English-medium policy should not mean English only

Anna Riggall

Anna Riggall is Head of Research; here she explores the reality of applying English-medium-instruction policy in the classroom.

It is not difficult to understand why there is a long history of tension around English as the medium of instruction (EMI) in multilingual societies. People want to be proficient in English. It is the language of business and often a lingua franca in countries where there is no other language that everyone speaks. Nevertheless, people also want to hold onto their heritage. And it can be difficult for children to learn in what – to many of them – is effectively a foreign language.

There is, however, some good news in this sometimes fraught debate. Problems can be resolved fruitfully if two issues are tackled well. First, there is clarifying what EMI actually means. Second, there are the many challenges – varying between countries – around how to enact EMI effectively in practice. Our research shows that there is much that policymakers can do to support EMI in their contexts.

Don't interpret EMI as English-only

Let's take the principle first: EMI is often misinterpreted as meaning 'English only', as requiring that local languages are excluded from the classroom. This narrow definition can frequently make EMI a barrier to learning. 'English only' can prevent students from understanding what they are being taught. It can also hamper their learning of the English language itself.

Our research project, springing out of partnership between Education Development Trust and the British Council, and involving the Open University as research partner, demonstrates that a broader definition of EMI is needed. A better guiding principle is that local languages can complement and support EMI in the classroom. Local languages and EMI are not at odds with each other – they aren't opposites in competition. They are, in fact, interdependent. A partnership between EMI and local languages is required if schools are to achieve the learning – as well as the language – goals that typically sit at the heart of policy and parental hopes.

Value flexible multilingualism in EMI contexts

The study suggests that this principle of complementarity, of which the effectiveness is well evidenced by academic research, is recognised by policy, but only partly. In Ghana, for example, like in many sub-Saharan African contexts, English and local languages are interchanged in the early years of schooling at which stage the official description of the language policy is 'mother tongue'. Eventually (from Grade 4 in Ghana) the official discourse changes and there is a shift to EMI. At this point, sometimes, the interpretation is that local languages are excluded and teaching becomes 'English only', even when children are far from fluent.

The pressures to interpret the policy in this way are strong. The virtue of keeping local languages in the classroom can be poorly understood by parents. Intent on ensuring that their children become proficient in English, they may believe 'English only' is best. In India, these considerations appear to be driving the growth of low-cost private EMI schools, which often recruit from poor families.

The broader, complementary definition of EMI is, however, often recognised on the ground, by teachers. In Ghana, they told the Open University's researchers that they felt 'English only' in the classroom made it more difficult for children to learn: they would prefer to use local languages as well. However, they felt constrained by policy. Meanwhile, teachers in the Indian low-cost private EMI schools behaved quite differently, being free from the controls of government language policy. They switched freely into Hindi to enhance children's understanding, even though their schools were branded as EMI.

This readiness for flexibility among teachers suggests ripe ground for promoting the use of bilingual classroom strategies among students, provided the policy context is permissive and parents understand the benefits that harnessing multilingualism can offer learning. Typically, this may not require a major shift from where policy currently sits or from what parents already believe. But it would rescue teachers from where they are now – often caught between their own professional knowledge and experience and the aspirations of parents and the directives of policy. Classrooms could become multilingual environments within an English medium context. However, there is more to it that just that.

Making EMI work well in practice

The second issue concerns the practice of EMI and making it work better. The good use of language for learning – particularly with more than one language – requires interaction between teachers and students, to ensure that students understand properly what they are being taught. That requires a shift from rote learning and drilling that was so often a feature of the classes that we observed in India and Ghana.

Take, for example, any lesson with a clear learning objective. There is a suite of actions that teachers can take to convey messages and encourage children to learn. If only one language is spoken within that classroom, the practice of delivering a great lesson where all pupils grasp the concept to the desired extent is complex enough. Imagine the same in a rich, multilingual classroom which uses English as its core language, and where English is not spoken well by any member of the class. This requires an even more sophisticated pedagogy which engages all learners and harnesses the language resources within the class to do so.

EMI success in flexible multilingual environments means providing ways for teachers to boost their own language skills, so they are competent in the language of instruction and the languages of the class. They need to be pedagogically skilled and have strong content knowledge. Helping teachers to be great is also about helping them to put it all together in a rich multilingual classroom which, in itself, is hugely complex. They need access to professional development that integrates language improvement, pedagogic skills for multilingual EMI classrooms and enhanced teaching skills for active, participative learning.

Steps for improving practice

The key to progress is recognition that small, adaptive shifts in policy and in practice could make a big difference in schools in low- and middle-income countries. An English medium policy does not have to mean 'English only'. The actions that are likely to help include:

  • tweaking policy wording to make clear that flexible multilingual approaches can help to implement EMI policies effectively;
  • supporting teachers with training and development opportunities so they have the skills and knowledge to effectively support learning in EMI contexts;
  • marshalling the efforts of curriculum and resources creators and researchers to help fill the resource and knowledge gaps;
  • working to change attitudes away from valuing English-only, immersive classroom environments towards valuing flexible multilingual strategies.

Greater flexibility about using local languages to support EMI can refocus attention on the core purpose and challenges of education: to facilitate learning.