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Positionality and trajectory across year one: an ethnography of lower proficiency learners at an EMI university in Hong Kong

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posted on 2023-08-30, 19:45 authored by Andrew Jarvis
This study provides a unique insight into the English journeys of first-year students at an English medium instruction (EMI) university in Hong Kong. The study focused on 10 students from various disciplines, who received equivalent English language scores of IELTS 5.48-5.68, generally the lowest score to enable entry to the university. Using the frameworks of desire and investment, the study investigated the tension between the participants’ language and identity goals, and their struggle to enhance language proficiency and engage in the EMI experience. Taking an ethnographic approach, written reflections and qualitative interviews were conducted in English at the beginning, middle and end of the academic year. The researcher, an English for Academic Purposes practitioner, also worked with the students through weekly language mentoring sessions. The research and mentoring were intended to benefit the participants by opening spaces for their English development and discussion of the themes. Thematic analysis was conducted on the data. The findings show that participants held insecurities with their English due to past learning experiences and comparisons with university peers. The participants were highly invested in English but felt pressure to enhance their proficiency to meet university, employer and societal expectations. The participants became frustrated and critical of the EMI experience due to the lack of opportunities for informal interaction, internationalisation and quality teaching in English. Ultimately, though continuing to desire English, the participants reported minimal proficiency gains and lowered their language learning expectations. Lack of vocabulary was the most widely reported language frustration. By the end of year, the participants began to adopt more multi-perspective thinking about the EMI experience by understanding that lecturers, and the university itself, needed to maintain English as the medium of instruction. This study highlights a critical dilemma for universities in non-Anglophone settings: how to benefit from English and enhance student competitiveness without limiting the quality of education and the learning of discipline knowledge. As more universities adopt EMI, it is important to understand the student voice, especially those who may be positioned on the periphery of the university due to their language proficiency. This study supports existing literature regarding language challenges in EMI settings and adds unique findings by exploring the student journey and experience of EMI. Recommendations are given to university curriculum developers and EAP practitioners to enhance the EMI experience.



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