English Medium Instruction vs Content Language Integrated Learning: Why is the distinction important?

Image from https://theanalyst007.blogspot.com/2012/11/the-great-indian-english-medium-drama.html

In “EMI” and “CLIL” classrooms around the world, students are learning an academic subject through the medium of English. But are there important differences between these terms, and do they matter, especially for students who are disadvantaged by the language of instruction due to limited proficiency in it? In other words, the key difference between EMI and CLIL is how they make use of translanguaging and code-switching in classroom interactions.

Try reading the dialogue below—read left, right, left, right, left—and imagine yourself in that classroom, hearing what teachers and students are saying.

Chick and Hornberger (2001)

The dialogue is from an English Medium Instruction (EMI) Math classroom, recorded by J. Keith Chick and Nancy Hornberger, and reproduced in an article titled “Co-constructing school safetime: Safetalk practices in Peruvian and South African classrooms.” The students learning an academic subject, Math, through EMI appear to know no more than a few words of English (such as how to count to ten), so the teacher does the most talking. It is unclear whether the students understand what a union set is, but they hear the teacher say this term, and to demonstrate that they are paying attention, they echo the latter word “set”—at times overlapping with the teacher (represented by the asterisks *). To avoid embarrassment—the teacher embarrassing the students with how little they know in English, or the students embarrassing the teacher with the teacher’s inability to increase this proficiency—they simply carry on like this, day in and day out. Chick and Hornberger called it “safetalk.”

Unfortunately, it is the disadvantaged majority in some countries—the non-English dominant families disadvantaged by English-medium education—that want free, universal English-medium instruction (EMI) so badly, voting in its favor and contributing to common EMI situations like the one above (Pluddemann, 2015; Probyn, 2015).

One thing that struck me when I learned about safetalk during my PhD is that safetalk is the exact definitional opposite of trans(languaging). In an article defining translanguaging, Li Wei (2017, p. 16) states that

Swain (2006)… used the term [languaging] to describe the cognitive process of negotiating and producing meaningful, comprehensible output as part of language learning as a ‘means to mediate cognition’, that is to understand and to problem-solve and “a process of making meaning and shaping knowledge and experience through language.”

EMI simply means that you learn an academic subject through the medium of English, without systematic ways to bridge instruction and your language repertoire. In disadvantaged schools, teachers and students may engage in monolingual safetalk, or, alternatively, they may engage in plenty of unsanctioned first language use in order to cope with the material (at least when administrators or assessors are not around), talking about many things through this language or in this language mixed with English, with questionable learning outcomes (Sah & Li, 2017, 2020). Even if students understand content better under these conditions, it may happen that

The teacher [does] not use any single complete sentence in English or meaningful clauses, but just phrases and words, which shows the lack of opportunities for the students to understand the mechanism of English in complete discourses… for these students who [have] to be assessed in English in their high-stakes exams. (Sah & Li, 2020, p. 13)

Ultimately, activists need to continue to fight for students’ rights to be educated in their own language(s) and through translanguaging (Mohanty, Panda, Phillipson, & Skutnabb-Kangas, 2009), and teacher education also helps (Parba, 2018). But if EMI needs to happen, a systematic way of bridging academic curricula in English with students’ existing language repertoires and funds of knowledge is achieved through Content Language Integrated Learning (CLIL).

Lin (2016), p. 98

I have blogged about this diagram (Lin, 2016) elsewhere, but as you can see, L1 everyday oral registers scaffold L1 academic oral registers, which scaffold academic L1 written registers, which scaffold academic L2 written registers (the main mode of high-stakes assessment), but the academic L2 written registers are also scaffolded by L2 everyday and academic oral registers. Furthermore, if you think about translanguaging in small group and whole class discussions, L1 and L2 everyday oral registers (blue arrows), and L1 oral academic registers (dark green arrows) can scaffold L2 academic written registers as well. Finally, there is transfer between L1 and L2 everyday oral registers (light green arrows), and between L1 and L2 academic oral registers (yellow arrows), which can be used on their own or together to scaffold written textual literacy practices. This is what we teach in our MEd CLIL program at the University of Hong Kong, using a textbook by Angel Lin (2016) that is written in accessible professional English for teachers around the world.

