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High Educ (2014) 67:551567

DOI 10.1007/s10734-013-9661-5

English-medium instruction in Chinese higher education:

a case study

Guangwei Hu Jun Lei

Published online: 1 September 2013

 Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Abstract With the relentless internationalization and marketization of higher education

in the past decades, English has been increasingly adopted as a medium of instruction at
universities across the world. Recent research, however, has shown that despite its various
optimistically envisioned goals, English-medium instruction (EMI) is not without prob-
lems in practice. This article reports a case study of an EMI Business Administration
program for undergraduate students at a major university of finance and economy in
mainland China. Informed by Spolskys language policy framework, the study made a
critical analysis of national/institutional policy statements and interviews with professors
and students to uncover EMI-related language ideologies, language practices, and language
management mechanisms. Findings evinced a complex interplay of these three constitutive
components of language policy in the focal EMI program and revealed considerable
misalignment between policy intentions and actual practices in the classroom. These
findings raise concerns about the quality and consequences of EMI in Chinese higher
education. The article concludes with recommendations for further research on EMI pol-
icies and practices in China.

Keywords English-medium instruction  Higher education  Language

ideology  Language management  Language practice  Medium of instruction


The use of English as a medium of instruction in higher education has become

increasingly common in non-English-speaking countries partly as a result of the relentless

G. Hu (&)  J. Lei
English Language and Literature, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University,
1 Nanyang Walk, Singapore 637616, Singapore

552 High Educ (2014) 67:551567

internationalization and marketization of higher education in the past decades (Coleman

2006; Graddol 2006). Variously known as content and language integrated learning
(CLIL, Dalton-Puffer 2011), English as a lingua franca (ELF, Bjorkman 2011), English-
medium instruction (EMI, Hu 2009), and integrating content and language (ICL, Smit and
Dafouz 2012), this curricular approach to integrating disciplinary and language learning is
not new but has its antecedents in several forms of language education found in other
educational contexts, for example, French immersion (FI) in Canadian schools and
content-based instruction (CBI) in North American classrooms for English language
learners. As Dalton-Puffer (2011) points out, all these forms of language provision have
been motivated by the widely recognized need to transcend the perceived weaknesses of
traditional foreign language teaching (p. 185). In addition, EMI is seen as having the
distinct advantage of killing two birds (i.e., disciplinary learning and English proficiency)
with one stone. Because of such perceived advantages and an array of other driving
forces (Coleman 2006; Wilkinson 2013), EMI has gathered much momentum in Europe
(see Costa and Coleman 2013; Doiz et al. 2013a; Erling and Hilgendorf 2006; Wachter
and Maiworm 2008). More recently, it has also made significant inroads into the higher
education systems of Asian countries, for example, China (Hu 2008) and South Korea
(Piller and Cho 2013).
There is a growing body of empirical research on various aspects of EMI (for com-
prehensive reviews see Coleman 2006; Dalton-Puffer 2011). The bulk of this research,
however, has been conducted in European contexts, and there is a paucity of research on
EMI in Asian countries, especially China, where there is an exponential growth of EMI
(Cai 2010; Hu and McKay 2012; Wu et al. 2010). Although studies of the effects of EMI
on language learning have generally yielded positive results (e.g., Aguilar and Munoz
2013; Aguilar and Rodrguez 2012; Tatzl 2011; Wilkinson 2005), the extant research has
produced mixed, and even contradictory, findings with regard to other aspects of EMI.
First, some studies (e.g., Ball and Lindsay 2013; Costa and Coleman 2013; Jensen and
Thgersen 2011; Pecorari et al. 2011) found that professors/students held overwhelmingly
positive attitudes toward EMI, but other studies (e.g., Doiz et al. 2013b; Tange 2012; Webb
2002) documented considerable faculty/student resistance to EMI. Second, while several
studies (e.g., Unterberger 2012; Wilkinson 2005) reported that professors/students had an
adequate command of English (rated by themselves or others) for EMI, many more studies
(e.g., Ball and Lindsay 2013; Cots 2013; Doiz et al. 2013b; Fortanet-Gomez 2012; Webb
2002; Wilkinson 2013) found facultys and students inadequate English proficiency a
major impediment to effective EMI. The lack of facility with English was found to compel
faculty and students to use various coping strategies, for example, adopting a transmission-
oriented pedagogy (Webb 2002), avoiding asking/answering questions (Airey 2011), and
resorting to ones first language (Airey and Linder 2006). Third, although a number of
studies (e.g., Aguilar and Rodrguez 2012; Bryan and Habte-Gabr 2008; Park 2007) found
no negative effect of EMI on disciplinary learning, detrimental effects on content mastery
were reported in other studies (e.g., Hellekjr 2010; Vinke 1995; Webb 2002). Finally,
apart from the inconclusive findings reviewed above, a growing body of research (e.g.,
Costa and Coleman 2013; Cots 2013; Hu 2009; Piller and Cho 2013; Wilkinson 2013) has
pointed to educational inequalities arising from or exacerbated by EMI. English profi-
ciency in general and EMI in particular have been found to become, in the words of
Graddol (2006, p. 38), main mechanisms for structuring inequality in contexts as diverse
as West Europe and East Asia.

