English Medium Instruction – Sociolinguistic Implications

‘IELTS, I see it as a future killer’ - marriage, jobs, university, travel all depend on it.

- Maha (26-year-old Emirati university administrative assistant, “'pseudonym used)

In Emirati higher education, there is currently almost no choice but to study in the Medium of English (EMI), which is extreme in terms of language policies worldwide. In almost all English medium universities there are entrance exams, and usually this exam is the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). The opening quote in this chapter was said with a sigh of frustration by one of the Emirati administrative assistants in my department as she prepared for yet another try at gaining the IELTS band score necessary for acceptance onto her planned English medium Master’s program. Equally, the Emirati university students and Emirati primary school teachers in the study depend on achieving a Band 5.5 and Band 6.5, respectively. The gatekeeper function and ‘ Whsta-like’ status given to English (as tested through IELTS) and dire consequences of not achieving the required level affect not only Emiratis’ academic careers and job choices but also their sense of self-worth and identity. As formal education occupies a large percentage of childrens’, teenagers’, and sometimes adults’ lives and undoubtedly shapes minds, learning in the medium of English has multiple sociolinguistic implications. While EMI as a phenomenon has been on the rise globally, it has been identified as an under-researched area by the International Research Foundation (TIRF). This underlines the need for investigating the sociolinguistic implications of the phenomenon in various contexts. The chapter thus investigates key areas relating to EMI in the UAE such as perspectives on medium of instruction, teachers’ linguistic backgrounds, and cultural content of courses. Answers to the questions ‘Which medium? Which teachers? Which content?’ are sought.

English Medium Instruction, Arabic Medium Instruction, or a Choice?

When asked about preferred medium of instruction, Emirati university students’ responses varied, with the most popular options being a choice between ‘EMI and AMF or ‘just ЕМГ. ‘Just АМГ was chosen by less than a quarter of the students (Figure 7.1).

Emirati University Students’ Medium of Instruction Preferences

Figure 7.1 Emirati University Students’ Medium of Instruction Preferences

The expatriate teachers were also asked to share their perspectives on medium of instruction in UAE higher education. Just over half of the expatriate university teachers (55%) felt that students should be given a choice to study through Arabic or English (a dual stream approach), or both mediums should be used. The expatriate teachers mainly commented on the benefits of EMI (55%), with some pointing out negative aspects (37.5%), and 20% taking a philosophical attitude to the phenomenon, stating they had no control over it or no strong feelings about it. The Emirati primary school teachers were not asked directly to comment on preferences for medium of instruction in higher education as they were only temporarily studying at the university. As primary school teachers, they were asked to comment on EMI in schools, however.

Both EMI and AMI Preference: ‘A Balance is Good’

As seen in Figure 7.1, having both English and Arabic as a medium of instruction was the preference of most Emirati university students. Here the importance of both languages was recognized. Some stated a preference for the use of EMI for all subjects except Arabic and Islamic studies, which is the current practice. This supports findings in Chapter 5 where English is associated with education and Arabic with religion. Shamma’s comment in Example 7.1 demonstrates such a division. Other participants protested the current ‘choiceless choice’ (Troudi & Jendli, 2011, p. 41) of EMI in Emirati higher education. As Troudi and Jendli (2011) point out, ‘being a speaker of Arabic, an Emirati has no choice but to study his/her chosen university subjects in English. This is now a taken- for-granted reality and an uncontested practice in many Arab countries’ (p. 41). In Example 7.1, Amina argues the injustice of this, stating that Emiratis should have the right to learn in both English and Arabic.

Example 7.1

Mix. For example, Arabic and Islamic in Arabic and others in English.

(Shamma, Emirati university student)

Both, because it’s our rights.

(Amina, Emirati university student) * Pseudonyms used for all participant names

Both Emiratis and expatriates stressed the need for choice and balance in relation to medium of instruction. Words such as ‘balance’, ‘equal’, ‘choose’, and ‘choice’ were frequently used, as seen in Example 7.2.

Example 7.2

A balance is good. If they have a balance it would be good.

(Alya, Emirati university student)

We should let students choose if they want to study major in Arabic or English.

(Sultan, Emirati university student)

I think it would be good if English was equal to Arabic.

(Nejood, Emirati university student)

A choice is always better. Choice.

(Graeme, UK)

I’d support a dual stream approach so some students could do their degrees in Arabic.

(Thomas, UK/Canada)

It was voiced that rather than being given a choice to study in English, it had been imposed on them and feelings of obligation and resulting resentment were present, as seen in Example 7.3.

