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Introducing English as a Second Language in Primary School in the Middle East Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 17th, 2021


Historical evidence suggests that English was being taught as a second or foreign language as far back as the 15th century. William Caxton, who introduced the printing press to England, may have been the first to produce “course material” for learners of English. Surprisingly, little appears to have changed in how such manuals are prepared even today, despite the centuries of experience in teaching English in all corners of the world and the multitude of research that has been conducted to determine which types of texts and which teaching methods are most effective.

During the 16th century, the rise of England as a maritime power and the expansion of the British Empire led to the recognition of English as an important language alongside French, Italian, and Latin, and to a growing interest in learning English. According to Howatt (1984), Gabriel Meurier, a Frenchman who lived in Antwerp, could be the first teacher of English as a foreign language that we know by name.

According to the British Council, English is spoken as the first language by around 375 million speakers, as the second language by another 375 million speakers, as a foreign language by about 750 million speakers, and has an official or special status in at least 75 countries with a total population of over 2 billion. Such staggering numbers of second-and foreign-language users could only be taught by indigenous non-native speaker English teachers.

Sociolinguistic Perspective

One such phenomenon of contemporary interest is the worldwide spread and use of English. Scholarship on this topic investigates the forms and varieties of English that develop in diverse cultural and sociolinguistic contexts. To meet the aim of understanding the nature of English and its numerous national, regional, and international varieties, descriptive studies are conducted on the structural features of these varieties, e.g. Their lexicon and grammar, and functional characteristics, e.g. The uses made of English for various purposes in particular domains of language use. Discourse and conversational analysis investigate the practices and structures of making text through English and ways of speaking that may differ across contexts of use in such disparate locales as south Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Survey studies assess public attitudes toward the learning and use of English in countries and regions and aid in language policy and planning. Literary analyses are appropriate in investigations of creative expression through the use of English in postcolonial literature. Ethnographic methods are suited to the study of multiple cultural identities and traditions associated with English in non-western contexts. By adopting various modes of inquiry, research into English as a world language has relevance for professionals whose work and livelihood depend upon its learning and use, e.g., lexicographers, language planners and policymakers, creative writers, literary critics, linguists, language teachers, and teacher educators.

Sociolinguistics has its roots in European and American linguistics. A British linguistic tradition is an approach to linguistic analysis associated with J.R. Firth, British historian-turned-linguist, whose work, beginning in the 1930s, had a profound impact on developments in linguistic theory throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Firth’s philosophy of language was based on the interdependence of language, culture, and society and the belief that language needs to be studied as a social phenomenon. His notions of language varieties, social dialect and register, and functions of language, all have a place in contemporary sociolinguistic studies. Firth also acknowledged the role of language in a broader sense, e.g. as a means for international communication and for representing a particular culture and way of life. These realizations are echoed in subsequent sociolinguistic research.

English in the primary school

The learning of English by younger children is by no means as common as at later stages and the nature of the younger learner probably affects content and methods more than with other age groups. The learning of English as a foreign language by the children of wealthy parents who engaged an English ‘Miss’ is a tradition as long-standing in Europe and elsewhere as the importation of a ‘Mademoiselle’ or a ‘Fraulein’ into upper-class households in Britain. And although this amateurish Anna-and-the-King-of-Siam type of language teaching to the young has a long history it was not until the 1950s that the early start movement was established in state primary schools. In France, Sweden, and Holland, independent experiments with classes of children starting English from ages between 7 and 9 years old demonstrated that enthusiastic teachers using oral methods could achieve excellent results, particularly in pronunciation, with little or no effort. Large schemes in the 1960s in Germany, France, and Italy (paralleled by the experimental teaching of French in British primary schools) established in the growing climate of educational democratization that success in foreign language learning need not be limited to the more intelligent child, though different rates of learning were a fact of academic life.

The teaching of Foreign Languages in the Elementary School—the FLES movement, to use the American label—attracted strong support from the Council of Europe and flourished in a number of countries during the 1960s. The economic crisis of the following years, however, had a major impact on the early teaching of English in state schools: not only was it felt to be something of an educational luxury, but it required specialized materials and teacher training. Although a number of FLES schemes continue to flourish in France, Germany, Italy, and Yugoslavia, among others, major enterprises have been halted; the French Ministry of Education has banned further experiments, the ambitious plans to make Holland a bi-lingual nation by 1980 have been shelved.

But the twenty years of English teaching in foreign state primary schools must be seen against a much longer background of English language teaching to young children in second language situations. In East and West Africa, in Cyprus and Malaysia, in Fiji and Hong Kong, the long tradition of teaching English to young children continues. But primary school English in second language areas was for long a sectional filter for secondary, English-medium, education; and was frequently taught by semi-formal intelligence-bound methods. It was the twenty years of experimentation, research, and enthusiasm of the FLES movement which gave a clearer identity to the aims and methods appropriate to the primary classroom.

As millions of children have witnessed in the bi-lingual areas of the world, a second and even a third language can be acquired from the very earliest ages, without any seeming effort or retardation of the mother tongue. What is more, this is shown to occur to all normal children, irrespective of levels of intelligence. In a situation, therefore, when two or more languages are in natural use, they are best acquired together from the cradle. Children of mixed parentage often grow up happily using one language with the mother and another with the father and perhaps friends. A somewhat similar, ‘natural’ situation occurs where very young children are placed in a new language setting in which they, seemingly unconsciously, pick up a foreign language. Punjabi immigrant children who attend English nursery and primary schools, Spanish-speaking infants in English-speaking convent classes in Argentina, and French 4-year-olds in Parisian echoless maternally with native English teachers all show—after an initial period of settling down—how the very young child can learn totally fluent and natural English, without strain, embarrassment or even effort.

