One of the most important factors in assimilation is learning the English language as its use becomes more diverse. Nearly all universities in Saudi Arabia offer the opportunity for learning English. In their quest to learn English as a second language, Saudi females are often challenged by cultural diversity in a highly structured society. As indicated by learning theories, motivation is the key to integrating English learning. However, there are issues that arise in the process of attempting to learn a second language that might keep Saudi females in Imam Mohammad bin Saud University from learning English despite the motivations behind the original desire to learn.
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Some of these issues are based on the way in which staff and students view their clothing or other cultural behaviors. In a study that attempts to understand the experiences of Saudi Muslim females in language center at Imam Mohammad bin Saud University, a qualitative research investigation will attempt to reveal ways in which some of those experiences are impeding progress into assimilation and are overriding the motivations that should be helping them to learn.
The aim of this study is to better understand the gap that is contributed by cultural diversity on Saudi females in their quest to learn English as a second language in order to establish a balance between the culture and better participation in the English language learning process. This study will attempt to assess the common experiences that Saudi Muslim females face when attempting to learn English as a Second Language (ESL) in Saudi Arabia especially at Imam Mohammad bin Saud University.
Through an analysis of case studies developed from interviews of five Imam Mohammad bin Saud University Muslim female students, this research will evaluate those experiences for ways in which the programs and those who participate in running those programs can better serve these women. “South Asian Muslim women are continually negotiating and renegotiating their cultural, religious and personal identities” (Ahmad 2001, p.137). Challenges they face are related to identity as a Muslim include symbol of identity, demands for respect from everybody regarding the values and traditions of cultural identity in the learning process.
Background of the study
Muslim Females at Imam Mohammad bin Saud University
Due to religious and cultural beliefs, the needs of Muslim females in Saudi are different from those of their male counterparts because of traditions, especially Muslim culture, which draws clear differences from other traditions and cultures in gender role and place in the society. Difficulty in accessing the English language’s entitlements isolates these females and limits further their already isolated position.
The research is founded on the experiences that were originally related to me by a friend that impeded her ability to successfully study the language. After a discussion of the background of the study and why it is important of learning English as a second language among the Saudi females in order to function within society, a reflection on quantifiable effects of social and cultural factors that are impeding their study will be addressed through qualitative case study analysis.
Teaching English and Saudi Muslim Learners
English has long become the lingua franca for most countries. As English grows in importance as a global language, so does the dependence of people on it from across the world. This is perhaps because the language of science is English, and most scientific developments have been recorded using English as the medium of interactive communication. In addition, the interdependence of nations in the world is growing as businesses and multinational corporations across the globe develop and grow. That is the reason why English will perhaps remain the most active and dynamic language for global communication on the Internet and through all forms of communication that are now possible at a global level.
For instance, international telephone information is easier when both parties have a similar language. According to Gardner &Lambert (1972), two possible approaches to teaching English depend on the orientation of the learners and can be divided into two categories, that is, interpretive and integrative. In communities where English is used as a foreign language, people follow the interpretive approach. On the other hand, in communities where English is adopted as a second language, people follow the integrative approach. The interpretive approach is adopted by most learners who treat English as a foreign language and use it as a lingua franca in the case of Saudi Arabia.
Why learning English language matters to Saudi females
It is important for Saudi females to learn English because most business activities and global interactions are carried out in English. Lack of sufficient knowledge of the same can be marginalizing, isolating, and may prevent entire communities from making the process of global integration smooth and seamless. There is a huge difference in the cultural orientation between females who speak English as a native language and those who learn the same as a foreign language in terms of religions, accents, traditions and customs.
However, since the English language plays an important role in imparting education, which in turn helps in shaping future generations, it is important for Saudi Muslims females to be proficient in English. In the thesis, I will use the concept of identity in order to explore the difference in cultural orientation between females and male students at the subject university. Identity is important because the identity that an individual creates in society will eventually determine the person’s destiny, in terms of professional opportunities and social status. The nature of identity is dynamic and keeps changing depending on the stage of adaptation.
The aims of the study
The following aims of the study will be used as a framework from which to create a dialogue on the topic of study. In creating this study, the focus will be on how Saudi females perceive their experiences in learning English as a second language at the subject university and how this affects their position within Saudi society.
- What perspectives of Saudi cultural identity do Saudi females bring to English learning at Imam Mohammad bin Saud University?
- To what extent does Saudi Muslim identity impact the Saudi female’s learning at Imam Mohammad bin Saud University?
