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Lessons taught in English are reshaping the global classroom

If not, you may be left out. woaiss/Shutterstock

Universities and schools across the globe are offering an increasing number of courses taught in English. Parents and politicians alike are pushing for this change as English is considered a worldwide language of opportunity in education and business.

The decision to use English as medium of instruction has very important implications for the education of young people in non-anglophone countries and yet little research evidence is available.

EMI Oxford, a new research centre at Oxford University’s department of education, is currently carrying out global research into this issue to explore where and why English is being introduced as a teaching language and what happens in the classroom when it is.

Our first report has been written with support from the British Council, setting out the size and shape of English language teaching in 55 countries. Initial findings, being presented at the Going Global conference on international education, show that 83% of countries surveyed believed that they did not have enough qualified teachers to teach through English.

What “qualified” means is not yet clear as teaching qualifications do not seem to exist. It may be that not all teachers can teach in English. For example, older, more experienced teachers may find it difficult. If teachers cannot speak good English, the home language may still be used most of the time.

Going anglophonic

There is no still clear definition yet of what teaching in English actually means and how it includes other forms of bilingual education. It is also not yet clear exactly what the consequences of introducing English as a teaching language are on teaching, learning, assessment and teachers’ professional development.

There are many reasons why countries introduce English as a teaching language. They want their students to become bilingual, improve their knowledge of a target culture, and see English as opening up opportunities for students to work and study abroad. Countries may want to spread their own culture throughout the world or have political reasons for adopting English as a medium for instruction, such as nation-building and aligning a country with English-speaking neighbours.

Some institutions are not so sure why they are adopting English to teach in. One European institution told us: “Other universities hurry to copy us, but they don’t really know what is the objective of this hurry.”

The use of English is indisputably growing, especially in the private sector where it can give a school or university the edge over its competitors and is seen to offer students an international education with all the benefits that can bring.

The consequences

If this is the case, does learning in English create more inequality? What happens to those children who miss out on an education in English, who are not part of this social elite? Are we creating a two-tier education system of English-speaking “haves” and “have-nots”?

Education is a fundamental human right. So we could ask if education in your home language is also a human right. Some countries, such as Hungary, are hesitating to adopt English as a medium of instruction, asking themselves whether all students are capable of learning through English and if all teachers are capable of teaching in English.

Will the students’ understanding of the subject matter suffer if their level of English or their teacher’s level is low? Even though early studies in bilingual education showed that students performed well, some countries are reversing their policy on teaching in English as they fear that students will not perform as well in English as in their home language. Of course there are many reasons why this might happen.

Some countries, such as Israel, hesitate to go towards English as a medium of instruction as they wish to protect their home language, culture and education system.

Questions abound as to the use and future of the home language if English is the language of education. If students are taught solely in English it would be hoped that they acquire an academic language and a language of their subject, for example medicine, in English. This will help them to communicate in international conferences and read papers on their subject in English. But will it help them talk to patients in their country? And will the home language itself lose out from not being used in education? Is it a question of “use it or lose it?”

At EMI Oxford we are working on a global online survey of teachers to take place between May and October 2014 to help answer some of these questions and more.

The future of English

On the other hand, what will happen to English itself? If teachers in non-anglophone countries use English in a classroom of international students, the English used may well be very different from country to country and even classroom to classroom. Another interesting question is that if everyone is using classroom English as well as their home language, most of the world will be at least bilingual so will native speakers of English be at a disadvantage, will they be the only monolinguals?

Exams and assessment also pose a great challenge. If a subject is taught, or supposed to be taught, in English, which language should it be examined in? What is being examined, the subject content or the English? Who should write and mark these exams?

There are examples of countries such as Tanzania where many students fail exams as they are taught in a home language and then expected to take the exams in English.

Teachers in our research so far believe that English can improve communication, help the exchange of ideas and create relations between countries. They see English in the classroom as a way of facilitating world peace. Home students benefit from a language which opens doors and enables them to move globally in academia and business. Teachers are also internationally mobile and this creates opportunities for them to teach abroad.

In the classroom itself though, there is little guidance as to whether “English as a medium for instruction” means teaching in English only or a bilingual education. There seems to be a lack of clear guidelines on how to teach through English and a lack of support and teaching resources. Institutions find it difficult to find enough teachers and to resource exams.

What’s clear is that more research is needed in order to find out the long-lasting impact of English as a medium of instruction around the world.

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