EMI as a Global Phenomenon in the System of Higher Education

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27 ноября 2020, 17:20
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Pirogova Nadezhda Gennadievna
ITMO University, Saint Petersburg
Nowadays educators around the world can observe a rapid growth of academic disciplines taught through English Medium Instruction (EMI). The global spread of English has led to an increase in importance of English language instruction as well as instruction through English. EMI is quickly developing as a new field of research. It has become an evolving phenomenon taking place predominantly in higher education. The internationalisation of universities has become a top priority for higher education institutions (HEIs) across countries. In order to establish an international presence and internationalise their courses universities compete to attract more international students. Thus, EMI is being introduced in many universities around the world. Universities develop efficient internationalisation policies, support collaborative degree programmes to employ international staff and organise student exchanges. The article looks in detail at the reasons for introduction of EMI as well as the implications and possible challenges.
Ключевые слова:
globalization, EMI course, internationalisation, university, student, teacher, academic subject, language proficiency
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One of the most distinguished trends in higher education in the 21st century is a quick grow of programmes in English in countries where English is not the native language [1]. English is one the most widely spoken languages in a quickly globalizing world. It is used in such spheres as technology, science, politics, media and communication. The globalisation of English language and the development of EMI raises important issues both for EMI and ELT (English language teaching). Recently we have also seen an increasing theoretical debate on the necessity to modify ELT practice from the standpoint of globalisation of English, although there is a lack of empirical study [2, 3].

There are several opposing opinions on the role of English and its use as a medium of instruction. While some prefer to use English as a medium of instruction in contrast to the native language, others are afraid of learning foreign languages from childhood. Early introduction of EMI is sometimes viewed as impairing for learning. It is estimated that it takes learners 6 to 8 years to develop CALP (cognitive and academic language proficiency) which is necessary to succeed in EMI programmes.

Definition of EMI

The term EMI is relatively new in education and there is no universally accepted definition of it. EMI phenomenon has a number of names among which there are: English-medium education [4], English medium of instruction [5], English medium instruction [6, 7], English as a medium of instruction [8], English as the lingua franca medium of instruction [9].

EMI can be officially defined as ‘The use of the English language to teach academic subjects in countries or jurisdictions where the first language (L1) of the majority of the population is not English’ [10].

It is sometimes used as equivalent to CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning). The term CLIL was introduced by European researchers in 1996 as an ‘umbrella’ term describing various methods which deal with teaching and learning where attention is paid to both topic and language. It is widely used to describe any educational process in which a foreign language is used for teaching and learning of disciplines other than language itself. However, CLIL has a dual methodological objective (the improvement of language and content) whereas EMI does not. EMI deals with teaching academic subjects through English which is not the native language of most students.

EMI may also be confused with EAP (English for Academic Purposes) which is designed to provide learners with academic vocabulary and discourse helping them study successfully at the universities which deliver academic disciplines in English.

EMI is sometimes confused with ESP (English for Specific Purposes) which includes courses specifically designed to help students undertake professions in an English-speaking environment.

It is also widely believed that studying academic subjects through EMI can facilitate and enhance the learning of that discipline by students. This idea is especially relevant for univerities where the majority of substantial research is published through the medium of English. Practical experience indicates that if the students read a lot in English for their course, then they interact efficiently during classes and succeed in final assessment.

EMI is considered to be an authentic way to study a language, even more authentic than EFL (English as a Foreign Language) with its focus on specific topics which students may or may not come across in real life. That is why we can observe a global shift from English being taught as a foreign language to English being implemented as a medium of instruction for different academic subjects.

English medium instruction has recently become a kind of ‘galloping’ phenomenon which is ‘pandemic in proportion’ [11]. EMI is described as an ‘unstoppable train’ [12] and ‘the most significant trend in educational internationalisation’ [12].

EMI and internationalisation

In higher education the world is experiencing a great change in the way that teaching EFL (English as a Foreign Language) is being perceived and offered to students. Instead of relying basically on classes in which the key objective is to teach a foreign language, the way through which English is delivered is an academic discipline other than English. To put this another way, a special subject is taught in a language which is not the native language of students.

According to the statistics 4.5 million students get education abroad, and it is estimated that by the end of 2020 the number of international students would reach 7 million [13]. Consequently, there is a strong belief held by education managers that their university has to adopt internationalisation policy in order to progress in the world rankings. More and more universities around the world are ready to organise undergraduate and postgraduate courses through medium of English [4, 14].

The main reason for this process as mentioned by most specialists is the desire to attract international students by internationalising the institution and therefore get high university ranking. The secondary reason for introduction of EMI courses is to offer home students a curriculum which will help them get ready for the international career. In many European countries the number of subjects taught in English is growing quickly due to the Bologna process and these courses attract learners from all parts of the world. One of the main objectives of teachers and students in implementing EMI is to internationalise education. 

