• Chris Sowton

Blog: How EMI is becoming an educational shibboleth

This blog was first posted on the British Council Senegal website in advance of the 2017 Language and Development Conference.


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.

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©2019 by Chris Sowton