#FLemi: English as a medium of instruction

English as a medium of instruction for academics, FutureLearn MOOC, four weeks from 26 June, from Soton’s Academic Centre for International Students and the Centre for Global Englishes (@cge_soton):

There has been, in the past, a sense that non-native speakers of English are somehow second best, that native speakers of English have ownership of the language in its best or most correct form. That attitude has changed in recent years, thanks to research into English as it is used in the world today by its millions of users, of whom only around 20%are native speakers. English is the world’s language. It’s a lingua franca.

There is no single standard model of EMI:

  • a university may choose to operate totally in English, including its support services, or take a bilingual/trilingual approach, or teach a certain number of programmes in English
  • an academic may use English in class because the texts the students need to work with are only available in English
  • international experience requires a shared mode of communication; for the most part this turns out to be English
  • in distance learning

In EMI English is the vehicle for instruction through which academic content is conveyed to students – we are not teachers of English, but teachers in English. This is the difference between EMI and CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning), which has two functions – to teach both content and a language at the same time. (But it’s a continuum – you can decide where you are on it : P)

Points around the study of English as a lingua franca (ELF) or an international language (EIL):

  • the use of English as a lingua franca around the world has shaped the development of English
  • English users in an EMI context frequently adjust the way they speak (accommodate), according to who they’re speaking to or what they’re speaking about, rather than just trying to be ‘correct’
  • they focus on what they feel more comfortable with, but also what is going to be intelligible for the people they’re talking to
  • the aim is to use English effectively in intercultural communication contexts – what is going to be most communicative for each other, not what is going to be most like the way a native English speaker speaks
  • translanguaging – the majority of ELF users are multilingual, hence when a group of people are together speaking in English, if they have other languages in common, they move in and out of those other languages
  • people are often much more comfortable using English in different ways
  • English as a lingua franca takes the pressure off – people no longer feel they have to mimic native English speakers, but can engage in intercultural communication in whatever way is going to be most effective, in that setting, at that time

Links:

What kind of English do you expect to hear and use in the classroom – native level? accurate? non-standard? should the standard of language be assessed? what about genre style? does the medium (speaking or writing) make a difference to whether variation in English is acceptable or not?

How important is language accuracy in EMI teaching?

  • correction of language does not often help learning unless it is supported and space is given to reflect and consolidate feedback
  • emphasising correct/incorrect language might reduce communicative effectiveness at moments where genuine communication is key
  • exposure to varieties of expressions, whether ‘standard English’ or not, will help students to prepare for the diverse worlds they will meet outside education
  • students will always have an active role in forming their linguistic identities and choices, so discussing their language development and communicative choices can be a positive way of working together

The labels ‘accurate’ and ‘mistake’ are rarely used in communication research. These ideas are more connected with social judgements of language and speakers than actual language use. In fact, research reveals that communication is a complex and always negotiated process, and that language varies according to context because of how humans communicate.

EMI settings are intercultural settings where English tends to be used flexibly, with speakers drawing on behaviours and resources that go beyond a culturally specific or rule-based ‘English’ taught in some language schools. If we think of language as part of communication rather than as a restricted code to learn, the only model we need to consider is a model of behaviour rather than words and language patterns only.

Facilitating students’ movement towards an academic field requires more than isolated vocabulary and grammar; it requires facilitating effective communication and appropriate treatment of content. Emphasising shortcomings in language and rewarding ‘accurate’ English is likely to alienate and discourage students for whom EMI is a struggle, as would showing off a superior knowledge of the English language compared to them.

If we take this idea of the EMI practitioner not being limited to modelling ‘target language’, we can prioritise effective communication alongside the display and encouragement of positive attitudes to flexible communication.

(This is all very well, but what about the potential for misunderstandings, inaccuracies etc?? and *whispers* what when native speakers can’t understand what’s meant?)

Assessing when accuracy is important (or less so). Is it sometimes more important to be accurate in language use than at other times? How do we decide when it is important?  The issue of how important accuracy in language use is in teaching can be controversial and everyone has their own opinion on how far teachers should use accurate English. Many aspects of language that were previously considered to be errors, whether in grammar or vocabulary, are now acceptable for very many speakers (hmm…).

English used in EMI is a tool for communication, a way of communicating ideas that does not necessarily have a fixed or standard form. English forms can be very varied in EMI settings, as the users and uses of the language, within very different cultural spaces, are very different. Passion and enthusiasm trumps accuracy!

The native speaker issue:

  • can sometimes be less aware of the difficulties that international students face in a multilingual context, and sometimes they make fewer concessions to the difficulties international students may be experiencing
  • are often criticised for being difficult to understand in international settings (article)
  • the effect of a native speaker altering their language to be more intelligible and how others perceived his actions – Joey Barton became famous for changing the way he spoke when he was taking part in a press conference in France, while playing in Marseilles (he mimics French English)
  • communication in EMI settings has its own norms and parameters, which are quite different from the rules of speaking that we might associate with standard English (eg can and can’t sound the same if mumbled…)

English speakers with no other language often have a lack of awareness of how to speak English internationally.

The international university involves an understanding that international university English is not the language of [native English speakers], but a lingua franca in a multilingual setting, and therefore not only is it not native English, but not English only either. But while internationalisation guidelines tend to look favourably on multilingualism and diversity, using English systematically is often seen as important for students’ development and progression. An open language policy allows relatively free and multilingual expression of ideas, with English the core language of assessment, administration and most whole-group interactions.

Intercultural awareness and competence:

  • our messages are loaded with various potential meanings, cultural ways of seeing the world and particular ways of positioning ourselves in relation to others
  • consider whether our interpretations of others’ meanings are what they intended us to understand, and be prepared for the possibility that our meanings have not been received in the ways you meant them to be
  • consider that ways of communicating that you think are ‘intelligent’ or ‘high-status’ could be seen as ‘cold’ or ‘foreign’
  • be aware of othering and stereotyping, often located in people’s thinking (assuming difference, avoiding discomfort and lacking knowledge of others to fill perceived gaps in understanding) and feelings (lack of empathy and emotional engagement)

More:

  • self-awareness – be aware of your own background and preferences, and understand why certain behaviours make sense to us more than others; reflect on how we see ourselves in multiple and flexible ways in order to understand the same agency in others; awareness of the cultural preferences and expectations that we carry with us
  • awareness of others – be prepared for differences in expectations and ways of expressing meaning; empathy and respect for the ways of thinking and behaving that others may have
  • ways of thinking and communicating can enable us to show respect and empathy to those with (what appears to be) different values, behaviours and expectations
  • how can you balance preparing students to communicate within your field (eg genre conventions and ways of thinking) and respecting their communicative choices and identities?
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