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Saudi Cultural Values and Language Learning Essay



It is a well-known fact that language reflects the worldview of a nation encompassing all scientific, cultural, ethical, moral, educational, and other beliefs that shape people’s mentality. Thus, it would be wrong to neglect the role of culture in language learning as the influence is reciprocal. Every community selects a range of languages chosen for acquisition besides the native language (Mahboob & Elyas, 2014).

The problem is that the level of social acceptance of this or that language is different, which is explained by political, social, cultural, and religious reasons. The study at hand is devoted to the investigation of socio-cultural values that affect language learning in Saudi Arabia with the focus on aspects acting as a hindrance to learning. The major obstacles include social needs, religious beliefs, lack of interest in the Western lifestyle, intolerance to other cultures, etc. (Liton, 2016). The cultural and religious environment of the country is discussed as a framework shaping students’ perception of language acquisition.


Motivation of the Study

In the world of globalisation, it is essential for students to learn English, which has become a tool for international communication. However, it would be wrong to assume that English or any other second language is studied in detachment from culture, traditions, religion, history, and other aspects. Learning language presupposes that one has to penetrate deep into the other nation’s worldview, understand and accept it (Mahboob & Elyas, 2014).

This may become rather challenging since culture-specific stereotypes are unavoidable. The interrelation between language acquisition and identity is a complex one and requires thorough investigation. Thus, throughout this paper, I argue that the greater the difference between the two cultures is, the more problematic it is for students to learn a foreign language (Liton, 2016).

Aim and Scope

The research at hand is devoted to cultural and religious factors that influence the learning of the English language by ESL students in Saudi Arabia. Although other European languages are also taught in the country, they are far from being so popular as English–that is the major reason it was chosen as the research subject. The major aim of the study is to find out the impact of such factors as motivation, social perception, and relations between Islam and western cultures as the key aspects of Saudi Arabian culture on the outcomes of language learning.

Overview of the Paper

The paper starts with a historical overview of the problem in order to see how the given research relates to the previous investigations in this field. The historical context of the topic investigation is also required for introducing the main focuses of attention of the studies in the past. Afterwards, implications of cultural obstacles for contemporary learning of a second language are to be discussed. The study concludes by providing direction for future research on the topic.

Controversies and Debates

Historical Context of the Topic

Over the last 30 years, due to the spread of the globalisation philosophy, a lot of scholars addressed the problem of second language learning in Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, it was commonly agreed that strong cultural identity of its citizens was pivotal for the nation’s integrity, but on the other hand, it was seen as a serious obstacle to learning another language and culture, which required interference (Cho, 2000, Barker et al., 2001).

Thus, the major bulk of the research was devoted to the clash between Arabic and English cultures that accounted for the lack of motivation and language anxiety. The motivation was proven to be one of the key driving forces that determined language achievement and future experiences of its use in intercultural communication (Alshumaimeri, 2008). Researchers noted that involvement in the process of language learning indicated not only educational motivation but also a positive attitude to another culture and community. This factor was considered crucial for eliminating racial, religious, and other prejudices (Gardner & Macintyre, 1991).

Dornyei and Csizer (1998) developed the topic by stating that the overall success or failure of an ESL student depended on motivation, the lack of which could not be compensated even by remarkable linguistic talents. This was singled out as the major problem of language learning in Saudi Arabia since it was unclear to the majority of its population why English should be learnt (Maherzi, 2011). Religion was found out to be the main reason as many people saw English as a language of non-believers and a channel through which the adverse western philosophy tried to enter the Islamic world. Linguistic diversity was perceived as a factor undermining the unity of the nation (Jaspal, 2009).

Many students detested it and acquired the so-called language anxiety–avoidance of using English outside the classroom out of fear of being laughed at and condemned. Although all these problems were indicated and thoroughly investigated, no clear-cut recommendations were provided. Thus, the topic remains unresolved, which makes it stay in the focus of attention of the modern sociolinguistics.