- To maintain their cultural values, do Saudi females prefer learning English isolated from English culture?
- What are some implications of cultural identity in learning English as a second language among Saudi females?
Definition of the Term Identity
According to Phan (2008), “Identity refers to what makes an entity definable or recognizable and personal identity is the continuity of existence of a person through time” (Phan 2008, p. 45). According to (Gilroy et al, 2000), “identity refers to an articulation of cultural, ethnic, gender, and sexual distinction” (Gilroy et al, p.34). In this way of thinking about identity “Traditions are thus constantly salvaged, created, and marketed in a productive game of identities” (Gilroy et al, 2000, p. 100).
The beliefs and cultures of a community directly affect their level of integration another language or even culture. The beliefs of an Islamic society are one major hindrance to their integration into other cultures especially where other religions are involved. Some beliefs are bound to change or to be abandoned in order to peacefully co-exist yet there are those which will always be upheld since they give the Muslim community its identity. Gilroy et al (2000) state that “cultural identity has also been defined as one shared culture, a sort of a collective term where “one true self ” is hiding in a collective with many other superficial ones” (Gilroy et al, 2000, p. 256).
(Gilroy et al, 2000) suggest this as a possible form of identity, but he prefers the definition that suggests that identity is in constant flux, never standing still or settling, but evolving and changing as the moment and experiences dictate (Gilroy et al, 2000). Identity then is a mouldable part of the self, a place in which the many things to which a person is exposed will provide a new dimension to the identity. Gilroy et al (2000) support the argument that many identities are created within a Muslim woman when she is made to integrate another language related to another culture.
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(Phan 2008) discusses the complexity of social identity, saying that it includes concepts such as self-perception and self-definition. It also involves psychological and mental development, relationships between people, the ability to adapt, and empowerment. This clearly points to the relationship between a person’s learning process and how well he or she adapts to the skills of the language in question (Phan 2008). It implies that if one can readily accept identity change and has a good relationship with the target language society, he or she is in a better position to learn the language.
Different views on the Concept of Identity
Muslim scholars generally have argued that identity is stable and unchangeable in contrast to some contemporary Western scholars. However, “some liberal Muslim scholars and many Western scholars have proposed a change in Islamic concepts especially regarding the identity of Muslim women. When it comes to the wearing of the veil by Muslim women to show their Islamic identity, some Western scholars view this as a sign of the oppression of Muslim women” (Phan, 2008, p. 57) “Other Western critics have condemned the position imposed on women in Islam as a way of maintaining an unchangeable identity as unchangeable” (Gilroy et al, 2000, p. 98).
Phan (2008) reiterates that:
Identity is continuously constructed. This means that in a particular place, certain identities will be useful whereas at other places such identities may not be of importance…Teachers are seen to be fastening their identities to particular spaces and times and then unfastening them as circumstances alter, and then refastening them again as they talk of and justify their beliefs. This theory sits well with the notion that teachers have a common core identity but ever-changing additional identities. (p. 154)
The relationship between Identity and Language learning
Contemporary theorists of second language acquisition such as Norton (1998) are centrally concerned with the contexts of social, historical, and cultural backgrounds in which identity is formed, including the relations of power. This draws our attention to the contexts of social, historical, and cultural backgrounds in which the L2 learners are engaged and how these learners negotiate different positions in the geographical context. Furthermore, they do not fully agree with the psychology-based view that learners should be seen as either introverted or extroverted.
This is because these affective factors are mainly constructed socially and change through time and place. According to Norton (1998), “learning a language also involves the identities of learners. This is because language is a complex social system, with the meaning being determined partially by the value attached by the speaker; it is not just a system of signs and symbols” (Norton, 1998, p.56). He further argues that “despite the differences between the learning experiences of children and those of adults, both struggle for identity, and this struggle may lead to the acquisition of more than one identity for an individual” (Norton, 1998, p.59).
The role of Saudi culture in learning English among female Muslims
The Saudi educational system is typically what (Guild 2001) calls “teacher-centered”. This means that “the teacher possesses the concentration of power and authority. The teacher also takes the role of knowledge communicator. It is expected of them to give ideas and information. On the surface, it may seem that Saudi students would simply take in whatever is fed to them, but there is more to it than simply accepting and eventually echoing the information received” (Guild 2001, p.79).
