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Modern Languages and LinguisticsPart of Humanities

Transforming attitudes, policies and practices in universities using English as a medium of instruction

Researchers at the University of Southampton’s Centre for Global Englishes (CGE) have for some time investigated language-related policies and practices at international universities adopting English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI). Their research demonstrates that with the global spread of EMI, universities’ existing language policies and practices discriminate against their diverse student and staff populations and need rethinking.

Context

Language help card

English has been positioned as a gatekeeper to higher education in countries where it is spoken as a first and second language. Universities in mainland Europe have seen an exponential growth of programmes that use English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI) since 2003, and Asian and Latin American contexts are following suit. This adversely affects the chances of non-native speakers of English to obtain a (good) degree.

Research challenge

CGE research, led by Professor Jennifer Jenkins, investigates how approaches to English in admissions, teaching and assessment at universities affect non-native speakers of English.

The research exposed a widespread attitude among university management, staff and students that idealises standard native English as the only ‘acceptable’ medium of academic communication, and which leaves little or no room for linguistic diversity and non-native variation.

The research found that there was little awareness that native English staff and students may lack intercultural communication skills and linguistic accommodation strategies. Native English speakers may also not be aware of unfairness experienced by non-natives operating in a 2nd (or 3rd or 4th) language by requiring them to defer to one standard native English even when their own use is already intelligible.

CGE research has transformed attitudes, classroom practices and institutional policy through three main pathways, described below.

International Face-to-face EMI training courses, leading to changed attitudes and new institutional policies

The University of Southampton’s Academic Centre for International Students (ACIS) has run four bespoke EMI training courses since 2014 for teachers in/from Chile, Colombia, Denmark, France, Mexico, Nizhny Novgorod, Norway and Tomsk.

Feedback from participants described changes in how they conceptualise non-native intelligible uses of English. The in-house courses run at the University of Chile were especially effective from this perspective, and the University has begun to incorporate CGE research into their official institutional policy. They have reframed their postgraduate English learning programmes, and their website now states that they teach students to become expert English as a Lingua France (ELF) academic communicators.

At Southampton, ELF-informed changes were introduced in the policies of the pre-sessional English courses. New syllabi, assessment criteria, and EAP teacher training moved away from a superficial focus on language accuracy towards disciplinary communication. Around 4,200 students benefited from this new system during the 2019 and 2020 programmes.

Research-led MOOC, leading to changed classroom practices and syllabi internationally

The FutureLearn MOOC, EMI for Academics, launched in June 2017. It is specifically tailored to non-native academics who teach or seek to teach their content subjects through the medium of English.

The MOOC total around 30,000 learners across all runs, based in 145 countries. In a follow-up survey, 78% of participants confirmed that the MOOC had changed their attitudes to non-native English variation, which in turn led to significant changes worldwide:

Researchers at the Universidad de Minas Gerais (Brazil) engaged with other colleagues in the creation of a biliteracy policy for an educational network of 30+ private schools in Brazil.

At the Universidad Minuto de Dios (Colombia), staff changed their English syllabus, decentring a previously existing focus on grammar accuracy and favouring the development of students’ meaning-making strategies. Similar reforms were reported at the University of Bologna (Italy) and the Polytechnic of Mitra Global in Banyuwangi (Indonesia).

In Preston University (Pakistan), staff adapted materials for IELTS test preparation to better suit the communicative needs of local students.

UK awareness-raising workshops and talks

An ‘Intercultural Connections’ project (2014-16) and subsequent staff development workshops were delivered at Southampton by ACIS. The project drew on the research to raise awareness of critical perspectives in intercultural communication and linguistic accommodation strategies for academic ELF communication.

After participating, many of the 200 staff and 70 students reported becoming more accepting of linguistic diversity on campus and more sensitive to cultural differences.

Subsequent to an invited talk by Jenkins on linguistic diversity and assessment, the University of the Arts London (UAL) studied the extent to which international students are penalised with lower marks than home students due to their diverse uses of English. They also launched an online programme on linguistic diversity in HE that aims to raise awareness among both international and home students of language diversity and unjust methods of evaluation. UAL plans to offer the course to other UK institutions after its first run.

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