High Educ (2014) 67:551567 553

The preceding review of extant research points to a dire lack of empirical research on
what is going on in EMI in mainland Chinese universities, despite its escalating popularity
(Wu et al. 2010). In a recent synthesis of over 90 publications on EMI in China, Zhu and
Yu (2010) found few empirical investigations into what transpires in the EMI classroom.
The literature review above also reveals a relative paucity of research attention to the
alignment, or lack thereof, between EMI policy goals and the actual EMI experiences of
individual students and faculty teachers. Furthermore, the mixed findings about the
(in)effectiveness of EMI in disciplinary learning, faculty and student attitudes toward EMI,
and the (in)adequacy of the English proficiency of those involved in EMI suggest the
complexity and context-dependency of EMI and call for further studies that examine
attitudes, beliefs, knowledge, learning, strategies, and practices in relation to contextual
factors. In response to these identified issues, the present case study set out to give a
qualitative account of what was happening in an EMI program at a mainland Chinese
university (hereafter the focal program/university) from the perspectives of individual
students and teachers. Informed by Spolskys (2004, 2009) language policy framework, the
study made a critical analysis of national/institutional policy statements and interviews
with professors and students to uncover EMI-related language ideologies, language prac-
tices, and language management strategies. In the following section, we outline Spolskys
language policy framework to make clear our theoretical grounding.

Theoretical framework

Spolsky (2004) conceptualizes language policy as being constituted by all the language
practices, beliefs and management decisions of a community or polity (p. 9). These three
constitutive components of language policy are dynamically interrelated but can be
described independently (Spolsky 2009). Each of them is a driving force for language
The first componentlanguage beliefsis also known as language ideology. It consists
of deeply held attitudes and assumptions about what constitutes appropriate language
choice or practices in a community or a context of communication (Spolsky 2004).
According to Spolsky (2009), the values and prestige that are assigned to particular lan-
guages, their varieties, and linguistic features are significant influences on language policy
and management. They shape and account for language choice and related changes in
language practices and language management. As another integral component of Spolskys
language policy framework, language practices are observable and regular language
behaviors or choices that constitute what people actually do rather than what people
think should be done (Spolsky 2004, p. 14). As Spolsky (2009) points out, language
practices are the real language policies, because they provide linguistic models and
environments for language acquisition. The last component of the language policy
framework, language management, refers to the explicit and deliberate effort made by an
individual or institution invested with authority to regulate other individuals language
practices and/or modify their language beliefs (Spolsky 2009). Building on Spolskys
conceptualization, Shohamy (2006) draws attention to the hidden dimensions of language
policy and extends the construct of language management beyond the explicit and
observable (e.g., declared and official rules and regulations) to include those mechanisms
or policy devices (e.g., language testing and medium of instruction) whose power to affect
existing language policy often remains below public awareness. The creation or avail-
ability of language management mechanisms, however, does not guarantee that they will

554 High Educ (2014) 67:551567

be implemented, and even if they are implemented, there is no guarantee that they will be
implemented successfully.
It is apparent from the above description that the three components of the language
policy framework are interconnected and interact with one another in complex and
dynamic ways. To begin with, language ideology derives from and influences language
practices (Spolsky 2004). Second, language ideology provides a basis for, and can be
modified by, language management (Spolsky 2009). Third, language practices provide
the linguistic context and instrument for language management and are themselves the
target of language management (Spolsky 2004, 2009). Finally, language management
can turn language beliefs into language practices. Such a dynamic conceptualization of
the interrelationships among the three components is consistent with the growing
consensus that language policy is mediated not only by language variables, but also by
non-language factors (Shohamy 2006; Spolsky 2009). Thus, language and language
policy both exist in (and language management must contend with) highly complex,
interacting and dynamic contexts, the modification of any part of which may have
correlated effects (and causes) on any other part (Spolsky 2004, p. 6). This tripartite
policy framework provides a comprehensive and analytic perspective on language
education policy. In particular, it can inform a critical examination of EMI as a lan-
guage policy initiative by enabling us to develop a multilayered view of the intricate
and dynamic interplay of the various EMI stakeholders language ideology, practices,
and management.
Guided by Spolskys tripartite language policy framework, we formulated the following
research questions for our case study:
1. What ideologies about English and EMI were held nationally, institutionally, and
personally? What factors motivated these beliefs?
2. What language practices (i.e., teaching and learning strategies) were adopted in the
focal EMI program? What factors shaped these language practices?
3. What policy measures were taken to manage the EMI program? What consequences
did these measures have?

This study

Research design

We adopted a case-study design to examine EMI as language policy in the context of a

specific EMI program at our focal university. A case study can provide an intensive,
holistic description and analysis of a single entity, phenomenon, or social unit
(Merriam 1998, p. 34). We chose the case-study methodology because it was well-
suited for developing an in-depth, contextual, and holistic understanding of the focal
EMI program (Yin 2009). Drawing on multiple sources of data (i.e., national and
institutional policy statements, individual interviews, and focus groups), the case-study
design allowed us to gain insights into the national and institutional policies leading to
the creation of the focal EMI program, beliefs about EMI held by its stakeholders (i.e.,
professors and students), and actual language practices in its real-life context. In par-
ticular, the case-study design enabled us to consider the influences of local contin-
gencies on the promotion and implementation of EMI at a particular Chinese institution
of higher education and examine how various sociocultural, educational, politico-

High Educ (2014) 67:551567 555

economic driving forces for EMI were experienced and negotiated by individual stu-
dents and faculty teachers.

