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June 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 3

ISSN 1755-9715

English as Means or Medium of Instruction (EMI) Within the Policy to Improve English in Cuban Universities Framework. A Case Study at Pinar del Río University

Tamara Gutiérrez Baffil, M. Ed. is a teacher at the Language Center of Pinar del Río University, Cuba. Her research focuses on language center management and language testing in higher education. Email: 

Rubén Alejandro Pérez Gutiérrez, is a teacher at the Language Center of Pinar del Río University, Cuba. His main current interests are in communication for education and language testing. Email:



This article looks at the role of English as a means or medium of instruction (EMI) in the context of the Policy to improve this language teaching in Cuban higher education. Through a case study carried out at the University of Pinar del Río (UPR), within a general qualitative approach, it provides insights into the current experiences on English teaching and learning process in the institution and explored the teachers´ and students´ linguistic competence levels, needs and motivations to teach and learn in English. The findings from this study are consistent with the author´s believes that, accomplishing EMI in non-philologists’ subjects, will contribute greatly to achieve the objectives of the Policy that Higher Education System is carrying to improve the teaching and learning process of English in all Cuban universities. This work is part of a dissertation submitted to fulfil the requirements for awarding the International Diploma in Educational Planning and Administration, held at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration in New Delhi, India, to whom I give my sincerely regards and thanks.



English has become the global lingua franca and inevitably, the communicative use of this global language has been promoted. Throughout its history, English Language Teaching (ELT) and its research has been influenced by the way language, in general, has been understood, thought to be learned and needed to be used in given time periods.

In other words, the ideas defining language (linguistic paradigms), the leading theories attempting to determine how it is acquired and the particular social demand for its implementation have determined the type of research carried out to find out how English can be taught best in the particular temporal and social context. (Morell T, Alesón M, Tabuenca M, 2010).

Most people in the world learn at least one language other than their mother tongue (Tucker, 1999), but the major issue of L2 acquisition is how to learn the language more effectively. Traditionally, second language learning programs are usually taught in isolation as a subject, which usually covers 45 to 60 minute periods per week in the school curriculum depending on the role of the L2 in a particular context.

Therefore, the use of L2 as the means of instruction is likely to motivate students to enhance their L2 proficiency, which significantly affects their academic achievement.

It is also argued that students will be more interested in learning L2, as that is the medium through which they can understand the subject content (Gardner, 1985). Based on these theoretical underpinnings, using L2 as the means of instruction provides a favorable environment for L2 learning.

English as a means or medium of instruction (EMI) essentially refers to the teaching of a subject using the medium of English language, but where there are no explicit language learning aims and where English is not the national language.

In Cuba, English as a means of instruction found its opportunity of implementation in the Language Director Program (LDP) designed by Corona in 1998, aiming at harmonizing the different teaching components, not only to give the student a structured approach for using the language in study and work real situation, but also to provide teachers of other subjects a theoretical and practical training on the methodology and ways of applying the Program as they need to know, at least, the reading skill in English to better perform in the profession.

Today, the Language Curricular Strategy (LCS) is a continuity of the LDP, this time essential in the framework of the policy to improve English at higher education, since the students need to meet a graduate requirement being proficient at B1 level from the Common European Framework for Languages (CEFR).

The current study will be focusing on the possibilities of implementing EMI in the Cuban context for improving English in university students.


Literature review

There is a conceptual separation to content and language integrated learning (CLIL), which does not mention what second, additional or foreign language (L2) academic subjects are to be studied. EMI makes quite clear that the language of learning is English, with all the geopolitical and sociocultural implications that this may entail, while CLIL has a clear objective of furthering both content and language as declared in its title, EMI does not (necessarily) have that objective. (Derden, 2015)

Pointing this definition out provides a conceptual separation between EMI and Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), a language teaching methodology emerging back in the mid-1990s in which “situations where subjects, or parts of subjects, are taught through a foreign language with dual-focused aims, that is to say the learning of content and the simultaneous learning of a foreign language” (Marsh, 1994) cited by (Oxford, 2014).

