Principal investigator: Dr Matthew SUNG (Department of English)
Hong Kong is dubbed the international hub in Asia, and credit partly goes to the multilingualism that policymakers and educators have advocated. English as a medium of instruction (EMI) is prevalent among local schools as much as the universities in town. It is probably why Hong Kong remains a popular choice for international students to pursue higher education. However, does the linguistic environment turn out to meet their expectations?
In the language management policy at most universities in Hong Kong, English was stipulated as the medium of instruction in their undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. Still, there is a grey area about the role of the language other than its instructional function. Consequently, this may leave international students confused or even infuriated at times. To dissect their language-related experiences and beliefs, Dr Matthew SUNG, Assistant Professor of CityU’s Department of English, launched a research project at an EMI university in Hong Kong with 24 international undergraduate students. From the perspectives of language policy and critical sociolinguistics, he zoomed in on their ideologies about the roles, the varieties, and the monolingual and multilingual uses of English in the EMI university context.
The findings indicated the complexity of the language ideologies held by international students. Regarding the roles of English in the EMI university, they referred to English as the default medium of instruction, a symbol of internationalisation, a shared language for intercultural communication, and a crucial means of social inclusion. Participants associated using the local language with social exclusion, especially outside the classroom, like extra-curricular activities. Their multiple language ideologies can constitute a complex sociolinguistic space in the EMI university context where different languages, linguistic norms, and practices are assigned different indexical values and meanings from below. It is more complicated than what the language policy from above suggests.
When it comes to the ideologies about linguistic varieties, the participants acknowledged English as a lingua franca (ELF) for intelligible communication. Meanwhile, some participants upheld the native speaker ideology as they expressed negative evaluations of local students’ and professors’ non-native English. In other words, they valorised native varieties of English over non-native varieties of English in the classroom context. Their beliefs in language hierarchisation reflect the unequal linguistic power structures in the local society, where English is perceived to carry more prestige than Cantonese, and native varieties of English are deemed more valuable than non-native ones.
Furthermore, the study also revealed that the participants interpreted the university EMI’s policy as implying monolingual English use in the classroom and the expectation that multilingual practices should only occur outside the classroom. In relation to the spirit of inclusivity, monolingual practices were reckoned to warrant equal learning opportunities and a level-playing field for both local and international students in their academic studies. Students with no or limited local language ability echoed the notion that their interests should not be violated. Such findings signpost broader social issues and concerns on social inclusion/exclusion, linguistic advantage/disadvantage, and educational equality/inequality in the EMI university setting.
From the language-related experiences and beliefs of international students, what insights does this study bring to other stakeholders in the higher education setting? First, governing bodies or policymakers of universities should consider international students’ language beliefs, needs, and expectations at the institutional level to address their concerns over social exclusion, linguistic disadvantage, and educational inequality. For instance, the language policy can stipulate that the use of local language for instruction is only allowed when no international students are present in the class. Those without the knowledge of the local language will not feel like an outsider or disadvantaged in their academic studies.
At the same time, local students should tune into international students’ language needs and be prepared to accommodate their language choices for an inclusive social space on campus. Course instructors and tutors ought to be aware that multilingual practices involving both English and the local language in the classroom may exclude students without competence in the local language.
International students are then encouraged to instil a multilingual mindset that embraces the variability in the use of ELF and to appreciate the multilingual landscape of the EMI university. They will thus settle better into the university community and the wider society in Hong Kong. After all, it takes nothing but a joint effort to build a secure and inclusive environment for students with linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds.
Achievement and publication
Sung, C. C. M. (2022). English only or more? Language ideologies of international students in an EMI university in multilingual Hong Kong. Current Issues in Language Planning, 23(3),275-295. https://doi.org/10.1080/14664208.2021.1986299
The research described in this paper was supported by the Hong Kong Research Grants Council, University Grants Committee (No. 23600416).