Between 2009 and 2010, and again between 2012 and 2014, I visited a number of higher education institutes in China in order to research the role of English in the Chinese higher education system. One interesting finding from this research was that China has evidently started promoting itself as a hub for international education. Although the largest proportion of foreign students in China today are attracted by Chinese language programmes, an increasing number of such students are signing up for full degree courses in subjects such as medicine and engineering. An interesting phenomenon is that some university degree programmes in the country are being offered as English-medium degrees to foreign students, from undergraduate to postgraduate levels. So far, very little research has been carried out on how these programmess are being conducted, the reception of these programs by foreign students in China, and the impact this is having on the use of languages on China’s university campuses. It certainly is the impression that the attraction of international students to China’s higher education institutions would no doubt alter the dynamics of language use on these university campuses. In order to investigate this, I set out to study the reception and use of English by foreign university students in an international degree program: the Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) in the School of Medicine of one of China’s leading universities.
My case study provides an example of how English-medium instruction programmes are currently being used to attract foreign students to China’s universities, partly in order for these universities to promote themselves as ‘international’ institutions. This case study also shows that the most of the international students were recruited from the Asian region and almost all of these students speak English only as a second or additional language. Although many of these students indicated that they value the opportunity to study medicine in China in the English language, some felt that there was still room for improvement in how these courses were being delivered, especially in terms using English as a medium of teaching. Furthermore, it is my impression from this research that the language ecologies on Chinese university campuses are in fact often quite diverse, with students (both foreign and local) using a number of languages and language varieties in their extra-curricular lives, while using English and Putonghua (or Mandarin) in their formal education. One other interesting finding from this study is that the international students I surveyed were required to graduate from their medical degree programme with a certain level of proficiency in Putonghua. This requirement appears to provide additional opportunities for these international students to expand their already multilingual repertoires even further, thus adding to the linguistic diversity in their lives. I believe that much more sociolinguistic fieldwork is required in order to further understand and explain the dynamics of language use and the role of English (and other languages and language varieties) on China’s university campuses today.