IN the last few years, the number of colleges and universities nationwide has increased dramatically with the rising demand for higher educational institutions. Many of these institutions, public and private, have decided to adopt English as their medium of instruction for some, if not all, of their academic programs. This important development in higher education has led to a sudden boom in the local English language teaching industry and created a great demand for language teachers from around the world. One could argue that such a decision is one of necessity as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia marches towards a global economy in which the English language plays a vital role.
MOREOVER, educators and higher educational institutions have come to believe that the quality of educational output can be enhanced by putting more emphasis on the teaching of English as a Foreign Language (EFL), or by entirely shifting to English-medium curricula. Students also have come to appreciate that learning the English language increases their chances of employment upon graduation from college.
Many profit-based private schools and colleges have benefited from the new trend in education and have begun to promote themselves and their academic programs through the enhancement of their English teaching methods, the development of English-based curricula, or the adoption of new English-medium parallel programs for subjects such as science and maths. In some respects, English education has become a profitable commodity that can be sold to students who increasingly think that a prosperous future lies in their ability to speak English.
In multilingual countries where English has been chosen as the official language such as in India, Malaysia or Nigeria, English, as a common language, is essential for citizens to prosper and to connect with each other and with the rest of the world. However, in Saudi Arabia the situation is rather different. English is not an official or second language, nor is it taught as one (i.e. English as a Second Language or ESL), since the latter implies the study of English by non-native speakers in an English-speaking environment, as in the United States, the United Kingdom or Australia. English in Saudi Arabia is regarded as a foreign language, and is taught and learned as such (EFL). It is not an everyday language.
Furthermore, in the Kingdom, Arabic is the only national and official language of the country. It is also the national and official language of 20 other Arab countries with over 350 million speakers. It has served as an important educational and developmental tool since our nation was founded in 1932. Prior to that, and for over 1400 years, Arabic functioned effectively as a vehicle for Arab and Islamic civilization. It is also one of six official languages of the United Nations.
Colleges and universities in our country may choose English medium for their academic programs, but what is their objective? Is it ‘English proficiency’ or ‘quality of education’ or both? If it is the first, then I am afraid it is being done at the expense of the second. And if it is the second, then, I am also afraid, that it is dangerously being compromised by using English-based curricula. If it is both, then, my first hand experience, as an English-medium educator, tells me that it is more wishful thinking than realistic.
THE amount of knowledge acquired by students struggling with a foreign language will most certainly be less than if they were studying in their native language, and, as they say: “little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. Dealing with the difficult task of trying to comprehend course material in a foreign language, and being actively involved academically, can be a highly frustrating and daunting experience for students, and for teachers as well.
In my 17-year career as a college professor in this country, during which I have taught a number of linguistics courses – in English – and directly dealt with foreign language pedagogy, I have come to firmly believe that English language, or any foreign language for that matter, is not everyone’s cup of tea! Very few students acquire enough knowledge of English to enable them to acquire the minimum required knowledge in their fields. The result, of course, is that students end up having a certificate, but with very little knowledge. This is because they were studying in a foreign language that they hardly use, and which they have very little interest in and/or knowledge of, which can be dangerous!!
I believe that, to go as far as to teach entire academic programs in English – and not just teach English as a foreign language (EFL) – may prove counterproductive for a number of reasons. It isolates students from their native language, alienates them culturally, and prevents them from learning to think in their native tongue during a very critical stage of their academic life, not to mention the fact that they acquire only a little knowledge.I also believe that the role played by English in our Arabic-speaking community is somewhat disproportionate to our exaggerated emphasis on English language proficiency as a condition for employment.
What we need as educators and educational institutions in this country are very strong English as a Foreign Language (EFL) programs that take into account all the requirements for teaching English as a foreign language properly, while focusing on Standard Arabic-Medium education. Our Arab and Islamic heritage is a testimony to the fact that progress can be made using our mother tongue.