Research site

At the time of data collection, the focal university had 27 colleges/departments and offered
32 undergraduate programs. It enrolled approximately 24,000 full-time students, two thirds
of whom were undergraduate students and 360 of whom were international students. There
were over 1,000 faculty members, and over 10 % of them held PhDs from overseas
universities. As of 2011, EMI classes were offered by seven undergraduate programs, that
is, Accounting, Business Administration, Finance, Financial Management, Insurance,
International Business, and International Economics and Trade. Our focal EMI program
commenced in 2008 and specialized in Business Administration. It had one class of 40
students each year, and along with it, there was a parallel Chinese-medium instruction
(CMI) program that enrolled three classes each year. Students in the focal EMI program
began to receive EMI in sophomore year and continued to have EMI through the first
semester of senior year. During this period, there were seven to nine compulsory spe-
cialization courses and one elective each semester, but only two or three of these com-
pulsory courses were offered as EMI courses every semester. Each EMI course had two
contact hours a week. In the EMI courses, English textbooks were used, lectures were
delivered in English, and exams were set and taken in English. The parallel CMI program
followed the same curriculum as the focal EMI program, but in all the courses, Chinese
textbooks were adopted, lectures were conducted in Chinese, and exams were written and
taken in Chinese.


As is typical of case-study research (Yin 2009), purposive sampling was used to select ten
students and five faculty teachers from the focal EMI program and the parallel CMI
program. Although the focus of the study was the EMI program, students and teachers from
the CMI program were also involved for supplementary and possibly contrastive per-
spectives. Based on the overarching purpose and research questions of our study, we
selected a maximum variation sample to explore diversity and commonality in the par-
ticipants language ideologies, practices, and management with respect to EMI. Specifi-
cally, the student sample included both male and female students studying on the EMI and
the CMI program in their sophomore or junior year. Four of the students were drawn from
the CMI program: three sophomores (CMI/S1, CMI/S2, and CMI/S3) and one junior (CMI/
S4). The remaining six students came from the EMI program: three sophomores (EMI/S1,
EMI/S2, and EMI/S3) and three juniors (EMI/S4, EMI/S5, and EMI/S6). All the students
had studied English as a school subject for at least 6 years before they entered university.
Of the four EMI teachers on the focal EMI program, two (EMI/T1 and EMI/T2) were
selected because they were senior faculty members (i.e., associate professors) who had
received advanced training in Anglo-American universities (both holding a PhD from a UK
university) and who had taught on the EMI program for years. The remaining three
teachers (CMI/T1, CMI/T2, and CMI/T3) were selected because they taught the CMI
student participants courses that were parallel to those offered by the two EMI teachers
participating in our study. CMI/T1 received his MBA from a US university and his PhD
from a university in mainland China. CMI/T2 had 2 years of overseas experience as a
visiting scholar at a Japanese university. Only CMI/T3 had no overseas educational

556 High Educ (2014) 67:551567

experience, receiving a Masters degree in economics from a Chinese university. CMI/T1

was an associate professor, and CMI/T2 and CMI/T3 were full professors.

Data collection and data analysis

The data collected for this case study consisted of policy documents and interviews with
the participating professors and students. First, we collected national and institutional
policy statements on EMI and searched relevant news reports published on the focal
universitys website between January 2002 and December 2011. Second, we conducted
one-on-one interviews with all the teachers and the four students from the CMI program.
We conducted two focus groups, respectively, with the second- and third-year students
from the EMI program. The choice of the interview methods was motivated by the
consideration that while the one-on-one interviews would allow us to collect detailed
information about an individuals beliefs, attitudes and practices, the focus groups would
be useful in capturing the breadth of views and encouraging discussion that might be less
forthcoming in individual interviews (Berg 2009). All the one-on-one interviews and the
focus groups were semi-structured and organized around a set of preplanned questions
and topics centering on language ideologies, practices, and management related to EMI in
general and the focal EMI program in particular. While the one-on-one interviews on
average lasted about half an hour, the two focus groups lasted about an hour each. All the
interviews and focus groups were conducted in Chinese, audio-recorded, and transcribed
for qualitative analysis.
Following standard methods for qualitative data analysis, we undertook the data
coding and analysis in three phases. In Phase 1, we adopted the analytic strategy of
relying on theoretical propositions to generate a matrix of analytic categories (Yin 2009).
Spolskys tripartite language policy framework provided the analytic categories (i.e.,
language ideology, language practice, and language management) that helped to tie our
research questions directly to our data and refine our explanations. Based on our
knowledge of the relevant literature, we also worked out a provisional list of subcate-
gories/themes (i.e., codes) for each main analytic category. These provisional codes were
not content specific but pointed to the general areas in which specific themes could be
developed (Miles and Huberman 1994). In Phase 2 of our data analysis, we used the
matrix of analytic categories with provisional codes to independently code all the policy
documents and interview data. Each of us first read the data iteratively to complete the
filling in stage, that is, to add subcategories/themes to flesh out the analytic matrix into
a coherent scheme (Lincoln and Guba 1985). This stage continued until themes were
saturated. We then moved to the bridging stage and searched for interconnections
among the themes identified under each main analytic category (Lincoln and Guba
1985). Finally, in Phase 3, we compared the themes and their interconnections inde-
pendently identified in Phase 2 to enhance the trustworthiness of the results obtained.
Where our analyses of themes agreed in principle, we left them as they were. Where we
disagreed, we adopted the strategy of extending by going back to the coded data and
reanalyzing them in a new way and the strategy of surfacing to identify new themes
(Miles and Huberman 1994). We discussed and analyzed the data reiteratively until all
our disagreements were resolved. We then drew upon Spolskys theorizing on language
policy to interpret the identified themes and their interrelationships. In the following
section, our findings and discussion are organized and presented in terms of Spolskys
analytic categories.