Example 7.3

I feel that if the English language was not imposed on us in education and other things, 1 think it would be better.

(Layla, Emirati university student)

I don 't like it because it is imposed on us.

(Alia, Emirati university student)

I am here because I am obliged, I don’t have any the choice, nobody asked me whether you want to come here or not, you know. I’m happy to be here to study and develop my language but I have to choose.

(Khadija, Emirati primary school teacher)

An overall preference for choice regarding medium of instruction was also found in previous studies such as O’Neill’s study (2014) where the majority of Emirati university students stated a preference for studying in English and Arabic equally (377 respondents, or 60.22%) ‘over any other option’ (p. 11). A move towards bilingualism in higher education was also found to be desirable in Belhiah and Elhami’s study (2015, p. 17), in which 62% of the university students stated a preference for English and Arabic instruction.

EMI Preference: ‘English is More Demanded’

A testament to the power of English in the UAE is that the second most popular preference for medium of instruction was learning solely in English (EMI). Despite the strong personal accounts relating to the fear of society losing the Arabic language (as seen in Chapter 6 of this book), on an individual level, the benefits of EMI seemed to overshadow such concerns. The primary reason for choosing EMI was its power in terms of accessing the job market and communicating in international business settings, as shown in Example 7.4. The necessity of English was described by many expatriate teachers as a ‘necessary evil’ and there being ‘little alternative’ due to its role as the world’s lingua academia. Others, selfishly, felt it provided jobs for ‘native-speaker’ teachers, and it was ‘too late’ to turn back (Example 7.5).

Added to the power, prestige, and usefulness of English, further factors such as negative AMI learning experiences and the fact they had become accustomed to learning in English added to this preference.

Example 7.4

English, it’s more demanded.

(Muna, Emirati university student)

You’ll have a job. If you are in a meeting in a job l don’t think anyone will talk Arabic, there’s Egyptian, there’s Indian, there’s Emirati, there’s Germany, they will not talk Indian, Arabic, they will talk all English.

(Sara, Emirati university student)

Most of the companies, ninety percent of the companies, they need English.

(Fahad, Emirati university student)

Example 7.5

English is the language of professional publications, textbooks, work environments, etc. If Emiratis want to be a part of this ‘world’, they, like every other country these days, require English as a tool.

(Alice, USA)

There’s little alternative. Arabic medium education cannot offer anything like a comparable body of literature and is not suited to a number of disciplines like Business. The nature of private institutes in the Gulf, whereby English is the medium of communication even among Arabic speakers, also means education has to be in English.

(Alexander, UK)

In this sense, EMI represents a ‘chicken and egg’ situation. The global status of English encourages more EMI to be used, resulting in greater comfort and confidence using English, which may lead some to prefer EMI over using local languages as the medium of instruction. Coleman (2006, p. 4) names this process, ‘the Microsoft effect: once a medium obtains a dominant market share, it becomes less and less practical to opt for another medium, and the dominance is thus enhanced’. Similarly, Beacco and Byram (2003, p. 52) refer to this as ‘a self-reinforcing upward spiral’ operating in favour of English in education. Such a phenomenon is reflected in Example 7.6.

Example 7.6

English. It’s much easier. I got used to it since high school. Everything was in English except Arabic and Islamic studies.

(Taif, Emirati university student)

English, because it is easier. At the same time, English is developing/ evolving/ progressing.

(Hamad, Emirati university student)

Hamad’s comment in Example 7.6 reflects common language ideologies voiced by Emirati participants in Chapter 5 of this book where English is seen as part of the future, whereas Arabic is less flexible and associated with the past. With reference to the Microsoft effect of English (it has become the norm, so therefore the preference), Rahma speaks of her little brother’s international school where English is the only way he can communicate with classmates and teachers (Example 7.7). In this sense, he has become used to using English and given the choice would probably rather ‘carry on as normal’ (in English).

Example 7.7

I go to their class, maybe five or six Emirati kids and all from the other countries. That’s why they will talk Arabic with whomf Like even the teacher is English.

(Rahma, Emirati university student)

Preferences for EMI also related to associated teaching styles and nationality of teachers. Foreign teachers using English were desired due to their more innovative teaching style, as voiced in Example 7.8.

Example 7.8

In English, of course, because it helps me get educated and more thoughts and ideas.

(Maitha, Emirati university student)

The English way for the major. I think it’s better than the Arabic because boring style for the study. The English has some fun and be better thinking.