In this post, I will continue to blog about the rainbow diagram with a focus on code-switching in classroom talk to accompany translanguaging pedagogy. A couple brief definitions:

  • Translanguaging is allowing students to learn using their whole language repertoire without paying too much attention to the boundaries between official national and state languages (García & Kleyn, 2016);
  • Code-switching, especially a deliberate switch in codes perceived as distinct, is a way to explain concepts in ways that scaffold learning (Lin, 2013; Martin-Jones, 1995). For EMI, this requires a bi/multilingual teacher who speaks students’ language and is also proficient in English. I do not suggest hiring monolingual English speakers as EMI teachers to teach academic subjects to students who have only emerging English proficiency in EFL contexts. At the same time, the bi/multilingual teacher must be trained in pedagogical code-switching. Training bi/multilingual teachers is less costly than hiring foreigners, and local/domestic teachers likely have much more useable funds of knowledge for the purpose already.

Code-switching for pedagogical purposes is related to two processes in teaching academic discourse, which Lin (2016) calls “unpacking” and “repacking.” Unpacking means understanding academic texts by talking about them in more accessible language. However, just because students have unpacked and understand a text doesn’t mean they can repack, or express their understanding and their own thoughts and opinions on the text, in academic discourse. So additional processes are required for repacking. Code-switching is involved in both processes (unpacking and repacking). Below, I sketch a brief outline of this.

A powerful unpacking method was outlined in 1990 by two English-Spanish bilingual education specialists in California, Rodolfo Jacobson and Christian Faltis. In Chapter 1 of their edited book Language Distribution Issues in Bilingual Schooling (1990), Jacobson suggested that the two languages can be used in a number of ways, some more effective than others. One is to first preview the material in the first language (L1), then teach the topic in depth in the second language (L2). While this can be useful for some learners, other students may tune out when L2 is used and thus get a “watered down” understanding of the topic. (The late Jacobson had a keen sense of how human beings mentally behave in the language classroom.)

Next, Jacobson described concurrent translation, in which everything the teacher says in L1 is immediately repeated in L2, but this cancels the need to pay attention to the L2 part. Moreover, Jacobson listed dynamic translanguaging as an option—i.e., use whatever language resources you need to make sense of the material—which he unfortunately dismissed as “flip-flopping” (this was 20 years before Ofelia García, and people did not really understand dynamic translanguaging’s complexity back then)… but Jacobson had a point in that dynamic translanguaging is not the best mode for teacher explanatory talk because code-switching has more scaffolding potential by capitalizing on the perceived distinctions between the languages. Thus, he and his colleague Christian Faltis suggested a fourth option to guide teacher speech, which they called the New Concurrent Approach (NCA).

In Chapter 4 of their book, Faltis described the NCA as code-switches in teacher speech that cause subtle but perceptible breaks between different parts of an utterance, which in turn scaffold learning. Some examples:

  1. Conceptual reinforcement/elaboration. Read what it says in the text, then switch to L1 to elaborate, adding background details or interesting trivia.
  2. Review. Read what it says in the text, then switch to L1 to summarize the text in brief. Ask students questions to check for their understanding, then get students to translate the summary to L2.
  3. Vocabulary. Use L1 to discuss meaning and/or nuances of key L2 words.
  4. Metacognition. Use L1 to prompt students to think about the author’s language choices in the text, and how they suit the genre and audience. Cover all levels of the Genre Egg (Lin, 2016), from text structure to particular word choices. (Generally, we get students to notice things at the larger level before the smaller level, as micro level details like vocabulary and sentence patterns are linked to already-known macro-level social factors like genre, text type, and audience.)
Lin (2016), p. 39

In fact, teachers teaching monolingual classes do this too, but the code-switches are between L1 academic and everyday registers, rather than between languages; see my post on code-switching that explains why monolinguals also code-switch. As students get used to these ways of “taking through” academic texts, they will be able to do it in group work to scaffold and assist each other.