Current Debates

Since the problem remains open to discussion, a lot of researchers still argue what the major problem of English learning by Saudi Arabian students is and how it can be effectively addressed. The hottest topics of debate include Islamic sensitivities affecting learning, the status of the English language in the country and its perception by students, and problems of teachers’ education. The lack of motivation and language anxiety are seen as consequences of unresolved issues (Giroir, 2014).

The Impact of Islam on Learning English

Despite different perceptions of Islam by various scholars (some see it as a unifying force of the nation why others point at detrimental effects it produces upon the level of education in the county and the mindset of its people), it is still commonly agreed that Saudi Arabia is a nation that strongly adheres to its religious traditions and values. The society is highly conservative due to the fact that the service to Islam is viewed as the major factor securing the welfare of the nation, which means that the society is unlikely to break the rules imposed by the religion even for the sake of development (Dar, 2016).

Most researchers claim that people are too sensitive to their culture and religion, which they pass to their children; this accounts for the fact that the country is still perceived as developing. Yet, some scholars argue that Islam is not the major problem of poor language acquisition among ESL students and Arabian culture (although it is not entirely detached from the process of education) is far from being the decisive factor (Al-Qahtani, 2016). They name the following problems that are much more pressing (Khan, 2016):

  • improper preparation of teachers or the absence of a well-structured methodology for developing a coherent and comprehensive curriculum;
  • teacher-centred approach to learning, which kills students’ intrinsic motivation;
  • socio-economic factors that predetermine students’ attitudes, preparedness, and the level of motivation (the lack of which is often explained by the fact that a lot of students leave in poverty and have to work);
  • the promotion of negative perception of western cultures and languages in the family;
  • the emphasis of rote learning instead of analysing, understanding, and synthesising facts;
  • the lack of textbooks and teaching material on the topic;
  • poor or non-demonstrative assessment methods, which make many students believe that their efforts are not properly rewarded.

Therefore, it is rather debatable whether Islam is accountable for English learning failures to such an extent as it is commonly believed. Indeed, a great number of people in Saudi Arabia are afraid of the west, its culture, and languages–this makes them send their children to classical schools that do not teach any other languages than Arabic and stress the significance of religious education. Yet, this fear of the foreign and the new can be explained by many reasons besides religion. Certain social perspectives should not be ignored either (Khan, 2016).

That is why some scholars stress the fact that Saudi Arabia has not been invaded by any other culture; it never came under the rule of European colonisation and therefore managed to preserve its integrity. This can be named among the reasons the Saudi society does not welcome English learning even despite the fact that its importance in the modern world of global competition cannot be hidden or neglected (Liton, 2016).

Although renouncing Islam is illegal in the country, people are more afraid of social and economic rather than a religious invasion of the west into their lives. The needs of the industrial development require English acquisition as now the country is short of specialists who are capable of doing business with foreign partners. Thus, westerners are seen as a threat to the population welfare, which makes people feel hostility towards their culture and language (Giroir, 2014).

The Status of the English Language

Another topic of controversy is the influence of the status of the English language on the position it takes in Saudi culture. The official language of the country is Arabic while English is taught as a second language being a compulsory subject form class 7, answering the demands of globalisation. The perception of this measure is rather different among researchers. Some believe that students despise the English language and show no desire whatsoever to achieve proficiency in it. It is perceived as a subject to pass in the examination and never to use afterwards (Mahboob & Elyas, 2014).

Besides, they believe that speaking English means subjecting themselves to bullying and condemnation as their knowledge is generally rather poor. Yet, other scholars argue that over the recent years, students’ perception of English has changed and they now regard it as superior to Arabic, since it is the language of business, sciences, technology, and international relations. This may lead to the conclusion that the changes introduced to the traditional culture of Saudi Arabia have brought about changes in the perception of western languages. Indeed, English is now widely promoted as one of the core education subjects at schools and universities.

