Research summary: Adapting to EMI in higher education

Wilkinson, R. & Gabriëls, R. (2018). Adapting to EMI in higher education: Students’ perceived learning strategies. In Critical Issues in English-Medium Instruction at University (eds. Valcke, J., Murphy, A. C. & Costa, F.) Milan: Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation.


  • To explore what effect students perceive English-medium instruction to have on their learning strategies. Which learning strategies do students prefer? Did they change their learning strategies as a consequence of EMI?
  • Also to identify whether they experience inequalities in EMI. What are the students’ opinions concerning EMI? Do they perceive their context as equal or unequal? What linguistic asymmetries can be identified?
    • ‘A linguistic asymmetry is a situation in which agents do not have equal opportunities to communicate with each other, because of differences in language skills or the status of a language. … One can also speak of a linguistic asymmetry when a language has been given a privileged status or a language is perceived as inferior in comparison to other languages.’

Data & methods:

  • Qualitative, exploratory study conducted in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Maastricht University
  • Interviews with 9 students in the second or third year of their bachelor’s programme
  • 2 each from four first-language groups (French, German, Dutch and English), plus an additional Dutch who gave her native language as the Limburgs dialect
  • Semi-structured interviews conducted in pairs (per language)
  • Interviews recorded, transcribed, analysed qualitatively


  • Learning strategies:
    • Students need to adapt to learning through another language. However, even native speakers have to get used to the academic approach. Dutch student: “I think more people had problems even native speakers, native English speakers, to get used to an academic way of reading and writing.’
    • Students need more time for reading, writing: German student: ‘I need more time I’m a slow reader anyway and if I then read in another language, of course it takes more time.’
  • Three linguistic asymmetries:
    • between students with good and less good English. Dutch student: ‘I find it really difficult to say something in English and mostly in tutorials I have to think a lot when I want to say something or which words I need to use. Most of the time I’m just thinking about it and somebody started talking and says what I wanted to say.’ ‘This type of asymmetry increases the difficulty for some students to contribute to group sessions or to write academic papers’
    • between native and non-native speakers of English. Dutch student: “During our tutorial we have three British boys in our class. […] I can tell that my vocabulary is slightly less than theirs, obviously because it’s their mother tongue and they know all the words.” I.e. ‘native speakers of English are perceived to accrue an advantage’
      • But it is not always perceived as an advantage: French student: ‘in an international environment it’s better to have a more let’s say – classical English, so something that is not influenced by colloquial accents or dialects, so you can actually see for example in some tutorials the British people are the ones who are not – we will ask them to repeat themselves because we don’t understand their accent, whereas we come from an international school, we have internalized different accents which actually form an English which is quite smooth.’
    • between those who speak primarily their mother tongue and those who constantly have to speak another language. Students believe their mother tongue ‘suffers from the persistent use of English’. French student: ‘I would have a harder time going back to French content, so for example if I start writing a paper again, I’m not sure I could deal with French sources, academic sources.’ Dutch student: ‘I notice my Dutch gets worse.’


  • Students perceive the benefits of English-medium instruction (better job opportunities, being able to study in an international environment) to outweigh the costs (extra time and effort needed).
  • Unlike non-native speakers, the native speakers of English did not report having to modify their learning strategies.
  • ‘For non-native speakers of English, overcoming linguistic asymmetries is a necessary condition for content learning. However, for well-motivated advanced students with highly proficient language ability, EMI is not likely to present additional challenges. For these students, content learning is paramount and strategies for content learning prevail over language learning strategies’
  • Universities ought to address the types of linguistic asymmetries identified here.

Reader tips: which paper on English in Dutch higher education should I summarise next? Leave a comment!


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