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Review of  English-Medium Instruction at Universities

Reviewer: Damian J. Rivers
Book Title: English-Medium Instruction at Universities
Book Author: Aintzane Doiz David Lasagabaster Juan Manuel Sierra
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 24.832

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Converging on language policy and language planning within the burgeoning discourse addressing the internationalization of higher education, this book includes chapters which analyze various contexts such as China, Finland, Israel, Holland, South Africa, Spain and the USA. More specifically, this 221-page volume takes a critical look at English-medium instruction (EMI) from a variety of interpersonal, pedagogical, political and methodological perspectives. To varying degrees, all chapters illustrate tensions and challenges surrounding EMI policies and programmes which are seen as being cast in response to increased economic pressures for universities to attract students and to remain competitive in a virtually borderless global marketplace.

Foreword and Introduction

The volume features a Foreword by Jim Coleman which immediately implicates the economic and political rationale behind the internationalization of higher education (and thus EMI policies and programmes) - “the impulse to help students from developing countries is hugely outweighed by the financial motive to recruit fee-paying students” (p. xiv). Embedded within discourse concerning the dramatic rise in tertiary education programmes available through EMI across multiple contexts, the Introduction outlines the motivation for the volume and provides an overview detailing the chapters in each of the five sections. Prior to describing each of the eleven contributions, the editors cite and acknowledge the rather predictable discourse concerning globalization and internationalization as being responsible for the rise of EMI programmes. Indeed, the authors rightly position EMI programs as being diverse, complex and impacting upon “the ecology of languages in every single university, irrespective of context” (p. xviii). This rather inconvenient political truth is dealt with in more detail at various junctures throughout the volume.

Part 1: The Development of English-Medium Instruction

Chapter 1 [English-Medium Instruction at a Dutch University: Challenges and Pitfalls] by Robert Wilkinson assesses the advantages and disadvantages of EMI within Maastricht University, Holland. The author charts the evolution of EMI programmes across two decades of personal experience within the university and discusses his central role in the process. The background provided is extensive, with specific attention given to the loss of domain for the L1, curriculum and course design, collaboration between content staff and language staff, and issues concerning assurances of quality. The chapter also examines the use of EMI programmes at other European universities and the consequences to students, faculty and society in general. The conclusion reflects upon the strong economic motivations underpinning decisions to introduce EMI programmes as well as other social and political pressures. The author suggests that universities must “take a very long view in weighing up whether our children, and our children’s children, will thank them for the educational decisions they are making and implementing today” (p. 21). Unfortunately, this kind of humanistic pondering, although crucial within the domain of education, is often absent from institutional decision-making processes.

Part 2: Language Demands of English-Medium Instruction on the Stakeholders

Chapter 2 [Acknowledging Academic Biliteracy in Higher Education Assessment Strategies: A Tale of Two Trails] by Christa van der Walt and Martin Kidd presents an experimental investigation into the concept of academic literacy at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Attention is drawn to how within many South African universities English is often used alongside Afrikaans to provide the foundation for a bilingual education in spite of the fact that South Africa has eleven official languages. The two studies documented examine the influence of Afrikaans-English biliteracy on academic performance (in this case assessed through a bilingual reading comprehension test). Citing lecturer concerns regarding the ability of students to understand academic texts the authors ask “whether a summary in one language can be shown to increase comprehension in another language under controlled, quasi-experimental conditions” (p. 29). The results of the study are thought-provoking, well documented and clearly presented. The authors acknowledge the limitations of the study design and call for more qualitative investigations to be undertaken.

Chapter 3 [Language Demands and Support for English-Medium Instruction in Tertiary Education. Learning from a Specific Context] by Phil Ball and Diana Lindsay examines the nature of EMI courses offered at the University of the Basque Country in Spain with focus on the support given to teaching staff. A number of core pedagogical and methodological questions are raised which hold widespread implications for the teacher-institute, teacher-student and student-institute interface. The chapter provides data in the form of basic descriptive statistics (i.e. percentages) in addition to comments from questionnaires given to both students and teachers. After a brief discussion of the results, the chapter ends with the acknowledgement that the “future is very probably a multilingual one” (p. 59). However, and in seeming contrast to this position, the authors also add that “EMI pedagogy, or CLIL-oriented approaches in general, may come to be regarded, in the not-too-distant future, as standard practice” (p. 59).