Furthermore, it is now playing a significant role in all kinds of media. Even despite worries that this expansion of influence could threaten Islam expressed by some clerics, the universal introduction of it as a compulsory subject does not seem to have affected any religious practices of Saudi Arabia (Shafee & Rhodes, 2016).

Such controversial visions of the cultural perception of the language may be explained by the fact that some students still stick to traditional values and beliefs taught at home (which makes them feel adverse to English and resistant to changes) whereas other students (whose number is growing) dream about studying abroad and making a career working for an international enterprise; therefore, their inner motivation of acquiring a new language is increased.

Still, as it has already been mentioned, Saudi culture has never experienced any English influence whatsoever–as a result, the English language and culture are viewed as strange and alien even by those who are eager to learn. Students may lose motivation due to their inability to understand totally new linguistic and cultural phenomena and give up after several attempts. This means that the problem of teaching should also be addressed to understand whether any transformations of the classical teaching method are necessary to improve the outcomes.

The Influence of Teachers Education and Values

Saudi education has always been based on the teachers’ ability to pass their knowledge of Islam to children. As a result of this cultural impact on the educational system, modern teachers do not have necessary qualifications to be able to teach foreign languages since they lack both theoretical and practical knowledge of the subject and are not experienced in other teaching methodology than that relying upon religion.

Most of the teachers graduate from colleges specialising in arts and languages where no methodology whatsoever is taught as the major goal to obtain linguistics and translation skills. Moreover, the quality of education in such colleges leaves much to be desired: teachers are often unable to speak English when they already have a diploma (Shafee & Rhodes, 2016). Due to the increased demand in English language teachers, schools often hire even those who have an only school education, which considerably affects not only the quality of education but also the attitude of students to the subject. There are also rather many non-Arab English teachers who often have no understanding of the culture, methodology, course design, and students’ needs–they come to teach to earn their living or kill boredom (Mahboob & Elyas, 2014).

Some researchers claim that the problem is in the traditional approach to education accepted in society, which totally contradicts the western mindset. The power distance between the teacher and the student has always been great, and the education has typically relied on rote learning as students are not supposed to analyse or dispute Quran – they are to memorise and reproduce its statements. This approach is totally unsuitable for language learning, which requires short power distance, active participation in discussions, involvement, and collaboration (Yassin, 2015). Other scholars, on the contrary, state that non-Arab teachers do more harm to students as they are unaware of their cultural values and violate them.

This deprives teachers of students’ respect and attention. They lose motivation as they are not accustomed to new methods of teaching and cannot make themselves adapt to a new learning environment (Shukri, 2014). Besides, many of them feel too timid to involve in group discussions or do any other tasks not typically done in other subjects. This way, students receive language anxiety that has already been mentioned above (Shafee & Rhodes, 2016).

The lack of consensus among various authors on the topic may lead to the conclusion that there are still wide gaps in our understanding of the issue. Western-style of analysis (as well as our typically European pattern of thought) does not allow us to understand why Saudi learners feel held back by their cultural beliefs, which prevent them from learning the language properly. At the same time, it eludes us why, despite defending their religious and cultural principles, Arab students seem to perceive English as a superior language and western culture as a culture of opportunity and development. Such contradictions are foreign and incomprehensible to the pragmatic worldview (Shafee & Rhodes, 2016).

Implications for Contemporary Language Learning

The analysis of the debates on the given topic allows to come up with some recommendations concerning the development of learning practices and improve the experience of language learning not only in Saudi Arabia but also in other countries where students’ cultural background acts as a hindrance to language acquisition.

First and foremost, the example of Saudi Arabia shows that both religious and cultural prejudices are aggravated by the absence of adequate teaching methodology, qualified teachers, modern book, and other educational resources. Students simply do not have favourable conditions for learning. This implies that no matter how important cultural factors may be, the first thing to be addressed is the conditions, in which learning takes place. A foreign language must be associated with a positive experience as this increases students’ motivation (Liton, 2016).

