Archive for the ‘Higher education’ Category

Seven years ago, the British Council brought out a report (Dearden, 2014), entitled ‘English as a medium of instruction – a growing global phenomenon’. The report noted the ‘rapid expansion’ of EMI provision, but observed that in many countries ‘there is a shortage of linguistically qualified teachers; there are no stated expectations of English language proficiency; there appear to be few organisational or pedagogical guidelines which might lead to effective EMI teaching and learning; there is little or no EMI content in initial teacher education (teacher preparation) programmes and continuing professional development (in-service) courses’.

Given issues such as these, we should not expect research findings about the efficacy of EMI to be unequivocally positive, and the picture that emerges from EMI research is decidedly mixed. In some countries, learning of academic content has deteriorated, and drop-out rates have been high, but we do not have enough information to make global generalisations. Improvements in English language skills are also often disappointing, although a number of research reports indicate gains in listening. We cannot, however, assume that following EMI studies will lead to greater language gains than, say, attending fewer hours of an intensive English course. The idea that two birds can be killed with one stone remains speculative.

The widespread rolling-out of EMI programmes in higher education has led to concerns about a negative effect on the status of other languages. There is also a danger that EMI may exacerbate social inequalities. Those who are most likely to benefit from the approach are ‘those whose life chances have already placed them in a position to benefit from education’ (Macaro, 2018). It is clear that EMI has spread globally without sufficient consideration of both its benefits and its costs.

This year, the British Council brought out another report on EMI (Sahan, et al., 2021), looking at EMI in ODA-categorised countries, i.e. receivers of foreign aid, mostly in the Global South. What has changed in the intervening seven years? The short answer is not a lot. Unabated growth continues: problematic issues remain problematic. Support for EMI lecturers remains limited and, when it is offered, usually takes the form of improving teachers’ general English proficiency. The idea that EMI lecturers might benefit from ‘training in appropriate materials selection, bilingual teaching pedagogies, strategies for teaching in multilingual or multicultural classrooms, [or] an awareness of their students’ disciplinary language needs’ does not seem to have taken root. The insight that EMI requires a shift in methodology in order to be effective has not really got through either, and this, despite the fact that it is well-known that many lecturers perceive EMI as a challenge. The growing body of research evidence showing the positive potential of plurilingual practices in higher education EMI (e.g. Duarte & van der Ploeg, 2019) is not, it would appear, widely known to universities around the world offering EMI classes. The only mention of ‘plurilingualism’ that I could find in this report is in the context of a discussion about how the internationalization (aka Englishization) of higher education acts as a counter-force to the plurilingualism promoted by bodies like the Council of Europe.

The home of the Council of Europe’s ‘European Centre for Modern Languages (ECML)’ is in Austria, where I happen to live. Here’s what the ECML’s website has to say about itself:

Developing every individual’s language repertoire and cultural identities and highlighting the social value of linguistic and cultural diversity lie at the core of ECML work. Plurilingual education embraces all language learning, e.g. home language/s, language/s of schooling, foreign languages, and regional and minority languages.

To support plurilingual education, a ‘Framework of Reference for Pluralistic Approaches to Languages and Cultures’ has been developed, along with a bank of resources and teaching materials that are linked to the descriptors in the frame of reference. Plurilingualism is clearly taken very seriously, and, across the country there are many interesting plurilingual initiatives in primary and secondary schools.

But not at universities. There is steady growth in EMI, especially at master’s level. Almost a quarter of all master’s at the University of Vienna, for example, are EMI. However, this has not been accompanied by any real thought about how EMI changes things or how EMI could best be implemented. It has simply been assumed that the only thing that differentiates teaching in German from using EMI is the choice of language itself (Dannerer et al., 2021). Only when things go wrong and are perceived as problematic (e.g. severe student dropout rates) ‘does the realization follow that there is so much more to teaching in another medium than language proficiency alone’ (ibid). Even language proficiency is not deemed especially worthy of serious consideration. Dannerer et al (2021) note that ‘the skills of teachers […] are neither tested nor required before they begin to offer courses in English. Although there are English language courses for students, academic, and administrative staff, they are mainly voluntary.’ There are no clear policies ‘as to when English or other languages should be employed, by whom, and for what’ (ibid). In summary, ‘linguistic and cultural plurality in Austrian higher education is not considered an asset that brings added value in terms of institutional diversity or internationalization at home’. Rather, in the context of EMI, it is something that can be Englishized and ignored.

Higher education EMI in Austria, then, is, in some ways, not so very different from EMI in the countries that feature in the recent British Council report. Or, for that matter, anywhere else in the world, with just a few exceptions (such as a number of universities in bilingual parts of Spain). My question is: why is this the case? Why would universities not actively pursue and promote plurilingual approaches as part of their EMI provision, if, as seems highly probable, this would result in learning gains? Are they really unaware of the potential benefits of plurilingual approaches in EMI? Is the literature out there (e.g. Paulsrud, et al., 2021) beyond their budgets? Have they, perhaps, just not got round to it yet? Is there, perhaps, some sort of problem (contracts? pay? time?) in training the lecturers? Or, as the British Council report seems to suggest, is there some irreconcilable tension between plurilingualism and the Englishizing world of most EMI? And, if this is the case, could it be that plurilingualism is fighting a losing battle?


Dannerer, M., Gaisch, M. & Smit, U. (2021) Englishization ‘under the radar’: Facts, policies, and trends in Austrian higher education. In Wilkinson, R. & Gabriëls, R. (Eds.) (2021) The Englishization of Higher Education in Europe. Amsterdam University Press, pp. 281 – 306

Dearden, J. (2014) English as a medium of instruction – a growing global phenomenon. London: British Council

Duarte, J. & van der Ploeg, M. (2019) Plurilingual lecturers in English medium instruction in the Netherlands: the key to plurilingual approaches in higher education? European Journal of Higher Education, 9 (3)

Macaro, E. (2018) English Medium Instruction. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Paulsrud, B., Tian, Z. & Toth, J. (Eds.) (2021) English-Medium Instruction and Translanguaging. Bristol: Multilingual Matters

Sahan, K., Mikolajewska, A., Rose, H., Macaro, E., Searle, M., Aizawa, I., Zhou, S. & Veitch, A. (2021) Global mapping of English as a medium of instruction in higher education: 2020 and beyond. London: British Council

Wilkinson, R. & Gabriëls, R. (2021) The untapped potentials of EMI programmes. The Dutch case, System, 103, 102639

Wilkinson, R. & Gabriëls, R. (Eds.) (2021) The Englishization of Higher Education in Europe. Amsterdam University Press.