1 March 2024

English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI): What it is and the Current state of EMI in the Landscape of Higher Education

Noppanun Sookping
AUN Programme Officer;

In the efforts towards integrative development and internationalisation of higher education in the region, English Language serves in the front line among the interconnective medium languages that link people from different corners of the globe together through bilingual and multilingual education. In this regard, English language capabilities among academics, instructors and staff of higher education institutions (HEIs) is a highly important aspect towards institutional development, connectivity and integration with global standards and communities of higher education. Among the popular concepts of promoting English Capabilities in teaching and learning for the university mission, English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI) is still gaining momentum as a strategic method to improve and internationalise education in English non-speaking countries thanks to the innovativeness and strategic advantages it provides.

According to Professor Jinghe Han, from the Centre for Educational Research, School of Education, Western Sydney University, EMI is a method of using English to teach academic subjects in the contexts where English is a foreign language (EFL). As English has become a global language, so has increased the university demand for English teaching and training of human resources, with emphasis on higher education. The EMI concept first emerged in the 1990s as a strategic approach, not only to equip domestic students with both subject knowledge and English proficiency but also to attract international students. Recognised for integrating content and language in an innovative way, EMI serves as a strategic process for non-English speaking countries to internationalise their education.

The recent intraregional movements across the globe, including in Asia and ASEAN, has been promoting other languages as the medium of instruction for international programmes and curricula (Hang, Anh & Nghia, 2023), with some scholars having long been commenting on the overemphasis of English in curricula design and strategic planning (Hah, P. L., 2013). However, the English language remains influential as one of the medium languages of instruction to foster connectivity and internationalisation for HEIs at large. The provision of competitiveness and connectivity on the global stage seem to be the key drivers for many universities to advocate for more EMI programmes, training and policies. In Asia, the popularity of EMI programmes is rapidly growing within the region’s higher education sector, with notable expansion in China, Japan and South Korea. As a part of the country’s strategies to increase the number of international students, South Korea encourages its higher education institutions to broaden their EMI and, in this regard, expand their international curricula to support and attract international students from across the globe (Ekugo, 2023).

In the context of higher education in ASEAN, according to Professor Han, EMI is being leveraged by ASEAN HEIs to extend its global educational influence to their development and internationalisation. Singapore, through its longstanding bilingual education policy, has a long history of English Language continuing to serve as a primary medium language of instruction (Bolton, Botha & Bacon‑Shone, 2017). In Brunei Darussalam, while most Brunei citizens are plurilingual, Standard Malay and English are the standard languages of instruction in the country. Similarly, in the case of Myanmar, the country’s National Education Law of 2014 acknowledges linguistic diversity, yet stipulates only English as a language of instruction along with Myanmar in a multilingual educational model, blending non-dominant languages like English with local languages to support the learning of non-Myanmar speakers in the curriculum (Kosonen, 2017). While the region is currently expanding its scope of medium languages of instruction, including Chinese and Japanese in particular, the English language continues to provide strategic advantages to its universities in their development and advancement. 

The key challenge for region wide adoption of EMI in teaching lies in implementation. According to Professor Han, the scope of EMI has high applicability that goes beyond addressing the language issue of academic staff; focusing more in depth on teaching instructions or methods. For example, in the prospect of internationalisation based on an observation on the internationalisation efforts of HEIs in East Asia (Hongkong, Japan and Taiwan) by Times Higher Education (Chan, 2021), the strategy on teaching in English should focus more on structuring the curricula to cater to the learning experience expectations of students in English-speaking programmes; rather than on the language capacity of the instructors and how the classes are carried out. As the world is moving beyond the boundaries of using one or a few medium languages for teaching and learning, EMI is applicable as a part of HEIs’ multilingual training to prepare their academic and teaching staff for international programmes, curricula as well as other engagement and activities. In this regard, for individuals who are interested in receiving education in EMI and/or upskilling through professional learning, participating in a systematic intensive EMI training will be beneficial for their future EMI teaching.

The AUN Secretariat recognises English language capabilities as one of the key drivers/enablers behind the development and capability building for human resources in the field of ASEAN higher education. On the subject of EMI, the Secretariat is currently exploring new opportunities and collaborations with our international partners for promoting systematic and regional English capability training for academic staff, instructors and professionals of ASEAN HEIs. Stay tuned as the AUN Secretariat continues with more updates on our progress on this matter.

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Bolton, K., Botha, W., & Bacon‑Shone, J. (2017). English‑medium instruction in Singapore higher education : policy, realities and challenges. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 38(10), 913‑930. Retrieved from https://dr.ntu.edu.sg/bitstream/10356/138580/2/English%20medium%20instruction%20in%20Singapore%20higher%20education%20Policies%20and%20realities%20.pdf.

Chan, B. T. K. (May 2021). Internationalisation means more than just teaching in English. Retrieved on 19 February 2024 from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/opinion/internationalisation-means-more-just-teaching-english?cmp=1.

Ekugo, N. (November 2023). South Korea to attract 300,000 foreign students, simplify permanent residency, others.  Retrieved on 19 February 2024 from https://nairametrics.com/2023/11/21/south-korea-to-attract-300000-foreign-students-simplify-permanent-residency-others/.

Hang, N. T. D., Anh, D. P. & Nghia, T. T. (September 2023). Navigating intra-Asian mobility through language teaching. Retrieved on 19 February 2024 from https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20230906102948770.

Kosonen, K. (2017). Language of instruction in Southeast Asia.  2017/8 Global Education Monitoring Report “Accountability in education: Meeting our commitments”. Retrieved on 20 February 2024 on https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000259576.