Learning in English

The Cassels Family at dinner:

The Cassels Family at dinner: “So how was your day at the office, dear?” “Una noia…”

English teaching and learning has been embedded in my identity since my birth. My father is an English “madrelingua”, or mother-tongue speaker teaching students and adults.  My mother is a kinder garden educator: she successfully gets four and five-year olds to sign nursery rhymes with her in a perfect British accent. What allows my parents to stand out as English instructors in our small community in Mandello del Lario, is the fact that their lessons are (almost) entirely taught in English.

So while doctors, cooks and lawyers walked in and out of my house to learn through English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI) how to talk about their profession; I went to school and attend English grammar classes. Three hours a week of listening to a professor with a marked (Italian) accent explain some grammatical rules (in Italian), read a simple text (in English), give the Italian translation, complain about the class or her colleagues (in Italian) and assign homework for the next day (again, in Italian).

Participating in my first tutorials in Maastricht, was really a breath of fresh air for me. EMI in Universiteit Maastricht was, indeed, the main factor that determined my choice to study here. Even if not everyone in my tutorial was fluent from the beginning, I appreciated how much the freshmen in UM made an effort to learn English properly. I made friends with people who had French, Italian, Greek, Czech and Spanish as their first language, and I was positively surprised to see how thoroughly they all studied, read and discussed in English in order to quickly reach a level of fluency. After watching for 12 years my fellow-students in Italy go over and over the same irregular verbs without ever being able to apply them, the proficiency of my new friends by October 2012 seemed unreal to me.

My coursemates and I during an awesome trip to Brussels during the course

My course-mates and I during an awesome trip to Brussels during the course “Placing Europe”. That day, we learned in English, but among each-other we spoke French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian and German!

Having said all this, it seems quite clear that I have a strong bias in favour of EMI.  So, how would I argue in defence of EMI in face of Wilkinson’s (2012) main criticism?

1) Universities with EMI don’t check student proficiency

FALSE, at least in UM, even I was forced to do a IELTS test! During our first week of Uni we had a exam-questionnaire to asses our English comprehension, after which an Academic Language course followed, to train our writing skills.

2) EMI disadvantages non-native speakers, at least initially

MAYBE, but, it also stimulates them to study hard from the beginning and take the courses very seriously, while many native speakers underrate the study load and arrogantly assume they will pass only thanks to their ability to speak English. In his teachings, my father refuses to speak Italian even when he is asked to translate a word, and consequently requires his pupils to make the extra effort in interpreting his English explanation, thereby maximizing their leaning efforts in the process. When I lived in Venezuela, at 17, I attended the local Liceo Scientifico from the second week; I believe that Castillano as the medium of instruction at all times is one of the main factors that allowed me to speak fluently within a couple of months.

3)  EMI causes a domain loss of language 1 (L1)

RARELY, since outside of class all students find their community of native L1 speakers, and therefore maintain their language skills in everyday interactions. For those, like me, who prefer a more international crowd, it may be true that L1 gets faded, but I also notice that it takes me no longer than a week in Italy to speak like everyone else again. As for written skills, this is a little more critical, but it is also undeniable that English writing skills are invaluable.

I remain a defendant of EMI, but I also recognize that the language of instruction is a flexible, ever-changing factor in education that requires continuous self and group assessment; and that should still allow space for communication and teaching in other languages, when this is possible and relevant.

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