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Why Teaching English in Saudi Arabia Has Been a Unique Learning Experience

By Ozma Siddiqui


As language in its essence cannot be taught in isolation of its culture, the adoption of the communicative approach in EFL (English as a Foreign Language) answers the conundrum of bridging the gap between the threat of English dominating the status quo and the preservation of the unique Saudi identity

For several years now, English has been touted to be an important lingua franca in many countries where it is widely used as a means of communication among various ethnic groups and people of different backgrounds.

The advent of the internet has only reinforced its eminence where almost 30 percent of the data is in English. In addition, most of the world’s music is in English (although this is debatable) while job opportunities are certainly better in non-English speaking countries with good salaries and perks.

According to the British Council, English is the official language in more than 75 countries across the globe.

However, as English has steadily gained prominence in the Gulf region including Saudi Arabia in recent years, attention is increasingly being paid to pedagogy in Saudi English classrooms and a debate is on as to how it should be taught. There has been much criticism about the Saudi educational system, its ‘flaws and inconsistencies’.

A World Bank study suggests that the Saudi educational system is deficient in ‘imparting higher-order cognitive skills such as flexibility, problem-solving and judgment’ (World Bank, 2002, p. 2). Added to this is the lack of critical thinking and analytical approaches to the learning/teaching of the curriculum, English or otherwise.

In response to this, Arab governments including Saudi Arabia have adopted western curricula and pedagogy with the aim to open up their countries to the rest of the world. It is for this reason that the curricula, content and pedagogy are often not in tune with the needs of the learners who are rooted in Islamic traditions and identity. In addition, the social media, new media and free access to the internet have opened up Saudi society like never before. Although mobile apps are increasingly being downloaded on smart phones, they are more widely used for chatting and sharing videos or photos. There is also research currently underway to test the feasibility of applying mobile apps in English classroom teaching.

Interestingly, Saudis are increasingly being faced with a phenomenon common in other countries of the world which have put up a stiff defense against the adoption of English as a main language of communication, for example, France and Belgium perceiving the foreign language as a threat to their national identity.

The parallel wave to the English prevalence in the country- the back to basics theory calls for a reversion to the Arabic language in official meetings inside and outside the Kingdom and to have shop titles in the native language.

Some learned quarters do not perceive English as a tool to progress maintaining that Arabic will serve just as well. However, the increasing number of students on the King Abdullah Scholarship program with exposure to western thoughts and values come back with different notions and are instrumental in rooting to have English become a compulsory part of the curriculum from the early years.

As language in its essence cannot be taught in isolation of its culture, the adoption of the communicative approach in EFL (English as a Foreign Language) answers the conundrum of bridging the gap between the threat of English dominating the status quo and the preservation of the unique Saudi identity. That said, English remains as foreign and as alien as ever.

Some foreign language researchers (Al-Hazmi (2003, p. 341) have suggested a paradigm shift to English pedagogy in the Saudi Arabian context. But questions remain about its appropriateness in an environment where rote learning is still the preferred mode of study in subjects across the schools’ and university curricula.

According to Bhabha, 1994, ‘there needs to be an acceptance of the hybridity of teacher and student identity. Consequently, English needs to be placed within the ‘third space’ with a hybrid English language pedagogy which combines the traditional Islamic approaches and relevant Western practices to achieve the best learning and teaching experience for the learners.’

In essence this means that we as educators need to work towards finding a middle ground where we can meet half-way with the student to help to attain a level of English language proficiency which would enhance not only communication skills but also a critical approach to the language. A wide-ranging curriculum with English as the medium of instruction in a whole school mode should answer the many deficiencies prevailing in the system.

The English curriculum in higher institutions needs to embrace the Islamic cultural values and take the best practices from western pedagogy, as Bhabha says. Native language oriented English books have been introduced into the Saudi educational system time and again but the huge disparities have resulted in frustration both as far as results are concerned and at the cultural level.

Recently, a supplementary reading program has been initiated at the foundation year in the universities in the Kingdom which is an attempt to open up different cultures to the students. This can pose a challenge to a mindset which does not equate human emotions with animals for example.

A suggestion has been made to introduce more Islamic oriented books in English into the curriculum with a special focus on language, grammar, syntax and semantics. Good translations in Standard English could be utilized for the purpose. There are many Arabic writers with western backgrounds currently writing profusely in English and there is no reason why a graded series of books cannot be produced for students.

Although Saudi Arabia is gradually opening up, its people are essentially in a state of transition and English as it is being taught in institutes of higher education, across the Kingdom is constantly evolving. The way forward is to help students appreciate their Islamic identity and understand that the English language is a means to an end; it is by no means a substitute for the Arabic language.


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