Chris is a freelance international education consultant and a doctoral student in education at Bath University (UK). His main focus is refugee camps, specifically the role of language in creating capital and developing resilience. 

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How EMI is becoming an educational shibboleth

More people speak English now than at any point in history. And yet, it is becoming ever more a tool of the elite, a mechanism for reinforcing the economic and political status quo. Increasingly, it is a form of cultural capital which divides the haves and the have-nots, a means for reinforcing the positional superiority of dominant groups, especially in poor countries. 

One of the key fault lines in this debate is the growth of English as a Medium of Instruction, which a growing body of research in recent years has identified as being socially divisive. This trend “towards a rapid expansion of EMI provision” (Dearden, 2015) poses, to my mind, significant threats towards efforts to meet the Sustainable Development Goals and their stated aim of providing an “inclusive and equitable quality education”. 

Public and private actors alike, desperate not to be left behind in the rush to EMI, are rushing towards the sunlight uplands of EMI. In so doing, they forget that the level of English teachers themselves is often extremely poor, let alone that of Science and Maths teachers. As such, the drive to EMI may actually inhibit subject-specific teachers from being able to do their job, which in turn negatively impacts educational performance. 

This being the case, it raises questions about the extent to which the SDGs are truly “for all people, everywhere”, and whether EMI is a barrier and we should do something about this situation. However, the simple asking of this question and the use of “we” presupposes that governmental, non-governmental or private actors are actually able to do anything about it, whereas in reality it is likely that the genie is well and truly out of the box and all “we” can do is to ensure it causes as little damage as possible. 


ELT for All

Whilst suspicious of the global drive towards EMI, I believe strongly and passionately that the English language, and the good teaching of it, has a major role to play in helping achieve the SDGs. But for this to happen, major and immediate surgery is required. 

As a field, ELT prides itself on its communicative approach, and whilst this may be a mainstay of well-appointed ELT classrooms overseen by experienced, skilled practitioners, for millions of English teachers around the world, this is not the case. In these classrooms, talk and chalk is the norm, ‘textbook’ and ‘curriculum’ are considered synonyms, and exams are a frequent and unhelpful intrusion into learning. The result of this is the creation of English Zombies – students who have decent enough receptive skills and so understand what is going on, and who can produce broadly grammatically accurate utterances – but who are unable to communicate effectively in a dynamic world. 

We also need to be bolder in the kind of content which we include in textbooks. It is crucial that we challenge the conservative nature of education ministries and international publishers. Students need textbooks and learning materials which properly address the key issues enshrined in SDG 4.7, such as human rights, gender equality, a culture of peace and non-violence, and cultural diversity. We must equip them with the linguistic tools to be able to discuss them. We should not run away from these issues, but embrace them – responsibly – within the safe space of the language learning classroom. 

Considering this landscape, I advocate an “ELT For All” approach which can unlock the emancipatory potential of English, making it an effective agent of social change. We not only need to support English teachers in all situations in accessing good training, we must also be bolder in the material creation process.