Another important implication of the Saudi case is that the role of the teacher is crucial not only from the educational but also from the cultural point of view. Conservative Arab teachers sticking with outdated educational methods do as much harm as a non-Arab teacher who ignores educational traditions of the country and uses western methods that seem quite alien to Arab students, who may get language anxiety as a result. Thus, developing teaching methodology, educators must bear in mind that despite the modern trends in education and a lot of new approaches that serve the purposes globalisation, traditional beliefs cannot be discarded altogether. This will lead to perplexity and confusion, and the students’ learning outcomes may turn out to be unsatisfactory (Shafee & Rhodes, 2016).

Since one of the pivotal problems indicated by researchers is that students in Saudi Arabia do not perceive the English language as a tool of communication but rather as one of the subjects to be passed, it allows drawing the conclusion that motivation is impossible without any potential practical application. Learning a second language (especially at higher levels) has the ultimate goal of being able to use obtained knowledge and skills in life situations outside the classroom.

This means that teachers must model settings that would be true-to-life and true-to-experience for the student to imitate real situations from their daily life. This not only evokes interest but also makes students understand why they need the language and how it can be helpful in their future professional life. It must be emphasised that in the modern world striving for the emergence of a global community, it is crucial to speak an international language as it multiplies employment opportunities and gives a competitive age in the labour market (Al-Qahtani, 2016).

In order to show the importance of tolerance and coexistence of alternative worldview, the teacher should be able to reconcile students with the fact of the non-Islamic character of the English language and culture. This task is shared by all teachers of the Muslim community, not only in Saudi Arabia. The Islamic world is still intolerant to western religions and perceives them with ether fear and suspicion or open adversity.

The case of Saudi Arabia proves how important it is to eliminate prejudice shared by the population that English is likely to act as a channel to intrude the culture and ruin it from inside by atheism. In fact, promotional campaigns are necessary to convince people that having all the necessary educational technologies in a classroom is a perfect way to facilitate learning and to make it more enjoyable. Both students and their families must understand that there is nothing wrong or sinful in having favourable conditions for investigation of a different culture and a foreign language for them not to feel the blame.

Finally, the acquisition of the English language should not begin straight with language structure and vocabulary as, judging by the example of Saudi Arabia, students get scared away from learning English as soon as they see how profoundly different it is from Arabic in its organisation. Studying must be prefaced by the teacher’s explanation of the history of culture and the impact it produced upon language development. The two cultures and languages can be juxtaposed and compared for students to see that despite differences, they still share a lot with the western community. It is essential to make an emphasis on similarities, not on differences since the former are not numerous, whereas the latter is evident as they are.

Agenda for Further Research

It has been indicated in one of the previous sections of the paper that the evident inability of various researchers to come to an agreement on a number of issues proves that a more profound exploration of the topic is required to bridge the existing gaps in our understanding of cultural reasons underlying the behaviour and outcome of Saudi students.

Future studies are to provide an insight into the learning difficulties of students for the purpose of finding ways to address and solve them in the most effective ways. Statistical quantitative analysis should be implemented to collect information about students’ achievement in this or that aspect of language learning (writing, listening, speaking, grammar, reading) in relation to their demographic and other variables.

The collection of the objective data is to be coupled with qualitative research of student-reported problems: questionnaires must be developed that would give a holistic picture of the students’ perception of the English learning experience and their ideas about what can be improved or changed. The major problem of the current research is that authors give too much attention to mistakes committed by Arab students due to the projection of their own language structure upon a foreign language. Very few studies exist that are devoted to the ways to help students overcome barriers set by their cultural and religious perception of education. Scholars are recommended to shift their focus of attention from purely linguistic to socio-linguistic aspects of language acquisition. Furthermore, teachers’ perspective of the problem has also been largely ignored.

The concept of a modern teacher is to be investigated to provide practical guidelines both to Arab and non-Arab teachers of English as a second language. Finally, social factors should be included in the research as there is still a lot of students who are educationally disadvantaged on the basis of their economic background.


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