for academic recruitment. I politely declined. I feel the need to address this here however because surely the only criteria for academic recruitment is the quality of the person’s thinking and research? If we start explicitly favouring an academic’s English language level over their intellectual ability to think theoretically, to think as a researcher and to analyse at the level of sophistication necessary for higher education, how will this dilute the very essence of expertise in a subject?

Which brings me to the two subsequent points I made in the webinar;

Number 7:

EMI will have deep impact on university ecosystems, and we don’t know what this means for long-term academic standards.

Number 8:

EMI policy makers have a collective responsibility to preserve the languages of science and academia

Number 9:

EMI trainers will have to work on their own second language learning and translation competencies.

I was asked this question in the webinar- as to whether I felt an EMI trainer needed to be bilingual. I answered it with an equivocal ‘yes’ for several reasons – the main one being that I think it’s just really bad form to not be able to work between the local language and the English language. Developing good materials, where course content in communicated clearly necessitates understanding of how those materials will be received, what the linguistic and cultural sensitivities are around certain expressions, developing arguments, problem-posing and negotiating across cross-cultural settings. The ability to work in translation on EMI materials helps the process in so many ways. 

Number 10:

The debates around English as a Lingua Franca will probably get more complicated once EMI data is in the mix.

– which might perhaps deserve a separate blog post all on its own!

Number 11 (the lie):

Rapid EMI adoption is necessary if universities want to do well in global rankings.

It’s important not to adopt EMI for EMI’s sake. I believe, perhaps slightly controversially, that a poor-quality EMI course is not better than no EMI course. I think there’s is little to be gained from the compromise that this might result in; compromise in terms of academic content, in terms of professional confidence and in terms of learning the subject. Diluted content in poor English is not a viable solution to embracing the challenge of internationalisation across an institution. Professional development and strong support systems for academics and higher education staff is.

I believe that this is an exciting time for English language teachers in the EMI landscape, and an exciting opportunity to renew our practice and widen the ways in which we can work collaboratively with teachers of other subjects. The deeper motivation to lecture and supervise higher education students in English will only come if the adoption of the English language will enrich and not enslave the process.

One thought on “10 truths (& a lie) about EMI

  1. Thank you for this post Diva,

    I truly do believe that EMI will become more prevalent as time will go by, and this is indeed an issue that should be discussed much broadly. Thank you for this enlightening post.


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