Applied Linguists often discuss EMI in relation to CLIL, a language teaching methodology that emerged in the mid-1990s, with “situations where subjects, or parts of subjects, are taught through a foreign language with dual-focused aims, namely the learning of content and the simultaneous learning of a foreign language” (Marsh, 1994) in (Oxford, 2014). Although academics continue to debate where and how to situate EMI among language methodologies in general, and indeed whether it even qualifies to be part of the realm of language teaching methodology, there is the idea, of visualising a continuum with language instruction goals on one end and content communication goals on the other, where EMI would certainly find itself on the content-heavy side of things. (Lyster & Ballinger, 2011)

EMI is also confused with teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) through English, which means that the interaction and texts used for instruction in EFL should avoid any recourse to the students’ first language. It is also confused with ESP (English for Specific Purposes) in which courses involve English for journalism or business studies for example, specifically designed to enable a student to undertake that profession in an English-speaking context. It may also be confused with EAP (English for Academic Purposes) which is designed to provide students with the type of academic vocabulary and (usually written) discourse enabling them to operate successfully at a university, which delivers its academic subjects through the medium of English (Oxford, 2014).

There is a fast-moving worldwide switch in non-Anglophone countries, from English being taught as a foreign language (EFL) to English being the medium of instruction EMI for academic subjects such as science, mathematics, geography and medicine.

In the report of EMI Department of Oxford, in 2014, it is defined as -the use of English language to teach academic subjects in countries or jurisdictions where the first language (L1) of the majority of the population is not English-. (Oxford, 2014)

The basic function of the language is that through it human beings acquire both a system of social and cultural products and an instrument of knowledge of reality itself, so there is no complete human being that knows himself or give others to know him/her without an advanced level of possession of their language (Mayoral i Arqué, 1998, Salinas, 1974). In short words, language is a mechanism of thought and cognitive development.

Learning is a long and complex process of constructing knowledge that individuals have talking with each other’s and with themselves through the use of language, using it as a mediating instrument in their social interactions. The use of language in the educational process allows to large extent, internalization of knowledge, which involves incorporating the individual level (intra psychological) than previously belonged to the sphere of our interactions with others (inter psychological). Internalization refers to the internal reconstruction of an external operation (Vygotsky, 1979).

There is a growing belief that learning an academic subject through EMI will enhance or facilitate the learning of that subject by the home students.

EMI has other substantial implications for staff recruitment, mobility options among academics and raises the fundamental question of a new professional order in higher education, where the role of (and potential struggles with) language will occupy centre stage (Madhavan D., McDonald J., 2014).

The steadily advancing Bologna process in Europe gives witness to a general European tendency in education politics and management to follow internationalization strategies. This process is strongly interrelated with the increasing importance of English as the European lingua franca and language of higher education.

This development widely affects areas of research and publishing, but the most visible effect of English as a lingua franca is probably its implementation as a medium of instruction in university lectures and seminars.

The search carried out by Oxford, 2014 looked a global picture where EMI would appear as a phenomenon in a state of flux. From country to country, EMI is being promoted, rejected, refined and sometimes even reversed. Responses on EMI were in the order of:

  • Being promoted by policy makers, administrators, teachers and parents as a passport to a global world.
  • A mechanism for internationalising their education offers, creating opportunities for students to join a global academic and business community through international mobility.
  • A way to build the English language capacity of their home country and ensure that their home students can compete in a world market.
  • The way to access modernity and prosperity.
  • A world language that could enable movement in academia and business.
  • A way to improve personally and professionally as teachers and to advance their careers.
  • A way to become international.

The present study looks at the experience of EMI at the University of Pinar del Río, which purpose is to socialize its results after applying the action plan.



Literature review led to select relevant information and materials of great importance for the study research problem and documental analysis aimed at verifying whether the selected degree courses at the University of Pinar del Río has implemented the Language Curricular Strategy (LCS) to develop language skills from the subjects.

A survey applied for third-academic year students majoring Informatics, Telecommunication, Accountant and Finances and Geology intentionally selected as they had already had three semesters of English with general and academic purpose. The intention of the study was to know their experience learning English and the possibilities to be used as a means of instruction by other subjects.

