English only: The truth (or the myth) about EMI — by Dr. Bernie Mak, Division of Arts and Languages

Nobody dares to deny the importance of English in Hong Kong, a metropolis of which competitiveness is always tied up with the international language. Citizens or expatriates whose mother tongue is English usually enjoy a decisive advantage in the job market, especially in the tertiary education arena where English is used as the medium of instruction (EMI). That said, what EMI means to teachers and students appears in no way so easy to find its agreement between linguists and policymakers; regardless, EMI is equal to “speaking English only” in many stakeholders’ eyes. This understanding will be supported by parents who believe more English inputs lead to greater English abilities, produce better learning outcomes, and shape a brighter future (which means more money on some level) for their children.

Effective communicators across the globe do not always use English only, though. Sociolinguists have reached the consensus that multilingual and multicultural societies tend to embrace the use of more than one language in social interaction. Skilled practitioners will recognize sometimes “shifting” between or among languages, traditionally called code-switching and recently called translanguaging, is crucial to maintain good relationships with different colleagues or partners for transactional or relational goals. In this regard, Hong Kong is unique. On the one hand, Cantonese, English, and Mandarin are used freely and creatively in the street, which can be an indicator of internationalization; on the other hand, once the camera moves to the EMI classroom, teachers and students will be discredited or even penalized if they utter a single, innocent Chinese word in class, despite the fact that the benefit of doing so can in many ways outweigh the drawback, if any.

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Communicative language teaching (CLT) gathered its momentum in the early 1990s. It is an approach to language teaching which emphasizes the importance of facilitating teacher-student and student-student interactions in an environment which is close to the “real” linguistic situation. The educational reform in Hong Kong over the past thirty decades has claimed the government’s recognition for CLT in language education. But still, it is the tutorial schools in the city who really put the theory into practice. They allow (celebrity) tutors to use both Chinese and English to teach their courses, including courses on English. In other words, they create bilingual (or trilingual) learning environments which are similar to many contexts in everyday communication in the community or even on the planet. By contrast, back in formal education settings, they are expected to speak “English only” if they are attending a lesson in an EMI school.

Considering CLT, if the EMI classroom is intended to simulate authentic contexts to develop or sharpen students’ communication skills in a globalized city where “biliterate and trilingual” is its ultimate goal, the official circle of English education seems to be full of incomprehensible discourses, few of which are strongly supported by scientific research or linguistic reality. For one thing, the perspective that an increase in English inputs (i.e. in classroom settings using English only) always constitutes an increase in language proficiency is based on the view of total language immersion in second language acquisition (SLA, or second language learning), or more generally speaking, monolingualism.

Total language immersion used to be prevalent in the field of teaching English as a second language (TESL) during the colonial period of Hong Kong. It proposed the idea of “immersing” learners in the “English Ocean” without providing “life-saving devices”: They either successfully learned to swim (i.e. learned to use English automatically) across the deep ocean (i.e. across uncertain contexts) or drowned in the sea (i.e. ended up failing to learn English or fearing it). This approach had students spend 100% of the class time in the target language, immersing them into an English-only atmosphere in which everything was taught and communicated only via English. The “survivors” were often gifted students who developed a high level of proficiency in English. The “deaths”, which constituted the majority of students, were likely to undergo an experience of struggling, losing confidence, and eventually, giving up the learning of English. Many of the former have become leaders after climbing the social ladder in all walks of life, and they are usually granted power in articulating their voices to repeat their stories of success. Yet, little attention has been paid to the latter.

That approach was popular and accepted in the past because the colonial society only required a small number of elites who could use English accurately and confidently. Those gifted “swimmers” usually entered the political circle or the business world in which English was considered as the lingua franca. As for the losers who “drowned”, policymakers simply did not care about them as they could just use their mother tongue, Chinese, to make a happy and meaningful life. This historical reality has unavoidably affected the definition of EMI. He who has the authority to define EMI is often the survivors in the immersion age. It is normal for them to adhere to or endorse a view which they find reasonable and workable in their experience with monolingualism.

If monolingualism was still the norm, it would come as no surprise to enforce the English-only setting by means of EMI, so as to strengthen the mindset of elite tertiary education vis-à-vis mass tertiary education. The cost is that hundreds of thousands of students who need the first language (i.e. Chinese) as the tool for learning the target language (i.e. English) will be discouraged from even trying to comprehend the English world. Another insolvable problem is that even those who make good progress will always be confused by the gap between the classroom and most settings in the workplace: They grow up in a monolingual classroom, but they face a multilingual society. Being able to communicate in English in every aspect is one thing while being able to determine when and where to use which language for what reason is another. The barometer can only be developed in a multilingual learning environment.

The politics of language education is as murky as the ethics of politicians. Although not every single rule needs scientific proof, so far there has been little linguistic research which confirms the benefits of monolingualism or the English-only condition to the majority of English learners. On the contrary, more and more scholarly studies have suggested warmly embracing the shared first language when practicing EMI in the classroom. While it appears to go against the tradition, acknowledging the roles of Chinese in the EMI classroom will not hurt. To linguistic purists, code-switching and translanguaging may not be perfect practices in English education, but it does not mean they are not good to the next generation, whose goal is becoming biliterate and trilingual, in the digital age where languages are in contact all the time, whether online or offline.