Nobody can underestimate or belittle the significance of English as a global or universal language. It is a powerful means of communication and interaction for people all over the world that helps them not only to interact with each other but also with finding a job, doing business, undertaking foreign trips, taking examination, doing research, surfing the Internet and so forth.
Despite being among the most widely spoken and understood languages, English has not yet acquired its customary omnipresent status in Saudi society, where all official work is carried out in Arabic.
Even though the Saudi government is making every effort to promote learning English as a second language at its schools and universities in addition to extending all financial and logistic support to establish this language for over 80 years ever since the Kingdom’s foundation in 1927, is it has not rooted itself yet in society.
There are more than 800 study hours devoted to teaching English from the first grade of intermediate school up to the final year of secondary school. Even then, the standard of English learning is still at the lowest level globally. Most students who graduate from universities are not in a position to speak fluently or write even a letter or paragraph in English.
A report, carried by Al-Riyadh Arabic daily, shed light on this issue and examined the viewpoints of prominent academics and educational figures in addressing this issue.
Dr. Hassan Sindi, member of the academic faculty at Jeddah’s King Abdul Aziz University, said most of the students enrolled at the university during his 20-year stint as a computer science teacher, were very poor in their English.
“They were not even in a position to speak a few words in English. Needless to say, I experienced difficulty in getting them acquired with the technical terms and programs in computer science that are all in English,” he said while drawing attention to the poor English language command of even those holding higher academic positions at the university.
Dr. Hassan Sindi noted that the teaching of English language is not at all up to the expectations and aspirations of the Kingdom’s leaders.
“It also cannot fulfill our ambitions to become a society achieving academic and scientific progress and development,” he said, while attributing the low standard in English language learning to a number of factors, including defective learning methodology, unsuitable learning environment, and non-accessibility to necessary teaching tools.
He urged the Ministry of Education to implement a number of plans aimed at helping students have direct interaction with native English language speakers through conducting local and international study tours and enabling them to listen to audio tapes to help them with correct pronunciation.
Ayed Al-Amri, chairman of the Saudi Quality Council, underscored the significance of giving top priority to learning English as it is the gateway to acquiring skills in modern technology and taking advantage of the breathtaking changes brought about by the IT revolution.
“This does not mean sidelining Arabic, our mother tongue. However, English should be taught as a second language,” he said while emphasizing the need for taking advantage of international expertise and experiments of neighboring countries in acquiring higher standards in English language learning.
Echoing the same view, Professor Abdullah Al-Ghamdi, director of Al-Nur Educational Complex in Jeddah, said the Kingdom lacks any well thought out and comprehensive plans to improve the standard in English language learning.
“There should be more teaching hours and advanced facilities for practical learning of the language at school and university levels,” he said.
On her part, noted academic Dr. Iman Suyuti said that mental preparedness plays a significant role in achieving success or failure in English language learning. She is of the firm view that English should be taught as a second language from the beginning of the school education.
“In our government schools, English learning begins from the first year of intermediate phase of education. The student who did not receive any English language learning during six years of elementary school sees it a very hard subject. On the other hand, students at private and international schools can learn English from the beginning of their KG level and they see it very easy to study together with Arabic or other mother languages,” she said.
Suyuti noted that students who learn English at a later phase of their education might have a fear of the language and hence see it as very difficult to learn.
“Therefore, they try to learn by heart only the necessary parts of lessons that supposedly help them just to pass the examination. Naturally, they do not have any desire to perform well in English language learning and so they do not do any hard work to improve their language skills,” she said while urging the authorities to send English language teachers abroad to undergo intensive training in English language teaching with the support of advanced teaching tools.
While lamenting the wrong pronunciation of many English language teachers, Prof. Rasmiya Al-Moadadi demanded the introduction of foreign language orientation courses for men and women English teachers in the Kingdom. Mahfouz bin Muhammad Al-Zahrani, a graduate of naval institute, urged the ministry to issue an order banning speaking of Arabic by English teachers at schools and students during English class hours.
Bandar Bukhari, an English teacher, stressed the need for allocating more study hours for English in addition to making available learning tools. “Students must be put in a proper learning environment in which they must speak only English. Teachers should also be given proper orientation courses that enable them to impart an interesting learning experience for their pupils,” he said.
Referring to the successful experiment of private schools in English learning, Salem Al-Saiari, another English teacher, suggested that all science subjects, such as physics, chemistry and biology as well as mathematics would be taught in English language. He also called for giving material and moral incentive for English teachers.
Dr. Anwar Ishqi, head of the Middle East Center for Strategic Studies, attributed the backwardness in English learning to a number of factors such as apathy of parents towards Western culture, hesitation to learn a foreign language and the opposition of some conservatives who claim English learning could lead to a possible cultural invasion. He called for introducing English learning from KG level onwards.