Introducing Collaborations in Foreign Language Medium Instruction

Sangho Han & Robert J. Dickey
School of Foreign Languages & Tourism,
Kyongju University

(originally posted at

As part of a theme of globalizing education, Kyongju University (Korea) introduced Foreign Language Medium Instruction (FLMI) into the curriculum in several departments outside of language studies in 1999. The authors were members of the FLMI organizing committee (which included faculty from two non-language departments as well as the Japanese and English language departments) and have been teaching and tracking this project since inception.

What have we learned in this time? Clearly, the lack of a unified and comprehensive foundation for content-based instruction, and how our project fits within, hasn't affected promulgation of the program, as this was a top-down driven mandate. On the other hand, lack of clear guidelines in the literature, along with a lack of enthusiasm on the part of many instructors, has definitely caused confusion and probable diminishment of presumed benefits.

Content-based instruction versus FLMI

Foreign Language Medium Instruction is a term introduced by Dickey (forthcoming) to identify that type of instruction where the "content" is a substantive academic course, rather than a support to a substantive course or a means to introduce language learning. Snow (1991) has observed that "throughout the history of second language teaching, the word content has had many different interpretations" (p. 315). Brinton, Snow, & Wessche (1989), in their much cited work "Content-based Second Language Instruction," define content-based instruction (CBI) as the "concurrent teaching of academic subject matter and second language skills" (p. 2). There is no agreement, however, on whether such content must accurately reflect current learning requirements in substantive courses or whether it merely is derived from such course topic areas.

As any teachers' conference evidences, content is often extended far beyond the course topics generally offered in academic institutions. Some suggest that courses may be "content-based in students' personal values or in areas of current or future concerns" (Bassamo, 1986, p. 18). Prodromou (1992) and Shih (1992) suggest that culture, and personal and professional interests, are all viable areas for content. Use of computers and the Internet have become obvious content (e.g., Isbell & Reinhardt, 1999), as well as video (e.g., Furmanovsky, 1997). Short (1991) offers the topic of littering in a model lesson (presumably under a theme of environmentalism in either social studies or science classes). Murphey (1997) includes journalism, TV commercials, and health and fitness awareness. On the other hand, McGroarty (1991) indicates that content should be substantive when she states that "content-based language instruction aims to promote conceptual mastery of a certain subject along with the language skills necessary to deal effectively with the subject" (p. 381).

It has been argued that in CBI, students "must be aware of the fact that they are studying English and that . . . [the topic] is just a suitable material to be used during the course" (Abramov, 1999). Such a dogmatic approach does not appear to be extensively supported in the literature. Perhaps such a perspective would be best identified as content-based language education. On the other hand, the general themes of Krashen's Input Hypothesis (1992) would appear to suggest that so long as input is not too far beyond the students' ability, their English will improve whether or not it is explicitly a language-learning course. In the case of FLMI, we observe that Foreign Language Medium Instruction takes up where content-based language education lets off, though the dividing line between these is still unclear. Is the course objective based on a focus on language, or a focus on (non-language-based) content? What then of literature courses taught in the L2?

Immersion classes are similar to the FLMI design, though without the extended hours generally offered in such an ESL environment. Even the Canadian models of immersion studies in elementary schools generally provide four or more hours per day in the L2, often alongside native-speaker students who serve as peer role models (see Stewart, 1996). Yet one aim for FLMI at Kyongju was "to put students in an L2 environment," such as in Japan or the USA.

Content learning in Asian classrooms

Under Shih's (1986) and Snow's instructional methodology-based classifications for content-based instruction, classifications were based on pedagogical designs that may have little to do with what actually occurs in the classroom, and do not adequately describe the motivations for student learning. It is valuable to note here Furmanovsky's (1997) observation concerning content courses taught via English as a Foreign Language in Asia: These courses are necessarily different from so-called content-based courses offered to ESL students in overseas universities.

Few Asian students, studying in English-medium courses in their own countries, are likely to enroll in a North American or other English-medium university, and they are more likely to have lower skills in English. An alternative and complementary approach to course classification, more likely to match the realities of Asian educational systems, is based on the learning aims of the students (not school administrations) and the events within the classroom. Three general classifications are offered by Dickey (in press): (a) Academic skills courses, (b) Topical courses, and (c) Substantive courses.