High Educ (2014) 67:551567 557

Findings and discussion

Language beliefs about English and EMI

In his conceptualization of the interrelationships among the three constituents of his lan-
guage policy framework, Spolsky (2009) points out that language ideology influences
language practices and provides a basis for language management. He further notes that the
most significant beliefs in language policy and management are the values or statuses
assigned to named languages, varieties, and features (p. 4). As detailed in the rest of this
section, the dominant beliefs about the English language and EMI that we found in the
national/institutional policy documents and the interview data accorded high prestige to the
English language, valorized English proficiency, and viewed EMI as capable of bringing
many important national, institutional, and personal benefits against the backdrop of ever
deepening globalization and increasing competition.
At the national level, English is seeing as having a crucial part to play in Chinas
ambitious development agenda to strengthen its innovation capacity, access cutting-edge
knowledge available in English, enhance its competitive edge in international cultural and
economic activity, and fully integrate into the world system. The high values assigned to
English proficiency are palpable in curricula and policy statements issued by the Chinese
Ministry of Education (MOE). The latest curriculum standards for compulsory education
give the following rationale for teaching English:
English is one of the most widely used languages around the globe and has become
an important tool for international communication as well as scientific and cultural
exchanges. The study and use of English play a key role in absorbing the legacy of
human civilization, drawing on advanced science and technology in foreign coun-
tries, and promoting mutual understanding between China and the rest of the world.
Provision of English instruction at the compulsory education stage can lay a foun-
dation for raising the quality of the Chinese citizenry, developing talents with strong
innovative capacities and cross-cultural communicative skills, and enhancing Chi-
nas international competitiveness and its citizenrys ability to engage in interna-
tional communication. (MOE 2011, p. 1).1
Similarly, English learning at the university level is seen as an integral component of
higher education that is capable of raising students all-round cultural qualities to meet
Chinas needs for development and international interaction (MOE 2007b, p. 1). Because
of the perceived importance of English proficiency, the current national college English
curriculum issued by the MOE (2007b) requires that college English instruction take up as
much as 10 % of the total credit hours for undergraduate studies. Apart from instruction in
English as a curricular subject, EMI has been promulgated by the MOE as one of key
policy initiatives for improving the quality of undergraduate education in Chinese higher
education since the turn of the 21st century. In a directive issued in 2001, the MOE hailed
EMI as an important strategy for helping to develop a modernized higher education system
oriented toward the world and the future, and mandated that Chinese universities should
aim to offer 510 % of undergraduate courses in English or other foreign languages within
3 years. More recently, the top-down promotion of EMI has greatly intensified, as is
evident in the elevation of EMI as a breakthrough point for an overhaul of higher
education in several ministerial directives (e.g., MOE 2005). For example, the ministerial

All quotes from Chinese-language sources and participants in this study are our own translations.