Thyer (2009) opines that “educational resources used are essentially based on the local culture which becomes rather obvious considering how mono-cultural the society is” (Thyer, 2009, p. 46). According to Guild (2001), CLT is one of the most common methods of teaching English to students who study English as a second language. This primary objective of CLT is to empower students to use English as a natural tool of expression. It puts students in real-life situations where communication is indispensable, which enables ESL students to learn practically. CLT employs a wide range of activities including role-plays, interactive games, group work and learning by teaching techniques. These activities would go beyond basic grammar, and take socio-cultural aspects of language into consideration.
In order to study the experiences of Saudi Muslim females learning English as a second language, a qualitative approach will be undertaken. This approach will be founded upon the premise that a qualitative form of research, over a quantitative form, will allow the researcher to use the experiences of the participants to gather data. The primary purpose of a qualitative study is “to know more about a phenomenon” (Merriam, 2009, p. 3). A phenomenological approach to qualitative study will be undertaken. According to Merriam (2009), the phenomenological approach to qualitative research is founded upon the desire to take the phenomena of experience and transform it into general terms in order to create a validated sense of the experience that can be predicted (Merriam, 2009, p.45).
Case studies will be created from interviews with five Saudi Muslim students who are currently learning English at Imam Mohammad bin Saud University and have lived their whole lives in Saudi Arabia. Their experiences will form links to the overall phenomenon in order to create data from which to observe generalities from which conclusions can be drawn. The data will be formulated according to commonalities that are appreciated within the case studies.
Validity and Reliability
According to Thyer (2009), the validity of qualitative research can come from several safeguards put into place by the researcher in order to balance the subjectivity of the interview format which develops the insider perspective. As well, it is important to write solid descriptions of the interview experience so that readers of the research are open to their own interpretations of the perspectives presented by the insiders, as well as the interpretations of the researcher (Thyer, 2009). In order to assure validity and reliability, I approached the interviews with an open mind and with the need to hear their stories without insinuating my own concepts onto those stories.
Selection of participants
The sample group for this study consists of five Saudi Muslim female students at Imam Mohammad bin Saud University between the ages of 20 and 23. They are all learning English as a second language. This demographic was selected because these women have the maturity to speak about their experiences and relate them to an adult context.
Methods for data collection
Open-ended questions were designed to allow the participants to fully express their experience without being too confined within the boundaries of a question. The semi-structured interview was used as it allowed the greatest possible advantages in creating an understanding of the experiences of the participants. This structure allows for guidelines consisting of questions to be used to initiate the conversation but has some latitude for the participant to expand upon and divert in areas they perceive as more important to the experience. The structured set of questions acts as an outline allowing the participant to inject a personal perspective and diverse lines of inquiry that may not have occurred to the interviewer (Thyer, 2009).
Methods for data analysis
Three functions were used to analyze the data collected, that is, emotive, poetic, and ‘phatic’ functions. The Emotive Function was used in order to observe the way in which the participants felt when they expressed their experiences (Thyer, 2009). During the interview process, the researcher observed the ways in which the stories were told and assessed the emotional context in which the females who were relating their experiences displayed.
This provided for a sense of the experience and created a level of importance to the overall experience of the women. The Poetic Function is found through an assessment of the content for its sense of reality and the perception of reality that is conveyed by the participant. Belief in the experience as it allows for the perception of the experience is as important as understanding the content of the verbal communication of the participant (Thyer, 2009). The believability of the stories related by the participants has been deemed credible due to the level of emotions that were relayed. Therefore, through the use of the emotive function, the poetic function was given value.
The Phatic Function is used when an open channel is developed between the researcher and the participant which allows for a more truthful and honest interview within a bond of trust. This allows for deeper revelations that will add dimension to the research project (Thyer, 2009). This was a very important aspect of the interview process. In order to establish a sense of trust, the researcher has an advantage as being from the same cultural orientation as the participants.
With five case studies, the data will be limited to the defined experiences within this small group and will have limited possible overlap from which to calculate commonalities. As well, the translation will create a limitation in regard to the differences between Arabic expression and English expression.
Findings and Discussion
Through listening to the stories told by Fatima, Layla, Sarah, Zahra, and Zainab, it was clear that the cultural diversity among the males and female counterparts created a barrier between the ambition to learn and the experience in trying to learn. While the barriers are not insurmountable, the task to integrate the Muslim culture could be a daunting undertaking. In the process, a sense of isolation can develop within the women, creating a sense of dissatisfaction and loneliness within their immigration experience.