Part 3: Fostering Trilingual Education at Higher Education Institutions

Chapter 4 [Linguistic Hegemony or Linguistic Capital? Internationalization and English-Medium Instruction at the Chinese University of Hong Kong] by David C.S. Li provides a review of recent (post 2004) controversies surrounding the language of instruction policy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). Drawing upon multiple data sources including university directives, media reports and student comments, the author asserts that controversies at the university have been “triggered by the university management’s decision to offer more courses across a wide range of disciplines in English” (p. 66). Hong Kong’s language policy is discussed before the author provides a detailed and informative case study of the situation at CUHK. Familiar problems are highlighted such as the ability of local students to fully understand lectures given in English at a level which allows them “to benefit from cutting-edge knowledge in their field directly” (p. 75) without recourse to Cantonese. The discussion is extensive and a number of significant issues are raised which will undoubtedly be relevant to other universities engaged in debates surrounding the internationalization of higher education and the turbulent relationship between English (as both invader and liberator) and the host language (as central to issues of national identity maintenance).

Chapter 5 [English as L3 at a Bilingual University in the Basque Country, Spain] by Aintzane Doiz, David Lasagabaster and Juan Manuel Sierra presents a quantitative exploration of local and international student attitudes toward multilingualism and the influence of student mother-tongue on attitudes toward multilingualism at the University of the Basque Country (UBC) in Spain. Undergraduate students’ opinions and beliefs are also sought in relation to the presence of international students on campus, the role of foreign languages in education, English as a lingua franca, the impact of English on Basque and the role of minority languages such as Basque in the context of the international university. The chapter begins with a discussion of university internationalization based upon the three models presented by Chan and Dimmock (2008) (globalist, internationalist and translocalist) before detailing a multilingualism programme at the UBC (delivered through EMI). The research questions and research methodology are clearly documented and the results are presented in a manner conducive to further replication in other contexts. The actual results are statistically sound and discussed in adequate detail.

Chapter 6 [Introducing English-Medium Instruction at the University of Lleida, Spain: Intervention, Beliefs and Practices] by Josep Maria Cots takes a multidimensional look at language policy in connection to the promotion of English as an L3 at a Catalan-Spanish bilingual university (University of Lleida). Drawing largely upon the conceptual framework of Spolsky (2004) in relation to language policy (intervention, beliefs and practices), and with a focus on the ambiguities and tensions surrounding the introduction of English as an L3, the chapter utilizes both primary and secondary data (quantitative and qualitative). Although original data is featured in the form of discourse between two university instructors, the chapter is a theoretical discussion with the inclusion of data to support or illustrate various points as opposed to a more traditional empirical study.

Part 4: Institutional Policies at Higher Education Institutions

Chapter 7 [Implicit Policy, Invisible Language: Policies and Practices of International Degree Programmes in Finnish Higher Education] by Taina Saarinen and Tarja Nikula examines data collected from text documents (e.g. website course descriptions) from four Finnish institutions and interviews/narratives from a small number of teachers and students. The authors address what they view as a paradox - “despite the strong position of English as the instructional language, it is rarely problematized at the outset, and the questions of language mastery or the effects of teaching in English on content learning are rarely discussed” (p. 132). An historical account of internationalization in the Finnish context is first presented before the data is explored. The data is well presented and examined. The conclusions offered are insightful, particularly where the authors assert how “the emerging picture is complex, with English appearing vital, even exotic from certain perspectives, and marginal and mundane from others” (p. 146). This further supports an emerging viewpoint that EMI programs and policies, while seen as holding benefits for some, also hold drawbacks for others.

Chapter 8 [Englishization in an Israeli Teacher Education College: Taking the First Steps] by Ofra Inbar-Lourie and Smadar Donitsa-Schmidt draws attention to the “unique linguistic scene within which this phenomenon of ‘Englishization’ occurs” (p. 151) by highlighting how the hegemony of Hebrew stands in contrast to the inferior status assigned to Arabic in academia, as well as other immigrant languages such as Russian. The authors stress that research into the use and role of EMI in Israeli tertiary institutions is rare and that research within the context of teacher education colleges is non-existent. In attempting to change this situation the authors investigate EMI within a teacher education college in order to provide initial insights into this understudied phenomenon. The chapter begins with an overview of the linguistic context in Israel and documentation of the language policies that exist within various academic institutions. Two research questions are presented concerning attitudes and motivations towards EMI, and they are investigated using two different research samples, analyzed using quantitative methods. Of particular interest in the discussion is the observation that it was “the more proficient students [who] chose to take advantage of the [EMI] opportunity offered, thereby creating a situation where ‘the rich get richer’” (p. 170). Once again, this serves as evidence for how even when language policies are designed to empower students they can often also act as promoters of inequality and disempowerment among other students.

