Teaching English in Saudi Arabia – The Cultural Context
In this essay, I aim to examine the cultural context predominant in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in so far as it might affect effective teaching and learning styles and strategies in the EFL classroom.
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My interest in this topic is grounded in the reality of the post-9/11 world where the Western world has been pitted against the Arabic world as if there is a great social, cultural and religious divide that might never be bridged – or so the message in the media goes. This poses a great challenge and temptation for EFL teachers working in or curious about the region.
The KSA makes for a particularly interesting study into how the local cultural and religious context might impact on successful English teaching and learning, because of the Kingdom’s “politically sensitive geography” (Marcinkiewicz, 1995). The holy cities of Mekkah and Madinah are situated right within its borders and the KSA has thus “undertaken a protectoral role in religion.”
It follows then that the Islamic religion is not only the most pervasive aspect of local culture, impacting directly on teaching method and content, it is also a significant motivating force for KSA learners who are “intensely religious, Islam having a strong influence on their minds and hearts.” (Al Haq and Smadi, 1996). It can thus be expected then that the religious dynamics in the KSA will “cause friction in the classroom” (Traynham, 2006). With Islam being the “strongest denominator” of students in the KSA (Kniffka, 1996), cultural awareness must inform any teaching methodology in order to achieve successful outcomes.
Outline of essay
I will introduce the cultural context underpinning effective language teaching and learning and give a brief background of the history of English instruction in the KSA as a way of introducing the larger historical and cultural context in which English-language instruction occurs. I will next consider some of the specific sociocultural and sociolinguistic issues that impact on the learning styles and strategies preferred by students and teachers in the KSA. Referring to the relevant literature, I will suggest connections between the local cultural context and the effectiveness of learning and teaching methods and strategies employed. Finally, I will conclude that while the local culture affects both students and teachers – and teachers must respond to this at the practical and theoretical levels – teachers must, at the same time, avoid overgeneralizing about cultural and religious factors and understand that each and every classroom exhibits a unique dynamic between a given set of individual students and their teacher and that, in fact, in many cases a universal education culture exists in all EFL classrooms regardless of social and cultural geography and context.
The cultural context underpinning effective language teaching and learning
In the past decade the concepts of context and culture have become increasingly more important in the literature on language teaching (Byram and Grundy, 2003). This is due to the increased acknowledgement of the significance of socio-political factors in teaching and learning and of the perception of learners as social beings who respond to learning a new language with “feelings and identities” (p. 1). In language teaching, cultural context is “usually defined as a/the culture associated with a language being learnt” (p. 1).
As far as the English language is concerned, English has been taught in the KSA ever since the Kingdom was established, in 1932 (Al-Seghayer, 2005). The explosion of economic activity within the oil industry resulted in rapid development of English language programs in the 1970s, so that Saudis could successfully communicate in English with imported manpower and outside interests. Today, English is used as the major medium of instruction in universities where science, medicine, engineering and technology subjects are taught. English instruction begins in elementary school and is centralized and controlled by the Ministry of Education. Despite the ever-increasing importance of English in Saudi Arabia “as an essential vehicle for personal and national growth,” (Al-Seghayer, 2005, pp129), the system still fails to produce a satisfactory level of English language proficiency in Saudi learners.
This seems to be an incongruous result, considering that the socio-cultural motivations for learning English are quite significant. Al Haq and Smadi (1996) find that a good knowledge of English rewards with social prestige and is considered to be a kind of duty to help Saudi Arabia advance economically, culturally and religiously at both the Islamic and international levels. With English being the lingua franca, in so far as technology and the sciences are concerned, Saudi citizens see English as a vital tool in advancing in this modern world.
But this might be part of the problem. The English language – as the bearer of the goods of technology and science – necessarily comes with Western culture. Languages are expressions of national, historical and cultural identities. Languages are also “ideological because they are associated with aspirations of unity, loyalty and patriotism,” and “social because they are perceived as symbols of status, power, group identity, and belonging,” (Wesche, 2004, p. 279). As such, there is a fear in the KSA that the “use of English entails Westernization, detachment to the country, and a source of corruption to […] religious commitment.” (Al Haq and Samdi, 1996, p. 308).
The sociolinguistic features of the English language – the grammar, phonetics and vocabulary – necessarily impact socio-affectively on the society of EFL learners (Khuwaileh, 2000, p. 287) wherever they might be situated in the world. In the case of Saudi Arabia, English language instruction often relies on Western cultural content that conflicts with Islamic culture and ideals. For example, Traynham (2006) explains how many EFL textbooks contain vocabulary – dating, alcohol, music, dance – that is offensive to Saudi students and to the Islamic faith.
Khuwaileh (2000) also found similar sociolinguistic obstacles and cultural barriers when learners in an English for Science and Technology class refused to write on topics that included “taboo vocabulary” such as, AIDS, sexual diseases and contraception (p. 286), because for one student, at least, “religion,” “honor” and “politeness” were more important than gaining the certificate in English. Khuwaileh concluded that, unless modified, “course material rich in taboo content can significantly hinder the learning process.” (p. 287) Moreover, in a study of EFL textbooks – largely those written by non-Saudis and non-Muslims – used to teach freshman English in Saudi Arabia, Alhaidari (2003) found that they contained images and vocabulary “that clashed directly with Islamic and Saudi cultures.”
These issues might seem easily solved, if common sense prevails even before theoretical and pragmatic considerations are examined. Offensive material should be avoided by designing unique material adapted to the socio-cultural reality of the student group. Even so, the pervasive presence of the textbook as the “dominant tool in teaching” holds a “powerful influence” over both cognitive and affective factors in individual students (Alhaidari, 2003, p. 3). Cultural revulsion towards a given text might impact on a student’s attitude to authority (in this case, the English language and English teacher) and on a student’s attitude to how important a text might be. A negative response, which is likely to be expected, will surely result in “learning difficulties, probably lost teaching objectives and, consequently, useless curricula.” (Khuwaileh, 2000, p. 287).