(Masood, Emirati university student)

AMI Preference: ‘Some Talented Mathematicians may be Poor Linguists’

Although only 38% of the Emirati undergraduate participants stated they would prefer to study in the medium of Arabic (Figure 7.1), reasons given for this choice were potent. These reasons included greater understanding, increased confidence and comfort, and the ability to be more creative in one’s first language, as voiced in Example 7.9.

Example 7.9

I will be a creator and not afraid of things like grammar and vocabulary.

(Nouf, Emirati university student)

When you study your major in your own language, you will innovate more.

(Faiza, Emirati university student)

It makes us more comfortable.

(Yaseem, Emirati university student).

The expatriate teachers also pointed out that the extra cognitive load placed on students when studying through EMI was an ‘unnecessary burden’ (Example 7.10), especially considering the wide linguistic gap between English and Arabic. The fact that English uses an entirely different script and does not possess full one-to-one symbol-sound correspondence (Baker, 2017, p. 294) makes it ‘phonologically opaque’ (Cook & Bassetti, 2005, p. 7) and particularly difficult for Arabic learners. This, according to Baker (2017), together with other linguistically distant features, ‘poses an additional load in an already challenging linguistic context. . . and may limit bi-literacy success’ (p. 294).

Example 7.10

The impact (of EMI) is huge as creativity and research is very challenging in a foreign language.

(Youseff, Tunisia)

It has unnecessarily burdened students with years of extra study, and they end up being less literate in English and Arabic as a result.

(Abdulla, Canada)

Expatriate university teachers further questioned the logic and fairness of EMI as a gatekeeper to academic success, stating that it often caused ‘untold suffering’ in the form of a host of hurdles and obstacles placed in students’ way. Expatriate teachers commented that not all students are natural language learners, and English should not be a barrier to success for those who struggle with the language, as seen in Example 7.11.

Example 7.11

  • (EMI is) unnecessary and possibly imperialistic. It causes the students untold suffering.
  • (Wendy, USA)

Some talented mathematicians may be poor linguists.

(Grace, UK)

English acts as a gatekeeper to students who may be bright, but not good language learners. Ideally, there would be other options for these kinds of students.

(Bella, UK)

Many of the students would probably be more successful if they were able to study their courses in Arabic, as this would allow them to focus on new content and ideas without the burden of having to operate beyond their level of linguistic ability.

(Janet, UK)

I heard them, especially boys, complaining so many times about the necessity of being good at English in order to do well in schools. English has put off so many of my Emirati students from pursuing their studies.

(Youseff, Tunisia)

EMI: Too Much, Too Early

The Emirati primary school teachers voiced concerns over the young age (four or five years old) at which EMI begins in the UAE, saying it is ‘too much, too soon’ causing students to become confused and for their first language to suffer, as seen in Example 7.12.

Others pointed out introducing EMI for all core subjects from the beginning of schooling was a policy which jarred with successful and established bilingual education models elsewhere, such as in Finland and Canada. As Lin and Man (2009) point out, the New School Model (NSM), as described in Chapter 2 of this book, is quite different from the prototypal models such as the Canadian school immersion model, where

Example 7.12

They started teaching (in English) from the KG and they still don’t know their language, so when they introduce them to teach them English and Arabic in the one time, writing and reading in one time, that affects them in a bad way. Now in our schools, I taught Grade 5, I find that students, my students, wrote English from right side to left side and wrote Arabic from left side. That makes things confused and make the words like a reflection. When you write a word and put it in the mirror, you see the word in the mirror.

(Salwa, Emirati primary school teacher)

bilingual education is an elective choice made by middle-class parents. It is also unlike the selective approach in Hong Kong where only the academically skilled are selected according to examination results for bilingual education (Lin & Man, 2009). In contrast, all families whose children attend Abu Dhabi state schools do not have the choice of partial immersion (Baker, 2017, p. 291). As well as lack of choice, the UAE’s approach is also more extreme regarding the age at which EMI is introduced. Malaysia’s EMI policy (Swee Heng Sc Tan, 2006) and Brunei’s (Lin & Man, 2009) also teach the ‘hard or core subjects’ of English, Mathematics, and Science in English but starting later in elementary school. In these countries too, English teachers are most often bilingual. However, in the UAE, the English-speaking teachers, unless newly qualified Emiratis, are usually not speakers of Arabic. Further challenges arise for Emirati families who are not always proficient in English as they struggle to support their children in the medium of English at home (Blaik Hourani et al., 2012), which was evident in the personal accounts of family rifts shared in the study, as seen in Chapter 6 of this book.

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