558 High Educ (2014) 67:551567

guidelines for furthering the reform of undergraduate education (MOE 2007a) urged
universities to increase the numbers of EMI courses offered, encourage overseas-trained
Chinese academics to teach specialization courses through English, and hire expatriate
faculty to offer EMI.
At the institutional level, English competence and EMI are also perceived to be ben-
eficial. A strong college English or EMI program is widely seen as contributing immensely
to a universitys internationalization endeavor and, consequently, helping it secure the
various material and non-material benefits accruing from internationalization. The minis-
terial directive cited earlier (MOE 2005), for example, encouraged universities to offer
EMI because it provided an opportunity for them to engage in international exchange and
collaboration. Our focal university apparently shared the same view. A university regu-
latory document issued in 2002 associated English proficiency with international compe-
tiveness and presented internationalization as the most important reason for implementing
EMI at the focal university.2 Another university policy document issued in 2005 explicitly
described the institutional objectives of offering EMI as coping with challenges brought
about by economic globalization and internationalization of higher education, producing
talents with an international competitive edge, and deepening curricular reforms. In a
similar vein, the curriculum document for the focal EMI program declared that to
accommodate to the internationalization trend, this program attaches great importance to
cultivating international perspectives in our students and aims to train business man-
agement talents who can adapt to economic globalization. These views and assumptions
were not just part of national/institutional ideologies but were also held by faculty and
students. Two professors (EMI/T1 and CMI/T2) and six students (EMI/S2, EMI/S3, EMI/
S4, EMI/S6, CMI/S2, and CMI/S3) explicitly commented on the perceived roles of English
and EMI in providing the university with an international perspective and enabling it to
connect with the international community in terms of knowledge and practice.
Another benefit of great importance to universities is that a strong college English and/
or EMI program can push up their positions in university league tables. As is the case
elsewhere (see Piller and Cho 2013; Unterberger 2012), English language teaching in
general and EMI in particular have been made key foci of evaluation in national university
assessment exercises (see MOE 2007b). To ensure that universities would comply with its
mandate on the offering of EMI in higher education, the MOE (2004) decreed that the
number of EMI courses offered must be as a key performance indicator in national
assessments of higher education institutions: Universities were evaluated on a 4-grade
scale of Excellent (EMI courses amounting to 10 % of all courses offered) to poor
(offering few or no EMI courses). These grades counted toward the overall rankings of the
universities by the educational authorities at various levels of government. Importantly, a
higher position in the university league tables, like the publicized level of internationali-
zation achieved by a university, can help it to raise its prestige, attract more and better
students/academics, enhance its graduates employability in the job market, and open up
new sources of revenue (e.g., higher tuition fees charged for the focal EMI program, as
compared with the parallel CMI program).
Finally, at the personal level, a full array of benefits is believed to accrue to individuals
as a result of EMI or mastery of English. Apart from such officially promoted boons as
acquiring advanced scientific and cultural knowledge, promoting Chinese culture,
fostering mutual understanding between Chinese and foreign students, and forming

To safeguard the focal universitys anonymity, references are not provided for quotes from its policy

High Educ (2014) 67:551567 559

adequate outlooks, values, and cultural qualities in Chinese students (MOE 2011, p. 1),
there were more mundane but no less important advantages perceived by the focal
university and the participants in our study. One much discussed advantage concerned the
perceived power of English proficiency to enhance graduates social mobility and
employment prospects. The curriculum for the focal EMI program claimed that our
graduates will be equipped with a global perspective and capable of working in enterprises
requiring extensive English use. One professor (EMI/T1) and four students (EMI/S1,
EMI/S2, EMI/S3, and CMI/S4) also opined that EMI could lead to better career oppor-
tunities. The professor, for example, believed that graduates from the EMI program were
more likely to land well-paid jobs in the international business and financial sector.
Similarly, one student (EMI/S5) felt that compared with its parallel CMI program, the
EMI program will be more competitive (in the job market). Another frequently mentioned
advantage for individuals had to do with the importance of English competence in further
education. The curriculum document for the EMI program proudly announced that we
have numerous exchange programs with overseas universities, which provide our students
with great opportunities to study abroad. In the interviews, five students (EMI/S2, EMI/
S4, EMI/S5, CMI/S1, and CMI/S4) concurred that EMI would provide students with more
and better educational opportunities in the West, especially Anglo-American countries.
Both CMI/S1 and EMI/S5, for example, believed that EMI would be very useful to
students who intended to study abroad.
To sum up, English and proficiency in the language were accorded great prestige and
high values by the language ideologies we uncovered in the collected policy statements and
our interviews with the faculty and students. National, institutional, and personal language
ideologies converged on the deep-seated belief that English proficiency would be benefi-
cial to China, the focal university, and individual students and faculty members. English
proficiency was embraced as capable of accruing both symbolic cultural capital (e.g.,
cross-cultural understanding, global vision, desirable cultural qualities, and international-
ization) and material gains of various types (e.g., economic competitiveness, improved job
prospects, and access to better educational opportunities). From the analytic perspective
provided by Spolskys language policy framework, such widely-held beliefs about English
performed the ideological task of establishing English competence as a prerequisite for
development, be it national, institutional or individual, providing a rationale for adopting
new language practices, and clearing the way for such medium-of-instruction policies as
EMI. However, there are at least two reasons for taking these language ideologies criti-
cally. First, recent scholarship on the spread of English/EMI questions the assumed rela-
tionship between mastery of English and development (see Hu 2008; Hu and McKay
2012). For example, Gray (2012) points out, in the context of developing countries, that
there is no evidence to suggest that the use of exoglossic languages such as English in
such settings has in any material way contributed to actual development (p. 98). Second,
to what extent many of the perceived benefits and advantages conferred by English pro-
ficiency can materialize depends crucially and ultimately on the actual language practices
in the classroom. It is to such practices we turn now.

