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Great opportunities to support EMI with multilingual practices

4 December 2017

Local language use to support EMI in the classroom

With a focus on primary schooling in low and middle income countries, we’ve reviewed findings from a large body of research evidence and also conducted fieldwork in one African country (Ghana) and one Asian country (India) among primary school children typically aged between 8 and 12 years.

Ghana’s language-in-education policy is for children to learn through a Ghanaian language at the lower primary level and switch to learning through English at the upper primary level.

In India we looked, in a mainly Hindi-speaking state, at low-cost private schools, which are growing in popularity. Typically, they advertise themselves as using EMI. This is in contrast to India’s government schools which use the state language as the medium of instruction (Hindi, Kannada or Bengali for example) with another modern Indian language and English being taught as curriculum subjects.

Language is an obstacle to learning

We commend language-in-education policies in both Ghana and India for their intentions to implement UNESCO’s 1953 recommendation that ‘every effort should be made to provide education in the mother tongue’, while also aiming to ensure universal access to English. However, our key finding is that current practices for learning through English in the state and low-cost private schools of our research present serious challenges to improving the quality of children’s education.

It was clear in both areas of fieldwork that the majority of children in these contexts were struggling to fully understand English, the language of instruction. This made it more difficult for them to learn curriculum content. We know that language difficulties can contribute to the low levels of achievement and progression that are well documented by other research evidence in both countries.

Problems for learner-centred teaching

We also saw how the language of instruction seemed to inhibit learner-centred teaching: pedagogy was teacher-dominated and text-book-focussed, with the teacher being the only one to speak in the majority of lesson time, often just reading from the blackboard or a book. Students’ speech was largely confined to choral chanting; they were virtually silenced, having very limited opportunities to speak beyond answering the teacher with rehearsed answers.

We saw two language factors that contributed to teachers’ adherence to a limited teaching repertoire. In India, teachers were often challenged by their own competence in English.  In Ghana, teachers seemed to interpret the language policy as a strict ban on using any other language but English.  The English of the Ghanaian teachers we met was high.  However, unlike the Indian teachers, who switched easily and frequently from English to Hindi, the Ghanaian teachers, whom we observed, conducted classes exclusively in English, with few uses of local languages which might have supported children’s understanding.

Educators recognise the problem

We found both challenges and opportunities for using multilingual strategies that might help children learn more easily in EMI contexts.  On the one hand, in both countries, we found strong feelings amongst educators that learning through English was helping students to acquire the language. This is despite evidence that students learn better in their mother tongue. English, in both nations, continues to be associated with being educated and elite and these perceptions influence the status of EMI.

However, in Ghana, education officials, heads and teachers acknowledged that learning solely through English was problematic. Education policy partially recognised this by requiring more use of mother tongues in the early years of school before English-only from Grade 4. In India, we observed much language switching from English to Hindi in the private low-cost schools and that - also more generally in government schools - there was no perceived resistance to switching between the two languages.

These findings suggest that there is fertile ground for promoting multilingual classroom strategies for teachers and students. However, we found practical obstacles to supporting the use of local languages in the classroom to support EMI. These included confusion about government EMI policies and what they mean in practice; inadequate resources; and insufficient teacher training and professional development in how to employ more learner-centred, multilingual pedagogy.

Make EMI policy more flexible

Our report recommends that language-in-education policies should be more explicitly flexible in teacher decision-making about the use of local languages, so that EMI is not seen simply as ‘English-only’.  This should occur alongside campaigns to shift sometimes entrenched views among policy makers, education officials, teachers and parents against using local languages in the classroom. A crucial part of this change  will involve a move away from using English only as the language of exams and away from English proficiency being a gatekeeper for jobs in, for example, the public sector.

Implementation of such policy changes will require teacher training and development both towards more active pedagogic approaches and to improve teacher competence in harnessing local languages for EMI.  Multilingual strategies are needed not just for language teachers, but for content learning in general.  It is important that appropriate materials and textbooks support this broadening of language use in the classroom.

The 2016 UNESCO Policy Paper 24 focuses on the need for students to be taught in a language that they understand. It poses the important question: “If you don’t understand, how can you learn?” Our research prompts a related question: “If you cannot speak, how can you learn and how can the teacher know if you are learning?”

Our recommendations offer ways for student voices to be better heard in the classroom, and for teachers to enable them to use language to learn so that both language development and learning are enhanced. We need to engineer practical, resource-efficient ways to make such change happen effectively.

Dr Elizabeth J. Erling, formerly Senior Lecturer in English Language Teaching and International Teacher Education at The Open University, is now Professor of ELT Research and Methodology at the University of Graz. She was the Principal Investigator of THE research project. A copy of the report can be found here.

This is the second in a series of six blogs by the research team. Here is the first: How can children in low- and middle-income contexts learn more easily when English is the medium of instruction?

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Contact us

To find out more about our work, or to discuss a potential project, please contact:

International Development Research Office
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes
United Kingdom

T: +44 (0)1908 858502