Chapter 9 [Educating International and Immigrant Students in US Higher Education: Opportunities and Challenges] by Ofelia García, Mercè Pujol-Ferran and Pooja Reddy begins by highlighting the implicit language policy of the US which encourages people outside of its national borders to learn English (i.e. promoting English bilingualism) yet discourages immigrants within its national borders for maintaining their own language (i.e. promoting English monolingualism). This protectionist language policy is cited as being responsible for “the different treatment of international students and immigrant students in US colleges and universities” (p. 174). The data within the chapter is drawn from two case studies, one at a community college which has a majority population of poor Latino immigrants, and one at a university which has a substantial population of middle-class international students. In the conclusion the authors claim that “[w]hereas international students are welcomed and perceived as a financial asset to the private US colleges and universities, immigrant university students at public institutions of higher education are received with caution” (p. 192). Ending the chapter with a quotation from Wright (2004), the authors suggest that within the US, bilingualism reflects a nationalistic orientation toward “one nation, one territory, one language” (p. 194). The implications generated for further research concerning the intersection of language policy and national identity are clear.

Chapter 10 [A Critical Perspective on the Use of English as a Medium of Instruction at Universities] by Elana Shohamy presents a conceptual overview of the main issues associated with EMI at universities. The chapter is not based on empirical data and is therefore able to provide greater textual depth than some of the other chapters. The author highlights four main settings of medium of instruction: learning content via L2 for immigrant students, using school language which is different than home language, learning content via L2 for majority students and learning through EMI at universities. Following this, the chapter focuses exclusively on a number of critical issues surrounding EMI in tertiary educational contexts. The author draws attention to the belief that more languages than English are needed to ensure equality within education and for functioning within the globalized society. However, such optimism stands in contrast to a view repeatedly echoed throughout the volume: “[n]evertheless, EMI programmes continue to exist and are expanding at an accelerated rate in more countries than ever before, due to the fact that universities’ policies are driven by economic considerations” (p. 208).

Part 5: Final Considerations

Chapter 11 [Future Challenges for English-Medium Instruction at the Tertiary Level] by Aintzane Doiz, David Lasagabaster and Juan Manuel Sierra acts as a brief summary of the volume and offers a number of final considerations and challenges associated with EMI in the university context. The authors pose a number of questions which are then discussed in relation to other chapters in the volume as well as other external sources. The questions focus on the role of EMI in the internationalization process, the proficiency abilities of students and their abilities to cope with EMI programmes, the successful integration of language and content, and examples of successful practice.


As a teacher-researcher and advocate of linguistic diversity working within the Japanese tertiary education context this volume was of immediate appeal to this reviewer. Higher education with Japan has subscribed en masse to the viewpoint that in order to internationalize (but not integrate) the university campus, EMI is vital. It should be noted that this practice does not extend to Japanese nationals, who are ineligible for participation in such EMI classes (implicating issues of national identity preservation at the intersection of language). Previous experiences working within manufactured ‘English only’ environments (for the purpose of English as a Foreign Language) and within contexts where EMI is used among multinational students (for the purpose of content-based courses such as ones dealing with cultural and linguistic policy) has reinforced my view that English language policies, in whatever guise they are presented, are significantly more multidimensional than they ostensibly appear to be. Any policy promoting extremes serves to both empower and disempower students and faculty. In other words one may question “whether this trend towards increasing EMI is good, and if so, who actually benefits. On the other hand, it is worth considering whether there are also ‘losers’, and if so, what are they losing” (Wilkinson, this volume, p. 4) (see also Chapter 7 and Chapter 8). Indeed, situated within an extreme ‘English only’ environment (for the purpose of English as a Foreign Language), it has been documented how such policies often hold negative consequences for students: “these consequences are grounded in a failure to match up to the strict demands, which an English-only language policy places upon the learner -- this being nothing less than 100% compliance… a bi-product of this unrealistic demand is a negative impact upon the learner’s psychological and emotional well-being through the promotion of feelings of guilt, disappointment, resignation, and indifference” (Rivers, 2011:42). While this volume often touches upon the consequences of EMI it does not detail what the actual consequences are, thus leaving open the possibility of a follow-up volume specifically focused on the consequences of EMI (rather than the challenges) upon students and faculty.