Language practices in the focal EMI program

In Spolskys language policy framework, language practices refer to what individuals

actually do in their language use and, in the context of EMI, the day-to-day teaching and
learning strategies adopted by professors and students to facilitate disciplinary and lan-
guage learning. Because language practices set up the prerequisite conditions for language

560 High Educ (2014) 67:551567

choice (Spolsky 2009), Shohamy contends that policy is practice and practice is policy
(2006, p. 165). In our interviews and focus groups, we discovered that the actual language
practices and hence the de facto language policy in the focal EMI program were dictated
by the English competence of the professors and students in the program.
Although the professors in the EMI program had received graduate training and hence
EMI in Anglo-American universities, their communicative competence in English was
perceived to be less than ideal. CMI/T3, one of their colleagues teaching the CMI program,
made the candid comment that a major problem of the EMI program was the facultys
inadequate English proficiency, adding that they may be able to teach the English
textbook by following it closely, but they are unable to use authentic oral English to deliver
the instructional content competently, that is, in a spontaneous, interactive, freewheeling
manner. EMI/S3, a student from the EMI program, also noticed that his EMI professors
were less flexible and improvisational than their colleagues teaching through Chinese.
One of the two EMI professors (EMI/T2) we interviewed shared with us that he had to
code-switch to Chinese when explaining difficult concepts or teaching challenging content
because to use English exclusively would inhibit him from conveying disciplinary
knowledge effectively. In particular, he noted that in order to help students better
understand some complex concepts, I often use illustrative examples from their daily life,
and it is more effective to use Chinese in such cases. The EMI professors language
problems with discussing case studies based in China were explicitly commented on by
a second-year EMI student (EMI/S2), too. Her fellow student, EMI/S1, also observed that
given the same amount of time, the professor can go deeper into the content if he or she
teaches in Chinese.
The EMI students command of English was also perceived to fall short of the English
proficiency required for effective EMI. One professor (CMI/T2) believed that The major
problem for EMI is students inability to comprehend the instructional content delivered
through EMI, and their limited facility with English, particularly in speaking and listening,
affects the quality of EMI. Eight of the ten students we interviewed apparently agreed
with the professors unflattering assessment of their English competence. EMI/S3, for
example, observed that because of our limited English proficiency, we can only get a
smattering of the content covered in class In a similar vein, EMI/S2 made the following
Speaking English can cause ambiguity and hence misunderstanding. This is partic-
ularly true when it involves highly specialized disciplinary content, where many
terms may have meanings different from their everyday usages. It is thus difficult for
students, myself included, whose English is not good enough to follow the professors
in class and, consequently, we can easily get confused.
These observations were echoed by EMI/S4 and EMI/S5, who told us that their
disciplinary learning was affected by EMI because we cant use English as skillfully as
our mother tongue. A student (CMI/S3) from the CMI program shared that her friends in
the EMI program can hardly understand the EMI lectures, so they borrow our Chinese
textbooks to study. She also told us that one of friends in the EMI program audited a
parallel CMI course she attended largely because he had difficulty with his professors
English lectures.
Because of the high linguistic demands of EMI and their insufficient command of
English, the EMI professors and students reported encountering considerable difficulties in
using English to explain sophisticated scientific concepts and complex technical terms,
explicate processes and principles fundamental to their discipline, discuss intricate cases,

High Educ (2014) 67:551567 561

develop persuasive arguments, and construct compelling counterarguments. To alleviate

the language problems, they reported resorting to various teaching and learning strategies.
One strategy frequently adopted by the EMI professors was to simplify the curricular
content. As EMI/S3 noted, the EMI courses can cover only the most basic content and
professors can hardly elaborate on it, because doing so requires the use of English words
that students dont understand. The dilution of disciplinary content was also explicitly
acknowledged by three of the professors (EMI/T2, CMI/T2, and CMI/T3) we interviewed.
Another common teaching strategy adopted was to appropriate the language of the text-
book, stay close to the teaching notes prepared in advance, and minimize spontaneous
interaction or improvisation. Thus, one student (EMI/S3) complained that the professors
tend to teach the EMI courses as if they were English listening comprehension courses!
Other strategies resorted to by the EMI professors included code-switching to Chinese to
explain challenging materials, making heavy use of PowerPoint slides in class, assigning
pre-lecture readings for students to preview the instructional content, and repeating
explanations that students did not understand.
The EMI students were also compelled by their inadequate command of English to
adopt a variety of compensatory learning strategies. One strategy used by most of the EMI
students (e.g., EMI/S1, EMI/S2, and EMI/S3) was to depend on Chinese references/text-
books to make sense of their English lectures and English coursebooks. EMI/S2s com-
ment below was quite representative:
I usually listened to the lectures and then reviewed my lecture notes. When I came
across something I didnt understand, I checked up on it in the Chinese reference
book, which was an unfortunate coping strategy to digest the content that I didnt
Another common strategy adopted by the EMI students (e.g., EMI/S3) was to spend huge
amounts of time to look up unknown vocabulary in their English textbooks before they
went to class. Other coping strategies were translating content from English into Chinese,
preparing for tests by memorizing answers based on Chinese and English textbooks, and
avoiding spontaneous discussions. As pointed out by EMI/S2, theres essentially no such
thing as real communication; we can understand our textbooks but we really need
discussions in class.
The various teaching and learning strategies adopted to mitigate language difficulties
arising from insufficient English proficiency did not seem to be conducive to disciplinary
and language learning in the focal EMI program. EMI/S1 complained about the gaps
between what the EMI program promised and what it was capable of achieving in reality:
The goals and objectives of the program have been much overstated, and many of
them are simply signboards [to attract people]. The program hasnt met its
promise of effective EMI, nor has it met our personal expectations.
Commenting on the effect of EMI on his disciplinary learning, EMI/S4 pointed out,
We can understand the EMI lectures to some extent, but the effect of EMI isnt as
good as CMI. Sometimes you just feel that you would probably get a clearer idea of
the content if the professor delivered it in Chinese.
Similarly, EMI/S5 lamented that we may not be able to get an in-depth understanding of
the content, when taught in English. These comments were consistent with CMI/S3s
report that her EMI friends feel they havent learnt the content as well as we [students in
the CMI program] have and they know far less about the content than we do. The EMI