Here is a simplified version of interaction in CLIL classes: once the academic text in L2 is unpacked by the class (for example, using L1 academic/everyday registers), then students can summarize (i.e., repack) their understanding of the text in an L1 academic/everyday register, and also offer their own analysis and opinions… then translate their summary, analysis and opinions into an L2 everyday register with the help of peers and translation software. Towards the end of the unit, the class can work on further repacking all their notes, which consist of summary, commentary, and opinions (written in a mixed L2 everyday/academic register, annotated here and there in another language or languages) in an L2 academic register—for a formal assignment like an oral presentation or essay. They can do this “final” repacking using the same teaching/learning strategies that have been shown to help English monolingual students with less academic preparation, such as the TLC (Teaching-Learning Cycle), from the Sydney School of applied linguists in Australia (Martin & Mathiessen, 2014).

Martin & Mathiessen (2014), p. 149

That is, the teacher leads students to write from their notes by modeling how this is done on the board, sometimes selecting a student as “scribe.” Alternatively, students can work in pairs or small groups to write the composition. As students get more and more used to doing this, they can do independent construction, which the teacher still needs to give encouraging individualized feedback on. There are so many socioemotionally reassuring benefits to these practices that build a learning community, which I discuss here (see the part about Ms. Rosewall’s class). Bridging pedagogy (see the rainbow diagram above) is a very worthwhile but time-consuming process, so it is imperative that EMI policymakers do NOT overpack the curriculum.

TLC does not only stand for Teaching-Learning Cycle but for the idiom Tender Loving Care, because if we must teach “standard” English (a language which divides socioeconomic classes in Inner Circle English-speaking countries and colonizes different parts of the world), we should do so in a helpful way that incorporates students’ funds of linguistic and cultural knowledge, without seeing these as inferior, and without seeing them as separate from important academic tasks. Lin (2016, p. 103) shows how the TLC can be combined with translanguaging between languages and multimodalities, for learners who speak English as an additional language:

Lin (2016), p. 103

In summary, the difference between EMI and CLIL is in the name. EMI focuses on the notion that instruction in an academic subject is (supposedly) through English immersion. CLIL means that we learn content and language together in a learning community where we (trans)language aloud together while working on our multimodal textual practices. What learning conditions do you think are more important?


Chick, K., & Hornberger, N. H. (2001). Co-constructing school safetime: Safetalk practices in Peruvian and South African classrooms. In M. Heller & M. Martin-Jones (Eds.), Voices of authority: Education and linguistic difference. Ablex.

García, O., & Kleyn, T. (Eds.). (2016). Translanguaging with multilingual students: Learning from classroom moments. Routledge.

Jacobson, R., & Faltis, C. (Eds.) (1990). Language distribution issues in bilingual schooling. Multilingual Matters.

Lin, A. (2013). Classroom code-switching: Three decades of research. Applied Linguistics Review4(1), 195-218. http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/applirev-2013-0009

Lin, A. (2016). Language across the curriculum & CLIL in English as an Additional Language (EAL) contexts: Theory and practice. Springer.

Martin-Jones, M. (1995). Code-switching in the classroom: Two decades of research. In L. Milroy & P. Muysken (Eds.), One speaker, two languages: Cross-disciplinary perspectives on code-switching (pp. 90-111). Cambridge University Press.

Mohanty, A., Panda, M., Phillipson, R., & Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (Eds.) (2009). Multilingual education for social justice: Globalising the local. Orient Blackswan.

Parba, J. (2018). Teachers’ shifting language ideologies and teaching practices in Philippine mother tongue classrooms. Linguistics and Education47, 27-35. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.linged.2018.07.005

Pluddemann, P. (2015). Unlocking the grid: Language-in-education policy realization in post-Apartheid South Africa. Language and Education, 29(3), 186-199. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500782.2014.994523

Probyn, M. (2015). Pedagogical translanguaging: Bridging discourses in South African science classrooms. Language and Education29(3), 218-234. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500782.2014.994525

Sah, P. K., & Li, G. (2018). English medium instruction (EMI) as linguistic capital in Nepal: Promises and realities. International Multilingual Research Journal12(2), 109-123. https://doi.org/10.1080/19313152.2017.1401448

Sah, P. K., & Li, G. (2020). Translanguaging or unequal languaging? Unfolding the plurilingual discourse of English medium instruction policy in Nepal’s public schools. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 1-20. Early view. https://doi.org/10.1080/13670050.2020.1849011

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong

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