Substantive courses have been in place in Asia for decades, placed within most every academic institution's foreign language program. Courses such as literature, drama, public speaking, and culture have often not been taught in the foreign language to a significant extent, but the purpose of studies was nevertheless to improve student comprehension and appreciation of, and skills in, the foreign language. In-class supports, such as allowing student questions in the L1 and the instructor's answers in a simplified L2 (teacher talk), make such instruction very like the "sheltered classes" found in Shih's (1986) third category and Snow's fourth. An important distinction for sheltered classes is that the learning objectives are modified from that of mainstream courses, to incorporate language learning objectives along with lowered substantive objectives. In the Asian environment, the learning objectives of the L2-based content course would be compared to a class offered in the students' L1. As Duff (1995) has noted for the case of immersion classes in Hungary, in Kyongju's FLMI courses subject content must be mastered.

The Kyongju Experience

While an "immersion-like" teaching program was mandated by the university president, nearly all other aspects of the program were developed by the designated "Foreign Language Only Instruction" committee he appointed. The ten faculty members on that committee, from the departments of English Language, Japanese Language, Hotel Management, and Tourism Development, were determined to formulate classes that students could survive. (It was widely felt that the President, new to the university and recently returned to academia after a 20-year absence, did not recognize student competencies.)

A number of courses were selected to be offered in a student L2, either English or Japanese: Hotel Business English, Multinational Hotel Management, Understanding Contemporary Leisure Industry, Practice in English Pronunciation, Korean to English Interpretation, Comparison between Korean and Japanese, Japanese-Korean Translation, Japanese Pottery, English Communication, and others. It may immediately be recognized that a number of these courses are designed with a language as content basis. Nevertheless, most of these courses had been taught without a special foreign language only designation for some years. Several of the courses (in the English and Japanese departments) were routinely taught by faculty who were native-speakers in Japanese or English. What did the designation mean?

The committee, in both preliminary discussions and a preliminary survey, indicated a number of special considerations to make these courses meaningful. These included a waiver of the university-wide mandatory grading curve, class-size caps and waiver of minimal student numbers, appropriateness of classroom use of the student L1 during the first weeks of the semester while trying to ascertain the appropriate L2 levels, allowing student use of L1 prior to the midterms (week 8), availability of student L1 during office hours, and recommendation that L2 textbooks be used and L2 be preferred for student assignments and tests.

The initial response from students was generally favorable. In a survey conducted after the first three weeks of the Fall 1999 semester, many students indicated they were well motivated for use of the L2 in class. Students did expect some flexibility on use of L1 in the classroom and during faculty office visits. Students expected to be tested in the L2 (this was not widely publicized prior to this survey, as some faculty had misgivings on this aspect of the project). On the other hand, in a number of classes taught by Korean native-speaking faculty, 30% or more of the students questioned the need for FLMI, and in most classes 50% or more students saw only some need for the Foreign Language in instruction.

FLMI courses have continued from this first semester, though roughly 75% of all FLMI offerings have been through the foreign languages departments. In a recent survey of instructors, only three of the five foreign languages departments' courses were listed as teaching 100% in L2. All surveyed instructors indicated that in-class questions in the L2 were always or usually preferable, and that they usually or always gave answers in L2 regardless of the language of the question. In seven of the eight courses surveyed, all exam questions were in the L2, though the effect on students' grades of use of L1 in the classroom and on exams varied from none to somewhat to grade depended on use.

One of the question marks for this program, on the content issue, was student mastery of content. Four of the eight responses indicated that students had mastered "100% of the content" when assessed on the requirements of an L1-based course, one reported 80% mastery, one 67% mastery, and two greater than 100%. Surprisingly, one of these "greater than" answers did not come from language-based courses, but for the course Understanding Modern Leisure Industry. Another surveyed instructor, listing 100%, explained, "These students were especially motivated to learn." He also noted that he works hard to simplify the English explanations, yet still it was an area he wished to see changed for the course. A Korean professor of English Linguistics, who felt his students mastered the material equally as well as in an L1 course, noted that for the future, he would likely decrease the breadth of coverage (content areas in Linguistics) to promote greater mastery of content. Both the Japanese professor for Translation and the American professor teaching American Law felt the need for a language pretest before admission to their courses.


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