An e-mail message was sent to every third-academic year student that voluntarily wanted to be subjected to the survey. There were forty-five (45) notifications agreeing to be studied so the date of the meeting was agreed for administering the tool.

A semi-structured interview to teachers of other subjects of Informatics, Telecommunication, Accountant and Finances and Geology intentionally selected under the criteria of having at least one experience on teaching any activity in English in their lessons.

The procedure for teachers was the same. This time asking for those who at least had one experience on teaching any activity in English in their lessons having the answers of a sample of twenty-six (26) in total.

Questionnaires were designed by the researcher, revised by experts and delivered to be filed. They were classified into three categories for both students and teachers:

  • The first category collected data such as teachers´ degree, department, professional status, etc., and students´ academic year, subject and faculty.
  • The second section of the questionnaire queried the linguistic competence of students and teachers by means of self-evaluating their level of English intended to identify the specific skills teachers and students felt they need more help to develop.
  • The third section of the questionnaire included questions concerning specific experiences with the use of English in the classroom as well as expectations for how English should be used in the university context. This section of the questionnaire allowed us to know their needs in general and determine what type of courses would help train teachers to impart content courses in English.


Research findings

Through documental analysis, it was verified that the University of Pinar del Río has been implementing the Language Director Program during the last twenty years through several actions:

  • Diagnosis of 1st year students to know their skills in English.
  • Identification of the specialized bibliography written in English to support teaching.
  • Elaboration of the glossary of other subjects (mainly done by talented students)
  • Participation of this talented students in students’ scientific events.

The subsequent Language Curricular Strategy intended to develop more activities to get the students more proficient in English, from the academic, research and extension to the community, was well conducted by some engineering degree courses, Informatics and Telecommunication, were good examples. However, there was still much more to do in that direction.

The composition of the students was: 12 engineering Telecommunications, 13 engineering Informatics, 11 majoring Accountant and Finances and 9 engineering Geology.

The criteria followed to self-evaluate students’ skills in English was what they can do or not in that language (good, not so good, bad) taken into consideration some aspects of Dialang scale.

The first intention with the questionnaire was to know about the quality and duration experiences on previous English learning to what 77% of the students perceived that was good in general, 42.5% felt it was not enough for them to develop skills in English followed to those (35%) who recognized that it was enough.

From the students answers of characterizing English learning and taking into consideration that quality stands for competence and performance, competence meaning (speaker-listener´s knowledge of grammar and other language aspects) and performance (actual use of language in concrete situations) (Chomsky, 1965) cited by (Canale M. and Swain M., 1980); and duration meaning the lasting time of a given course in the curriculum, it can be said that their previous English learning was good as they have been taught on the language linguistic system and how to use it in concrete situation, but not enough to extend larger skills since language is mainly practical to become an independent user and there was not enough time in the curriculum for that.

59% of the students considered themselves good at reading (e.g. work with bibliography) but not so good in speaking (41%), 12% felt they have good skills in speaking, reading and writing, but not so good in listening. Only 7% thought they are good in listening.

Some other difficulties were mentioned by the students limiting their learning English such as, group size, the schedule of the subject (usually late in the afternoons), lack of interesting complementary literature and lack of interests and motivation. 

52% of the sample said they have not been taught any content subject in English at the university level during at least one semester, while the rest does not know.

75% of the students thought that would be good to enhance teaching other subjects in English for the advantages it has, mentioning among others:

  • Access to relevant literature in English for their field of interest.
  • Access to the latest scientific results in the field of their studies.
  • Learn content and language at the same time.

It confirmed that they think English as a means of instruction is an alternative to motivate them to develop reading skills which deals mainly with accessibility to updated literature and findings on their subjects in first place and, secondly, they felt they need to improve languages competences in general to meet the subject’s demands in the curriculum and meet graduation requirements.

Regarding teachers there was no previous information available on their competence in English. So, the survey sought to find out about any certified and/or perceived competence levels.

The composition was: 3 teachers of Administration, 2 teachers of Circuit, 5 teachers of Geology, 2 teachers of Computer Programming, 3 teachers of History, 3 teachers of Sociology and 8 teachers of English. All of them teaching in the above mentioned degree courses.