The variety of contexts examined and the team of authors assembled are impressive. While all chapters deal with EMI in some capacity, perspectives and specific points of contention differ, which together form a powerful multidimensional analysis of the EMI concept. It was also liberating to see that the majority of chapters were able to name their research institution by its actual name rather than resulting (through fear, force or coercion) to the use of pseudonyms. The structuring of the book is generally very good and the chapters within each section are coherently linked together via either their thematic, theoretical and/or practical similarities. However, it could be suggested that Chapter 10 would have functioned better in Part 1 of the volume as, unlike many of the other chapters, it is not based on empirical data and it provides a broad conceptual overview of critical perspectives in relation to EMI at universities.

In terms of specific criticism, it could be argued that Chapter 3 is somewhat lacking in methodological rigour as the data collected is selectively presented and analyzed in a rather superficial manner (through percentages and the block presentation and summary of teacher/student comments). Questions could also be asked in relation to Chapter 4 where, framed within discourse concerning courses taught exclusively in English at European universities, the author claims that “[i]t gives English an unprecedented status and its native speakers undue advantages, with the disruption of the local language ecologies as a consequence” (p. 65). While the first point raised concerning the status of English is certainly true, the latter two points are much more contentious than this statement suggests. For example, through research in Japan (Rivers, 2013) and Europe (Petrie, 2013), it has been shown that so-called ‘native-speakers’ of English (when positioned as language teachers in the international university) are quite often disadvantaged through the imposition of this problematic and largely restrictive status-label. Likewise, one could also argue that if English is seen as a disruption to local language ecologies (which are assumed to be Englishless), then one must also subscribe to the viewpoint that English is not a language to be locally owned, shared, constructed and utilized, but rather primarily represents an imposed outside force forever belonging to a more superior Other.

Further minor criticisms include the use of certain terminology. On occasion not enough attention was given to the conceptual differences existing between globalization and internationalization. It seems important to make clear differentiations between the two concepts especially as many universities, in their eagerness to promote themselves to international students, often conflate the terms thus overlooking vital differences between them. These differences are given further importance when considering issues of national identity (Chapter 9) and the symbolic nature of national borders - maintained under internationalization but removed under globalization. Another example of problematic terminology can be found in Chapter 8 where the authors make numerous references to the process of Englishization. From the evidence presented this description appears to be inappropriate as the introduction of a few elective EMI courses cannot really be termed as Englishization. Perhaps many readers would agree that the term Englishization suggests a much more expansive systematic application of EMI courses. From a more general perspective, it came as a surprise that there was no mention or chapter dedicated to the role of EMI within distance learning courses or other forms of higher education primarily administered online. In this respect, the internationalization of higher education is restrictively cast as being limited to instances of face-to-face interaction where foreign/international students move to institutions within a different national context.

Despite these minor (and subjective) criticisms, this volume was a pleasure to read with each chapter making a significant contribution to the overall success of the volume. The volume will undoubtedly hold appeal to teacher-researchers across numerous contexts, especially those on the frontlines of university internationalization where issues of language policy and language planning are unavoidable.


Chan, W. and Dimmock, C. (2008). The internationalization of universities: Globalist, internationalist and translocalist models. Journal of Research in International Education, 7, 184-203.

Petrie, D. (2013). (Dis)integration of mother tongue teachers in Italian universities: Human rights abuses and the quest for equal treatment in the European single market. In S.A. Houghton and D.J. Rivers (Eds.), Native-Speakerism in Japan: Intergroup Dynamics in Foreign Language Education (pp. 29-41). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Rivers, D.J. (2011). Strategies and struggles in the ELT classroom: Language policy, learner autonomy and innovative practice. Language Awareness, 20(1), 31-43.

Rivers, D.J. (2013). Institutionalized native-speakerism: Voices of dissent and acts of resistance. In S.A. Houghton and D.J. Rivers (Eds.), Native-Speakerism in Japan: Intergroup Dynamics in Foreign Language Education (pp. 75-91). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Spolsky, B. (2004). Language Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wright, S. (2004). Language Policy and Language Planning: From Nationalism to Globalization. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.
Damian J. Rivers is an Associate Professor at Osaka University in the English Department, Graduate School of Language and Culture and holds a Ph.D in Applied Linguistics / Sociolinguistics from the University of Leicester, England. His main research interests concern the management of multiple identities in relation to otherness, the impact of national identities upon a variety of foreign language education processes, critical issues in intercultural communication, and social processes underpinning intergroup stereotypes. He is co-editor of ‘Native-Speakerism in Japan: Intergroup Dynamics in Foreign Language Education’ (2013, Multilingual Matters) and ‘Social Identities and Multiple Selves in Foreign Language Education’ (2013, Continuum / Bloomsbury Academic) (

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