November 2019
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Zohreh R. Eslami & Keith M. Graham , Texas A&M University, Texas, USA

Zohreh R. Eslami

Keith M. Graham

As English expands and strengthens its existence in educational systems worldwide, higher education institutions in the Persian Gulf region are turning toward English-medium instruction (EMI) as the educational policy for many degree programs. On the surface, these EMI programs seem to offer unprecedented opportunities for students to join an international community of scholars and professionals whose mode of communication in our globalized world is English. However, a closer look at the growing phenomenon of EMI reveals a different view, one where EMI challenges first language (L1) use, acts as a gatekeeper to education, causes academic struggles for students, and results in issues of both professional and personal identities. In this article, we explain how the monolingual ideologies of EMI in Qatar are a social justice issue that deserves attention and suggest a different alternative, a higher education system built around Arabic-English bilingualism.

Deteriorating Views of Arabic as an Academic and Professional Language

Much of our recent research has focused on attitudes toward EMI and Arabic in the Persian Gulf region, particularly in Qatar (Graham & Eslami, 2019; Hillman, Graham, & Eslami, 2019). Two ideas have emerged from this research. First, attitudes toward EMI tend to be generally positive, but we believe this to be a “false positive” (Graham & Eslami, 2019, p. 23). We suggest this because many of the studies conducted on language policies and EMI in the Persian Gulf report students having positive attitudes toward EMI because Arabic was perceived as lacking the terminology for specialized fields (which is factually incorrect; Graham & Eslami, 2019).

Our review study revealed that bilingual faculty perceive that Arabic is not welcomed by their students in the EMI classroom. When asked about using Arabic in the EMI classroom, one participant in our study told us,

I don't want to say [that] I don't want to [speak Arabic], but it is an American university, you know, and I just…why do [students] care if I speak Arabic or not? They came here; it’s all English, so they should expect that everybody speaks English. (Hillman, Graham, & Eslami, 2019, p. 50)

As we will see in the following sections, attitudes from students who see English as superior and instructors who do not believe Arabic has a place in an EMI institution are creating a social justice situation where many who seek a better life through higher education are being left behind.

EMI as a Gatekeeper

EMI is acting as a gatekeeper to education for many students who are driven and motivated to learn and pursue knowledge in their field but are merely lacking the prerequisite English for admission. Many programs in Qatar require that a certain English proficiency threshold be met before admission into any program. As Khalifa, Nasser, Ikhlef, Walker, and Amali (2016) have reported, failure of students to meet these requirements has consequences. As one student in their study shared,

I did my portfolio and studied IELTS. I tried many times to obtain the grade that they want. When I first gave them my papers, they did not accept me because of IELTS. I applied once again, and they accepted me (Khalifa et al., 2016, p. 8).

For this student, the one requirement between him and education was an English test, and multiple failures resulted in delayed entrance into a program. However, for some, multiple delays may turn into the abandoning of goals altogether. Another student from the same study recounted, “The big problem was how to pass the IELTS. I sat for the exam 15 times, and I even went to Bahrain to obtain it but in vain” (Khalifa et al., 2016, p. 8). As these quotes illustrate, EMI is often acting as a gatekeeper for Arabic speakers who may otherwise be qualified academically for entrance into higher education.

Academic Consequences of EMI

For students who do pass the language proficiency tests and enter into EMI programs, a monolingual English approach to instruction may fail to tap into students’ background knowledge and realize their full potential. Kane (2014) illustrates this with an anecdote from an EMI medical program:

A second-year Arabic-speaking student told me that he had learned all about meningitis in class, including the mechanism of the disease, symptoms, treatment, et cetera. Two weeks later, when visiting a medical clinic, he came across a bilingual information leaflet about meningitis. “The penny dropped” only when he turned to the Arabic side of the pamphlet and discovered that meningitis is translated as as-sahaya in Arabic. Being previously familiar with as-sahaya, he said that had he been informed of the equivalent Arabic term from the outset, it would not have been necessary to learn about meningitis as an abstract concept. (p. 108)

Students around the globe enrolled in EMI may have to learn “abstract concepts” every day without connections made to their L1 knowledge as a result of the predominant ideology that there is no place for other languages in EMI classrooms. As this anecdote exhibits, these monolingual notions of EMI are actively working against our goals as educators aiming to do whatever is necessary to facilitate students learning to tap into all the cultural and linguistic resources they have.

