Lingua Franca

As English grows as language of instruction worldwide, many key issues remain unresolved, report says.

April 30, 2014

MIAMI -- English has taken off as a global language in higher education -- as a "medium of instruction," not just a foreign language in those countries where English is not the first language, says a report released Tuesday evening here. But in many countries and at many institutions, key issues related to the expanded use of English have not been defined or, in some cases, even discussed.

The report was released at Going Global, the annual international education meeting of the British Council. The report is based on a survey of university professors, university administrators and policy makers in 55 countries, including some where English is the primary language and many more where it is not. The British Council released summaries of findings, not details, which will follow.

As an example of the kind of issue that needs addressing, the report discusses the views of professors -- who are fine teaching in English but not teaching English.

"EMI [English as medium of instruction] teachers firmly believed that teaching English was not their job. They did not consider themselves responsible for their students’ level of English," the report says. "They did not see themselves as language teachers in any way. We may ask how students are supposed to understand lectures and classes if the EMI teacher does not help with their knowledge of English by paraphrasing, by teaching subject-specific vocabulary and technical terms."

The report includes this quote from a professor: "I’m not interested in their English. I’m interested in their comprehension of micro-biogenetics."

That attitude raises a key question, the report says: "If subject teachers do not consider it their job to improve the students’ English, whose job is it?"

A related issue is the lack of standards for those who are teaching a range of academic subjects in English.

"Most teachers who were expected to teach through EMI were not native speakers of English and it is as yet unclear what the requirements are with regard to English language competence," the report says. "Teachers were unaware of a language level, test or qualification for EMI teachers. They had been nominated to teach in EMI because they had been abroad, spoke well or had volunteered."

Instructors teaching in English generally said that they would welcome specific proficiency standards.

The report notes debates in various countries about the impact of English language instruction on native languages and cultures. In some countries, English language has been opposed, while others -- seeing economic gains -- have embraced it. While the report doesn't advocate a specific policy, it notes that the lack of public discussion about the role of English language instruction complicates the debate.

With English instruction growing, the researchers asked professors what subjects were being taught in English. And while English literature is of course no surprise, the others show a wide range. Among them: mathematics, engineering, physics, business, geography, biology, agriculture, chemistry, arts, history, medicine, international relations, regional studies and religious education.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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