Teaching English in foreign Primary Schools

Teachers of English in the foreign primary school have argued that their children are uninhibited, positively enjoy most of the repetitive kinds of language activities, and are ready for situational (as opposed to intellectual) learning. Interference from the mother tongue has been shown to be less before the age of 10 and neuron-physical clinical investigations suggest that the speech learning center of the brain is at its maximum capacity between the first and ninth year of life. Socio-cultural arguments for an early start emphasize the breaking of the traditionally parochial character of the primary school, with the introduction of an international element that today is more essential than it has ever been.

Against all the evidence of ready foreign language learning in the young, must be set the balanced demands of the curriculum. Most school experiments have determined that starting a foreign language at the age of 8-9, on the one hand, does not fail to catch ‘the teachable moment’, and on the other gives time for the basic mother tongue skills to have been firmly established. Ideally, a child should not be taught to read and write English before he is literate in his mother tongue, and the basic concepts of his first language are normally useful stepping stones to those of another.

The introduction of reading and writing in English should not take place until a fluent oral foundation has been established and, in foreign language situations, not until the children are familiar with the printed word in the mother tongue. Indeed, many teachers of primary English, using activity methods, prefer to withhold reading and writing for up to two years. Such concentration on spoken English pays dividends in fluency, pronunciation, and the natural use of English, but demands considerable expertise from the teacher. It is true that once children can read and write English their language practice and experience are no longer totally reliant upon the teacher as a model and initiator. It is also true that in the more formal systems of primary education, and those second language situations where English is being developed as an academic instrument, the printed word is properly introduced at about the end of the first year of study. But in any case, reading, and later writing, are best woven gradually into the fabric of an oral/activity methodology.

There can be no doubt that primary school children can and do learn English with remarkable ease, enthusiasm, and naturalness. Perhaps the saddest aspect of the FLES movement has been the problem of continuity; for unless the early learning of English is designed and functions as part of a process that continues unbroken in secondary schooling the sense of frustration in both children and teachers is considerable. It is basically for this reason that French in British primary schools has proved disappointing, and that the English teaching in French primary schools has been discouraged. On the other hand, where English is taught in a coordinated and unbroken sequence from primary through secondary education, and where the language teaching is vigorously non-selective, as in Sweden and Malta, for instance, the results are a very high percentage of the population who are bilingual. It need hardly be added that in scores of private schools in many countries where children learn English from the age of 6 or 7 and continue in the same establishment for their whole school career, standards of spoken and written English tend to be most impressive. The reason lies not in the selective nature of these schools, in superior teaching methods or smaller classes, but in the unbroken sequence of teaching English which (it is taken for granted) every child can and does learn for both instrumental and integrative purposes.

Some of the research work took place with teachers of English in primary schools in the Middle East. A primary teacher commented that he felt creativity had nothing to do with education. In the discussion which ensued, we established that, from his perspective, in ME teachers and schools are seen as conveying knowledge and skills but not an approach to life that is about creativity. This is a view held by other teachers with whom I have worked, in both England and ME. And yet, I have witnessed teachers in both countries facilitating and inspiring creativity in their pupils. But what my work in ME has made me much more conscious of is how the surrounding culture affects the ways in which teachers do it. One of the research instruments in that particular study was a teacher-attitude survey, through which we discovered in our sample a very low value given to the fostering of creativity in schools.

It is important, then, to acknowledge the place within the society of creativity—and also of teachers. In ME, all teachers are civil servants, with permanent posts. Teachers are viewed as authority figures within the community and accorded respect by pupils and parents. Schools are considered to be places of professional expertise. Deference is shown toward the teacher’s professional judgment even when, as was the case with one teacher observed, the teacher, in fact, knows little about the subject being taught (this particular individual had been allocated the teaching of English because he had studied French as an undergraduate, and was the only member of staff who had studied languages to degree level; however, he was unable to hold a conversation in English and took advantage of having two English speaking visitors in his classroom to learn from native speakers himself, alongside his class).


The way that humans make ethical decisions are informed by history, religion, philosophy, culture, the law, institutions, and personal experience. Most people develop their own senses of what is ethical and what is not. But when asked to articulate these systems or guidelines, most people have difficulty. Complicating the matter is the difficulty of applying guidelines to specific, complicated, sometimes unique situations. There is always a play between principles and practice. This is not to say that there are no universal or overarching principles, but to say that in real-life situations, even such principles may not provide enough guidance to give unambiguous answers regulating people’s actions.

It is because of this difficulty that we, in this book, problematize, struggle with, and try to articulate the kinds of issues and the kinds of decision-making processes that teachers need to think through and work through. We hope that our mutual engagement, as authors and readers, with this process, as well as our mutual engagement with the dilemmas set out in the scenarios we outline, will be of use to readers as they deal with their own individual situations in their own classrooms. We hope that in this book we have illustrated the ways in which ethical dilemmas and decisions infuse almost every aspect of the teaching of English as a second language. We hope too that we have shown how a focus on social justice can provide a framework and guidance for classroom teachers faced with making ethics-related decisions.


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