Supporting its international status, universities in Russia attract students from foreign countries who do not always speak Russian, and therefore the language of instruction has to be the only one that all learners will understand. The idea of internationalisation of universities is rather controversial. In the narrow sense it means attraction and admission of foreign learners. Additionally, it may include attraction and employment of international staff. The speed at which institutions are internationalising and English is being spoken as lingua franca is growing. Universities in Russia are becoming international in the sense that their campuses are also becoming global being facilitated by EMI. University teachers consider that EMI is beneficial to students and learners who make progress in English when they study through EMI.

The growing role of English in institutions has led to a number of changes. The number of EMI courses is often seen as the indicator of a university’s educational system and determines its ranking and government funding. University staff and students also have to prepare publications in English in international journals. Moreover, some universities require learners to participate in some EMI courses in order to graduate successfully.

Advantages and disadvantages of EMI

The use of English as a medium of instruction may have both positive and negative outcomes. Research indicates that the main advantages of EMI include better accessibility of authentic materials and better curricula, better career opportunities and communication. The key challenges may include lack of teachers’ confidence in teaching EMI and loss of native language. According to some research these challenges can be overcome by using learners’ L1 (first language in EMI).

The key benefit of EMI is giving learners an opportunity to boost their English proficiency skills and get content knowledge simultaneously enhancing their academic progress in special disciplines. Some studies have shown a positive correlation between English proficiency and teaching EMI [15].

EMI is believed to create a positive learning environment, which provides extensive language practice to negotiate special topics, thus resulting in better learning.

EMI also gives students a chance to make foreign friends. Socialising with international students and staff can be conducive to comparative understanding and increases learners’ career opportunities. Enhanced career path serves as a major motivating factor to enroll in EMI programmes [16]. Students consider these courses to be beneficial for their educational and job opportunities.

One of the main problems in using English as a medium of instruction is that, despite academic qualifications, teachers may lack the necessary language proficiency and competence to teach the subject [10]. It should be noted that if the medium of instruction is English, the teachers bear more responsibility for improvement their language and teaching skills. Successful EMI courses require subject teachers and instructors who are proficient in English. At present there are no definite parameters to identify the competence of instructors to teach through EMI [14].

However, there are some challenges in relation to EMI courses, and a poor planning can have unpredictable results. As mentioned above, one of the possible benefits of EMI courses is the improved language proficiency of learners. For this reason students and teachers should get necessary support. Some EMI programmes do not have certain entry requirements to ensure learners have a necessary level of English proficiency to cope with the academic content. It can influence learners’ performance in a number of bad ways such as resistance to EMI and long time to finish the course [17].

The second language (L2) proficiency gap is the main obstacle to students’ ability to be successfully enrolled in EMI course and achieve positive learning results. That is why it is vital to deal with this language gap that may constrain students’ ability to learn and get subject knowledge in English. This gap can be tackled in several ways. For instance, the language of the curriculum and coursebooks should correspond to the students’ level of English, and topic-based tasks and instruction should be language supportive and comprehensible. English-medium coursebooks are often beyond the reach of students with low levels of English. So it is vital for subject teachers to adapt these coursebooks for supporting learning in L2, necessary for both subject knowledge and CALP.

Whereas learners’ language proficiency level is one factor influencing EMI implementation, instructors’ proficiency levels in English is another obstacle. Some linguistic problems may incorporate teachers’ low ability to use the language [18], the reduction of academic content depth and quantity [11] and great workload and preparation period due to the poor language ability [19].

It is important to mention that EMI requires more than simply translating subject content and presenting it. It embraces delivering subject matter in English to students with different academic backgrounds. Nevertheless, being a professional in a subject area and being proficient in English is not always enough to teach the subject in an EMI course. That is why efficient staff training determines the success of any EMI course [20, 21].

The increasing number of international students also raises some challenges for universities. Learners with limited language knowledge may have communication problems or experience difficulties in understanding the new institutional culture. Culture-related problems may be the result of the clash between learners’ academic or cultural background and the new language input of EMI practice.


To sum up, EMI is a situation where students for whom English is a foreign language partly or fully receive education in English. Many universities are increasing the number of courses for students through the medium of English. The main reason for teaching and learning through EMI is that English as a lingua franca is an important component of the internationalisation process. EMI is an efficient way for university students to improve their English proficiency and get important content knowledge. Efficient learning through medium of English much depends on the language proficiency and is important for achieving the main pedagogical objectives such as successful implementation of the curriculum and achievement of high academic performance.

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