562 High Educ (2014) 67:551567

students were not happy with their language learning, either. EMI/S1, for example,
reported that most of us still find it difficult to speak or write in English; for instance, we
may understand some specialized terms when we hear or read them, but we may not be
able to use them. This echoed EMI/S2s perceptive observation that I think there isnt
enough productive use of English in the program.
In summary, consistent with findings of several studies conducted in other contexts
(e.g., Ball and Lindsay 2013; Cots 2013; Fortanet-Gomez 2012; Webb 2002), the faculty
and students in our case study reported much language difficulty in the discursive con-
struction of knowledge in English. Because of such difficulty, EMI was adulterated, and
Chinese was also frequently used as a medium of instruction in the EMI classroom. The
less-than-ideal command of English led the participants to adopt a variety of teaching and
learning strategies to cope with the linguistic demands of EMI. While they were useful in
helping the professors and the students to get by (i.e., to communicate and understand the
basic content of the EMI courses), many of these accommodation strategies (e.g., sim-
plifying instructional content) were recognized by our participants as having negative
effects on both disciplinary and language learning. Consequently, the EMI program fell
short of the content and language learning goals envisioned in the national and institutional
policy documents. These results accorded with Spolskys (2009) insightful observation that
language behavior is determined by proficiency (p. 6).

Policy measures for managing the EMI program

As Spolskys language policy framework makes clear, language management is motivated

by language ideology and consists of both explicit and implicit efforts made by individuals
or groups to modify language practices or beliefs. Such management efforts are
embedded in political, ideological, social and economic agendas (Shohamy 2006, p. 55)
and may not lead to intended results due to possible constraints on their successful
implementation or misalignment between the management mechanisms and the actual
needs of stakeholders. To manage its EMI programs, the focal university put in place a
range of support measures, some of which were instituted in anticipation of the linguistic
demands of EMI and in an effort to alleviate language problems stemming from an
inadequate command of English by faculty and students. Our focus here is on these
language-related support mechanisms that were provided for the focal EMI program.
To begin with, the policymakers of the focal university were aware that students would
need to possess a threshold level of English proficiency to be able to participate in and
benefit from EMI. Consequently, the university stipulated that students must have scored a
minimum of 120 out of a possible total of 150 in the National Matriculation English Test to
be eligible for its EMI. Such an entry requirement, however, was far below Band 6.5 of the
widely used international test of English proficiency, IELTS, which is generally regarded
as the minimum proficiency required for academic study through EMI (Graddol 2006). The
EMI students themselves also recognized that such a level of English proficiency was not
sufficient. EMI/S5, for example, commented that you need a class of students with
comparable English proficiency to offer EMI effectively, and if you want to have such a
class, you must raise the minimum English proficiency requirement for admission into the
EMI program. In this regard, it is important to point out that although strong competence
in English was necessary for successful EMI at the focal university, setting an entry
proficiency requirement, like the double tuition charged for the focal program, limited

High Educ (2014) 67:551567 563

access to EMI and its associated benefits to only a small elite with the right kinds of
symbolic and economic capital.
Second, the focal university provided the admitted EMI students with extra sheltered
intensive instruction in English in order to raise their English proficiency to a level adequate
for EMI. On top of four weekly hours of English reading instruction made available to all
first-year students, the EMI students received two additional weekly hours of training in
English listening and speaking, respectively, in freshmen year. In addition, they took Public
Speaking Skills in English (2 h/week) in the first semester of their sophomore year and
Business English Writing (2 h/week) in the second semester. While most EMI participants
in our study were quite positive about the listening and speaking classes, there were clear
indications that their usefulness was limited. For one thing, these classes were not able to
eliminate the wide variations of English proficiency among the EMI students, as attested to
by EMI/S6s observation that our English proficiency varied widely when we were starting
EMI. For another, the acute and pervasive language difficulties our participants reported
encountering in the preceding section indicate clearly that the extra sheltered English
instruction was not powerful enough to overcome the students language problems.
Third, as a policy measure to ensure the quality of EMI, the focal universitys 2002
regulatory document stipulated a number of minimum qualification requirements for faculty
members who were interested in offering EMI. Among these requirements were two that
had to do with professors command of English as a vehicular language: (a) strong com-
municative competence in English and disciplinary expertise on the curricular content, and
(b) having received training on EMI or having studied or worked at an overseas institution
for at least half a year. Like the minimum proficiency requirements for the students, these
eligibility criteria also restricted EMI and related benefits to a small number of faculty
teachers who possessed the right symbolic capital. Because it was inherently difficult to
formally gauge a professors communicative competence in English and since pro-
fessional training on EMI was practically non-existent in mainland China, overseas
working/studying experience became virtually the sole operative criterion. This was con-
firmed by our interview data: Both EMI professors held a PhD from an overseas university.
Having studied at an overseas English-speaking university, however, did not guarantee that
a professor could teach a disciplinary curriculum competently through English.
Finally, the university provided some pedagogical support to teachers in its EMI pro-
grams. Such support consisted in organizing a few yearly public lectures on EMI for
teachers engaged in EMI, co-hosting a symposium on EMI in 2006 with another university,
and independently organizing another one in 2008. These EMI support measures, however,
were perceived by the EMI faculty to be not only too limited but also inadequate and
ineffective. EMI/T1 bemoaned that all they have done is to organize one or two public
lectures each semester, which dont seem to be of much help. Similarly, EMI/T2 com-
plained about the inadequate institutional support for them to improve EMI:
I think there is little institutional pedagogical support. Although the university
encourages faculty to offer EMI, it is largely confined to policy rhetoric. I feel
there are few actual and concrete measures that can really help teachers to offer EMI
Both EMI professors lamented the lack of in-service training programs that could provide
methodological guidance on integrating language teaching seamlessly and effectively into
disciplinary teaching. In addition, they criticized the unavailability of organized
communication platforms, through which EMI teachers could share their experiences
and thus improve the effectiveness of EMI. As EMI/T1 pointed out,