Questions of Identity Resulting From EMI

The issues arising from EMI do not only concern those of language proficiency and academics; EMI instruction also creates issues of identity for students. Yyelland and Paine (2009) give voice to one EMI graduate who faced questions of professional and personal identity after receiving an EMI education:

I find it very, very hard to deal with my Qatari or Arabic clients when I am speaking about design because I don’t know what the terms are in Arabic, but I try to make it a point to speak in Arabic, and it has made me very self-conscious about not being Westernized and preserving my culture and heritage and traditions. (p. 127)

In this excerpt, we see how EMI causes language issues, but more salient is the self-consciousness about losing culture and heritage and becoming “Westernized.” As governments implement EMI in their countries, the unintended consequences of EMI on identity and culture will need to be reckoned with. EMI is not neutral and isolated within a campus; it permeates throughout the lives of its participants, which is further shown in this excerpt from Kane (2014):

Especially in college, most of the time you’re speaking English, and once you go back home, you don’t speak English. You don’t ever speak English; you always speak in Arabic. It feels different, [like] when I’m talking in English, that’s not really me, that’s just the Cornell E’temaad, but once I’m back home, that’s normal E’temaad. Yeah, sometimes this happens. The thing is, nowadays that I’m talking in English a lot in college, sometimes when I go back home I kind of forget a few words in Arabic. Like I actually slip an English word in, and it sounds really wrong. (p. 103)

For many students, EMI creates a second self, a self that is often positioned as an “other” due to the distinct lines that exist between life in English and life in Arabic.

A Call for a Bilingual/Multilingual Approach

As illustrated, the spread of a monolingual approach to education has created an issue of social justice. Attitudes toward home languages are deteriorating, motivated students are being denied access to higher education, student learning is suffering, and identity issues are arising. With these issues in mind, we question why there must be a language bifurcation in education. Language policy in the Persian Gulf does not have to be an either/or proposition. As the TESOL community knows, learning a foreign language brings with it many benefits; these benefits, however, do not need to come at such a high cost. It is our hope that we, as a community of teachers and scholars, can address the social justice issues of EMI and usher in a new era of bilingual/multilingual higher education.


Graham, K. M., & Eslami, Z. R. (2019). Attitudes toward EMI in East Asia and the Gulf: A systematic review. Language Problems and Language Planning, 43(1), 8-–31.

Hillman, S. K., Graham, K. M., & Eslami, Z. R. (2019). Teachers’ translanguaging practices at an international branch campus in Qatar. English Teaching and Learning, 43(1), 41–63.

Kane, T. (2014). Whose lingua franca?: The politics of language in transnational medical education. The Journal of General Education, 63(2/3), 94–112.

Khalifa, B., Nasser, R., Ikhlef, I., Walker, J. S., & Amali, S. (2016). A qualitative study of student attitudes, perceptions, beliefs, outlook, and context in Qatar: Persistence in higher education. Near & Middle Eastern Journal of Research in Education, 2, 1–22.

Yyelland, B., & Paine, P. (2009). Qatari women and ten years of American design school: Student perceptions of a cross-cultural educational experience. International Journal of the Humanities, 7(9), 119–129.

Zohreh R. Eslami is a professor at the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Culture at Texas A&M University in College Station and currently serves as the Liberal Arts Program chair at Texas A&M University at Qatar. Her research has examined intercultural and cross-cultural communication, English as an international language, sociocultural perspectives of teaching, and acquisition of English as a second/foreign language. Her publications include more than 100 journal papers, book chapters, and conference proceedings.

Keith M. Graham is currently pursuing a PhD in the ESL Education Program in the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Culture at Texas A&M University. He holds a master’s degree in education from Sam Houston State University. Prior to pursuing his doctorate, Mr. Graham worked as a professional development coordinator and English teacher in northern Taiwan. His research focuses on using quantitative and qualitative methods to explore teaching English as an international language, particularly English medium instruction and content- and language-integrated learning.

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