56.6 % of the teachers has been teaching from 6 to more than 15 years at the University level. 84.6% are full-time teachers while 11.5% are part-time teachers. The rest (3.9%) are in-service teachers. 17 with a PhD degree, 18 masters and 10 graduates.

42% of them has been given an English certification, 43% considering what they can do in English, placed themselves at the intermediate level, while 15% felt they have low levels of English.

Taking into consideration the certification and the perception they have on themselves, it can be appreciated that there are levels of proficiency that allow teachers to develop some king of activity in English in their lessons.

Despite some experience with Academic English, most of the teachers have not taught a content course in the language (76.9%) and those who answered affirmatively (15.3%) have taught some courses for a PhD, master degree or internship application.

67% revealed that the reasons motivating them to teach in English were mainly for academic and/or professional development because it is part of what they should do with the LCS. Referring to the difficulties faced while teaching in English, the most common ones are adapting content to the students’ English level (11.5%) and interaction with them (27.6%).

Adapting content to the levels of the students requires knowing occupational and specialized skills that means the skill to perform specialised actions (mental and physical) required to do the duties of (self-) employment according to what the students can or not do. Interaction with students involves communicative skills, which is affected not only by their knowledge, understanding and skills, but also by other factors connected to their individual personalities (attitudes, motivations, values, beliefs, cognitive styles and personality traits), which contribute to their personal identity (CEFR, 2002).

For that purpose, 37.6% of the teachers have taken courses such as:

  • Professional development course on effective teaching.
  • Teaching Grammar in context.
  • Teaching and learning English.
  • Teaching Knowledge Techniques.
  • Whole Language Translation.
  • Creative Imagery and the Writing Process.
  • English in Basic Medical Science.

Those teachers (33%) who had not taught content in English think it is very important to have adequate language competence to teach content subjects. In spite of that, it is recognized by 61.5% to feel motivated to deep their knowledge in English for that purpose.

The reasons for what teachers believe that teaching in English at the UPR should be enhanced is, in first place, for the benefit of students’ education (80.7%) and second, for their own academic and professional development (62.2%).

All these questions about needs, motivations and limitations yield a significant result, because most of the teachers perceived they need further linguistic training and enough linguistic and communicative competence to feel appropriately trained to teach EMI courses with the required quality. This result is also supported by their opinions on possible schemes that could be adopted to implement EMI courses.

Most of the interviewed teachers consider that training is necessary to improve their speaking and classroom interaction techniques; followed by Specific English subjects (e.g., English for Economists or English for Informatics), but within the curriculum of the students.

Speaking improvement and classroom interaction techniques are related to the realization of communicative intentions, which means that students need to build capacities together with a more specifically language-related communicative competence.

In general, teachers considered EMI as a way to improve communication. Most of them confirmed that it is important since it creates academic and professional opportunities for students learning, it is also a means for researchers’ exchange in an international context favouring institutional status.

In other words, not only students but also teachers can become international in an EMI context trough planning courses supported by the curricular design approach in line with worldwide standards of teaching and learning a foreign language.


Implementing EMI at the University of Pinar del Río

The Policy to improve English in the Cuban Higher Education legally establishes level B1 to meet graduate requirement (MES, 2015) leading the universities to rethink the way teaching English was taking place.

In the case of the UPR, the starting point was to gather teachers and students to explain the policy and those ways that better contribute accomplishing the requisite, resulting the natural scenarios to socialize this study results.

The second step was to identify those teachers that really could teach at least an assignment in English listing a total of 15 that participated in a workshop giving their ideas of teaching their subject in English. Three teachers of English were invited to help with the activities.

In the first part of the workshop, they introduced themselves giving personal and professional information which was very successful. They also were able to talk about certification of English from courses they have taken and some of them even were awarded scholarships in an English speaking country.

In the second part of the workshop, group work was arranged to have them talking on any experience in teaching at least an activity in English. Good levels of proficiency were observed in the 90% of participants and it was also relevant the levels of help they gave each other as well as feedback for improvement.