Cultural issues in Saudi Arabia affecting effective language learning strategies
For all of these reasons, awareness of cultural issues is not only beneficial, but a necessity, and Kniffka (1992) stresses that EFL instructors need to increase their level of expertise in cultural awareness and teaching language within a cultural context. Cultural awareness begins with the understanding that culture is a concept that concerns the role of the individual in the “unending kaleidoscope of life situations of every kind and the rules or models for attitudes and conduct in them” Oxford (1996, p ix). Context includes the beliefs, perceptions and assumptions that directly influence two things: language learning styles (the general approaches that guide learning) and language learning strategies (the specific steps or techniques used by learners).
Of the six types of learning strategies – cognitive, metacognitive, memory, compensatory, affective and social – outlined by Oxford (2003, pp. 12-15), studies (introduced below) find that Arabic students tend to use cognitive and metacognitive strategies with greater frequency, and socio-affective strategies with lesser frequency, though students also exhibit an optimistic flexibility toward using a wide range of learning strategies.
Abu-Ghararah (1996) found that “a wide variety of learning strategies were used” even while the majority of the EFL students surveyed in three public schools in Madinah “tended to use more cognitive strategies […more] than socio-affective strategies […] in acquiring English as a foreign language” (p. 6). Abdan and Almuarik (1992) also found that students exhibited a preference for multiple learning styles. In fact, gender and subject major, in their study, made no difference at all to their preferences. Riazi and Rahimi (2005) similarly found that while their Iranian student subjects used metacognitive strategies “at a high frequency,” overall they were “ medium strategy users.” This can be extended to Saudi Arabia, because both Arab countries have a “similar history, culture and language” (p. 282).
These studies show that students regularly “combine all the learning orientations.” Riazi and Rahimi (2005, p. 110) suggest that this openness and flexibility results from a “specific philosophy of life” where “a human being can only be perfect, when he studies all of the sciences and arts.”
Reasons pointing to more frequent use of cognitive and metacognitive strategies might be that these strategies offer students direct ways to control learning and are strategies that can be employed in private study, rather than in group situations, which seem to be less preferred. Another factor suggested was that these students might not have much exposure to English in social situations so as to “pick up” the target language “unconsciously.” Reasons pointing to the minimal use of other strategies might be, apart from cultural background, “improper teaching,” and again lack of exposure to English in a native environment with native speakers.
For Riazi and Rahimi, at least, it is up to the English instructors to introduce other strategies by discussing them with their students and providing appropriate opportunities to develop and use those “neglected strategies” (p. 123). To this end, Zaid (1996) evaluated the methodological preferences of teachers in an English department at a major KSA university and found that the overall preference was for a communicative style of teaching. This is interesting when considered against the findings of Riazi and Rahimi (2005, p. 103) where social learning strategies were the least frequently used strategies of EFL students. In fact, Khuwaileh (2005, p. 282) also concluded that social strategies, such as group work and openly expressing opinions in the classroom are “culturally bound practices which seem to hinder English language learning.” Zaid (1996) warns against teachers developing “personalized theories” of teaching when it might result in a “methodological gap” between what they are doing in the classroom and what program administrators – working within the socio-cultural framework of the KSA – expect. Personalized teaching might also result in a preferential gap between how the teacher prefers to teach and how the students prefer to learn.
Good practice then is clearly a collaboration between program administration, teacher preference, and the expectations of students as a group and as individuals. “Individual” is stressed here because, as Oxford (2003, p. 16) emphasizes, a teacher needs “adequate knowledge about their individual students’ style preferences” in order to provide the most effective classroom instruction. The literature examined in this essay, while clearly suggesting learning trends and preferences based on cultural background, also suggest an openness and flexibility in the learning strategy preferences of Saudi, and other Arab, students. In fact, the impact of culture is often found to be influenced by other factors, such as individual personality traits (Oxford, 2003), gender, as well as motivation (Kaylani, 1996, p75). Individual learners who are more motivated – regardless of cultural background – will use a wider range of learning strategies thus ensuring greater success in their learning (Oxford, 1996a, p118). This may further imply that students may successfully adjust preference and expectation if a teacher introduces new activities “on trial” (Tomlinson, 2005), in the first instance, and only incorporate lesser used strategies should students find them useful and enjoyable.
In fact, Tomlinson (2005) suggests that while learners may well have expectations based on cultural norms and experiences, the level of innovation introduced by any given individual teacher into the EFL classroom may have the effect of creating a new and unique to the classroom “temporary culture.” Tomlinson finds that even in significantly different cultural contexts, “educational cultures seem to be remarkably similar” (p. 139), what he refers to as a “universal” education culture. He calls it a Tomlinson seeks to stress the “teacher’s attitude” in response to the perceived cultural context in which they work and warns against the “dangers of cultural overgeneralization.” He concludes that teachers should remember that in a classroom teachers teach to a “class of diverging individuals rather than to a convergent group of cultural stereotypes.”
In conclusion then, the sociocultural and religious context in the KSA clearly influences teaching and learning. Teachers should not only be aware of the cultural context in which they teach and but this context should directly inform their choices of method and materials. However, teachers should avoid, on the one hand, making methodological choices based on overgeneralizations and preconceived ideas about how cultural issues influence their students, and on the other hand, should also avoid personalizing their methodology to suit their preferences and ideology. Methods and strategies employed in EFL instruction should always be negotiated anew between the teacher and the group of individual students. And all of this, of course, within the general framework of the sociocultural and religious dynamic prevalent in the KSA.
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