The research subjects’ perspectives on their Islamic Identity
Three of the females identified themselves with being Arabic, while two of the females identified themselves as Saudis. The identity associated with being Arabic most often indicates a shared linguistic, geographical, and sociological background forms an underlying identity that is associated with the place in the world a person was originally located.
However, according to (Norton, 1998), there is a common association between the Arabic language and the Islamic religion, suggesting that to say that one is Arabic is to create an identity that suggests far more than geographic and linguistic heritage. To be Arabic suggests a connection to a larger community that is defined by underlying cultural connectivity that is beyond the superficial (Norton, 1998). The sense of identity was very strong within all five Saudi females. In discussing the issue of identity, it was clear that the way in which they had constructed their identity was built upon pride in their belief systems and in their culture.
Attitudes towards integrating and learning the English language as a second Language in Saudi
All five females agreed that they feel constrained by their religion and their culture in trying to learn English as a second language. There was a feeling that because they represented their identities through such strongly identifiable means such as the hijab, this meant that they stood out and were obviously different from others within the community. This situation created a sense of isolation that did not have an easy way out.
As Zainab discussed, if they were to choose to abandon the cultural habits and rituals that identified them as Muslim women, the women in their own communities would reject them. Therefore, they are subject not only to their belief in maintaining their cultural identity, but trapped even if for some reason they chose to create a change in order to adapt. The decision to adapt to a liberal approach in learning English was not possible as their own community would then reject them.
Factors that affect Saudi Muslims females’ learning the English language
This kind of contact is a cultural norm that infringes on the interactions of Muslim men and women. Zahra discussed how the openness with which her teacher discussed her own life with the class created discomfort for her. The Muslim culture considers privacy and appropriateness between men and women important cultural norms and this has limited interactive space between females and male counterparts. This creates a problem when attempting to learn within the culture that has strict protocols on the limits of interaction among students based on gender.
Since the classes are mixed, male dominance plays out in the learning process. As claimed by Fatima, Layla, and Sarah, they often feel discouraged to participate in this stereotyping society in class discussions. As a result, they majorly depend on personal effort and studies with limited consultations to the few available teachers of the English language.
The ways in which classes are arranged in the school do not suit the needs of the learners very well. The first and most predominant problem that has been a theme throughout the discussions about problems within the learning center in regard to barriers to learning for Muslim women is the mixture of males and females within the classroom that leads to situations that are not allowed within their culture. This issue is a serious problem for Muslim women who are not used to having to co-mingle in situations where interaction is a possibility. Interactions between males and females is an uncomfortable and threatening problem that puts Muslim women in situations that create problems within their own sense of appropriate behavior in learning English.
Suggestion for future study
In creating a better understanding of the difficulties that Muslim women are experiencing in trying to learn English in learning centers, opportunities for further study have been opened. Initially, the creation of a study of the misunderstandings that might exist among those of the Western culture might allow for a better understanding of what information is needed to close the gaps of understanding. Furthermore, a study that finds ways through which Muslim women can continue to express their identity while integrating into the Islamic culture might provide some benefit as Saudi Muslim females learning English as a second language with ease. If properly carried out, it will be possible to establish a quantifiable relationship between culture and education.
Conclusion and Recommendation
Among the Saudi females in mixed learning centers, learning English seems to be associated with the fear of losing one’s Islamic identity. Apart from that, most Muslim women are scared to lose their cultural identity and want to ensure that their children learn Islamic values. At the same time, they desire to adapt to the global language in order to lead a safe and happy life with their families.
However, they face several socio-cultural barriers and practical difficulties on the way, which discourages them from participating in the ESL classes. Based on the research conducted, it is apparent that Saudi females are willing to learn English to integrate with the rest of the community, but not at the cost of losing their Islamic identity. Therefore, ESL classes have to be tailored to meet the unique requirements of Muslim women, since learning can only take place in a congenial environment. Also, it is crucial for teachers as well as other non-Muslim students to respect Muslim women’s beliefs and traditions.
Some of the most critical issues that crop while Muslim women learn English in a learning center could be very simply addressed by providing a safe and comfortable atmosphere for them. While the CLT approach is quite effective in enabling students to express their values and emotions in English, it does hit a roadblock. As the activities and learning materials used in CLT are based on Western culture, it becomes counter-intuitive if the subject matter disagrees with the values of Muslim women. CLT activities should be tailor-made to suit the unique requirements of Muslim women, by focussing on aspects that practically matter to them. In a nutshell, CLT materials should give them exposure to day-to-day conversations and common expressions, which would enable Muslim women to function effectively in society, beyond the confines of the classroom.
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