Size and development of academic vocabulary in English medium instruction
Book chapter, 2016
This paper is centred in the context of English Medium Instruction (EMI) and is primarily concerned with advanced students’ productive knowledge of English academic vocabulary, widely regarded as a crucial dimension of successful academic communication. The study problematizes the claim that EMI is beneficial for students’ development of academic vocabulary knowledge. The investigative context is a technical university in Sweden where all degree programmes at graduate level use English as the medium of instruction. The corpus data include texts (n=80, approx. 720,000 words) produced by Master of Science students in their first and second year of study, written by home and international students. The study, using the Academic Vocabulary List (Gardner/Davis 2014), sets out to answer three research questions relating to knowledge and development of academic vocabulary in EMI: 1. What is the lexical coverage of advanced (master’s) level student writing, i.e., what proportion of words in students’ texts is academic? 2. Are home students and international students (all of whom have English as a foreign language) comparable in terms of their productive academic vocabulary knowledge? 3. Does students’ productive knowledge of academic words appear to develop during their studies? The results of the investigation can be summarized as follows: In the corpus as a whole, academic vocabulary items account for approximately 20% of all tokens. This figure is considerably higher than that found in many earlier studies. There are no significant differences between home and international students in any of the measures of vocabulary used (pertaining to lexical sophistication and diversity). Finally, the findings regarding lexical development across years of study are somewhat mixed; however, the overall picture presented by the various measures is one of significant but very modest gains in some areas and none in others. These findings call into question the actual effectiveness of EMI for academic vocabulary development. The overall contribution of the paper is an important step towards more comprehensive understanding of what expectations we may reasonably have of the development of English language competency in EMI.