564 High Educ (2014) 67:551567

Another problem is the difficulty faced by the EMI teachers in communicating with
each other. There are only a small number of EMI teachers, and few people have
attempted to document their experiences. There are few opportunities for us to
share our experiences with each other. Its really necessary and important to create
more such opportunities in the future. For example, we may set up an online forum
for the EMI teachers to discuss and share their concerns and experiences regarding
To summarize, although the focal university anticipated that students and, to a lesser
extent, professors were likely to be linguistically challenged in undertaking EMI, the
policy measures instituted to ensure that those involved in EMI would have adequate
English proficiency were rather limited in their effectiveness, as evidenced by the language
difficulties outlined in the previous section that our participants encountered in the focal
EMI program. However, these measures, together with the various incentives (e.g.,
favorable workload formulae, material rewards in the form of subsidies, and institutional
recognition) provided by the university to encourage qualified faculty to offer EMI, par-
took in structuring educational inequalities by valorizing English proficiency and
restricting access to EMI to a small advantaged segment of the institution. As regards
pedagogical support for EMI, both the quantity and quality of methodological training
provided by the university for the EMI teachers left much to be desired. Timely and well-
designed methodological training, however, has been found to be crucial to the successful
implementation of EMI in other contexts (Ball and Lindsay 2013; Wilkinson 2013).


This case study critically examined nationally, institutionally, and personally held lan-
guage ideologies about English proficiency and EMI, the language practices enacted in a
specific EMI program, and the policy measures deployed to regulate and manage EMI. It
has come up with several important findings that evinced a complex interplay of the three
constitutive components of language policy. First, the prevalent language ideologies
privileged the English language and embraced English proficiency uncritically as a pre-
requisite for national, institutional, and personal development. It is no exaggeration to say
that English proficiency has become a most coveted form of cultural capital in Chinese
society (Hu 2009). Second, there was a hiatus between the magnificent goals of EMI
envisioned in policy documents and the compromised language practices found in the
classroom. Constrained by their English competence, professors and students resorted to
teaching and learning strategies that fell short of optimistically envisioned policy goals.
Third, there was considerable misalignment between policy supports and the actual needs
of faculty and students. Last but not least, the prevalent language ideologies and various
policy measures put in place to regulate EMI functioned to perpetuate and accentuate
educational inequalities in China by making EMI a service to the privileged, the rich, and
the elite, as has been found elsewhere (e.g., Costa and Coleman 2013; Cots 2013; Wil-
kinson 2013). These findings raise concerns about the quality and consequences of EMI in
Chinese higher education.
This case study focused on students and professors from a single EMI program. Given
the high stakes carried by EMI in Chinese higher education, there is a clear need to conduct
more case studies of EMI programs run by other higher education institutions because
institutional context is a crucial factor in co-determining language and disciplinary learning

High Educ (2014) 67:551567 565

(Dalton-Puffer et al. 2010). Such studies, especially those adopting longitudinal designs,
can contribute greatly to situated understandings of the long-term effects of EMI on
students and faculty as well as the complex and dynamic interplay of language ideologies,
linguistic practices, and management mechanisms that are specific to these programs. In
addition, experimental studies that are rigorously designed are needed to determine to what
extent EMI facilitates or inhibits not only English learning but also disciplinary learning.
Although it is difficult to conduct experimental studies of EMI because of various practical
constraints and the existence of many potential confounding variables (Bruton 2011;
Dalton-Puffer et al. 2010), the difficulties and potential threats to experimental validity do
not detract from the value of such studies because well designed experimental research can
provide compelling evidence of the effects of EMI, or lack thereof, on various outcome
measures. Such experimental studies, however, need to be supplemented by microgenetic
studies of discourse in the EMI classroom to capture the dynamics and complexity of
instructing and interacting through English as a foreign language and to reveal how lan-
guage use impacts on both language and content learning with its affordances and/or
impediments (Smit 2010). Finally, further research should approach EMI as a public good
(Hu and McKay 2012) and examine how it fares in terms of practical feasibility, allocative
efficiency, and distributive justice.


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