The third part of the workshop, also though group work, was intended to set an action plan for introducing EMI in their subjects to which they stated that it should be done in a gradually, balanced and controlled way, meaning that it should start by teachers that had that experience before (those who experienced teaching abroad (9)) and the design of the courses should follow these steps having the record of the student’s feelings:

  1. Elaborate and deliver the glossary of the subject to the students to have them familiar with.
  2. Search in internet or other sources those related to the subject.
  3. Make them familiar with the classroom language (throughout the course).
  4. Work with reading comprehension first as it is the most used skill in university students (to find information for the class).
  5. Design activities related to the subject content by working in pairs/trios to have them practice speaking (from simple to complex during 5 lessons at least).
  6. Assign writing tasks on simple concrete topics and to bring it to class to be socialized (whether reading it out loud or sharing through pair work) till get them writing short reports on their experiences in their labor practice.
  7. Design tasks on a subject topic integrating reading, speaking and writing to make presentations in small groups.
  8. Teach parts of the lesson in English gradually moving towards teaching the whole class.
  9. Simulate scientific events in the class encouraging them to act as presenters, academic lecturers, and so on.
  10. Talk about the experience on EMI for further implementation/improvement.

Teachers came to the idea of starting the coming semester, which means the second half of the academic year 2018/2019 as part of the Strategy to Improve English at the University and planned into four stages: (see table 1 Action plan for Implementing EMI at the University of Pinar del Río 2018-2019)

  1. English Means Instruction Planning Stage
  2. English Means Instruction Course Design Stage
  3. English Means Instruction Implementation Stage
  4. English Means Instruction Experiences Socialization Stage

EMI experience was applied in the fourth semester as the students had had courses for general (1st and 2nd semesters) and academic (3rd semester) purposes.

Based on some unexpected circumstances out of the university will, there was a need to reschedule the students’ and teachers’ scientific events for presenting their experiences, which are going to be hold next April 2020 on behalf of the International Language Day celebrations at the university.

However, there can be said, by the systematically interaction with students and teachers, that they are learning a bit more each time although sometimes they need the support of the Language Center.

They also have recognized the usefulness of English to find the most updated literature on their field of action and for writing abstracts for course papers.



The findings from this study are consistent with the studies on EMI worldwide and the author´s believes that accomplishing EMI at the tertiary level contribute to meet the objectives of the Policy to improve English at the university.

This study supports the idea that English as a means of instruction is a very useful way to improve language competence and professional development for both students and teachers at higher education.

Teachers of other subjects can use the results of this study to take action with their students and improve it through systematic feedback.



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Appendix 1. Action plan for Implementing EMI at the University of Pinar del Río 2018-2019




English Means Instruction Planning Stage

  • Meeting with teachers and students involved in EMI to explain the Policy to improve English at the UPR and the objective and importance of EMI in this framework.

First half of September 2018

  • Diagnosis of the linguistic competences of students.

First half of September 2018

  • Placement of students into levels.

First half of September 2018

English Means Instruction Course Design Stage


Workshop to teachers on the design subjects under EMI.

October 2018

  • Identification of the specialized bibliography written in English

October 2018

  • Elaboration of the glossary of the subject by teachers and students.

October 2018

  • Elaboration of a complementary booklet for the subjects in English.

October 2018

  • Presentation of EMI schedule program to the department staff of each subject.

October 2018

  • Talks to the students on EMI program.

October 2018

English Means Instruction Implementation Stage


  • English courses for teachers and students based on CEFR.

November-December 2018

  • Presentation of the subject´s lessons plan to the students. 

January 2019

  • Implementation of EMI program.

February 2019

  • Mid-term control on the execution and effectiveness of the process

April 2019

  • Balance of the results on implementing EMI.

June 2019

English Means Instruction Experiences Socialization Stage

  • Workshop for socializing teachers experiences in EMI.

July  2019

  • Students’ Scientific event for presentation of their experiences on EMI.

November 2019

  • Teacher´s scientific event to socialize the results in implementing EMI.

December 2019

  • Presentation of an article with the experiences of implementing EMI at the UPR.  

January-December 2020

Designed by the researcher


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