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Teaching Students from the Arab countries

Rosie Norman

In recent years, the demand for learning English has increased dramatically in the Arab speaking world. This is for a variety of reasons, one important reason being the need to study in British and American universities as well as the need in the world of work in industry and commerce. English has always been seen as the language to learn for communication with the outside world and many wealthy families have pied-a-tierre properties in the UK and the US and send their children to be educated in the UK or the US.

Learning styles
One of the basic discrepancies is the difference in educational methods. The Anglo-Saxon method places greater emphasis on students learning to think for themselves, how to acquire, process and present objective information. It would seem from the experience of teaching Arab-speaking students that their educational systems are still more based on traditional rote learning. The teaching of English in schools seems to be not very up to date in its teaching methods but will no doubt improve as governments decide that a good knowledge of English is necessary and teachers need to be trained in modern methods of language learning. This difference in pedagogic approach is one of the first obstacles to overcome as the students do not have study skills appropriate for the Anglo-Saxon educational system.

The Anglo-Saxon method places greater emphasis on students learning to think for themselves, how to acquire, process and present objective information. It would seem from the experience of teaching Arab-speaking students that their educational systems are still more based on traditional rote learning.

One of the main difficulties for these students is learning how to form the letters of the alphabet. First the student needs to reverse writing from right to left as in Arabic to from left to right in the Latin script. The next problem is the formation of the letters and it would seem that there is not sufficient work on this in the schools in the Arab countries, unlike the Japanese who are taught a beautiful, neat printing script. This inability to write fluently is a great drawback as copying and writing take so much longer and put them behind the faster writing students of other nationalities.

Closely connected to the writing problem is reading. Firstly, Arabic is a phonetic language unlike English with its weird and wonderful spelling and seemingly arbitrary pronunciation. Secondly, the Arabic language does not write in the vowel sounds but through usage and context the reader know what the sound is. This implies that the vowel letters a, e, i, o u do not convey overmuch to the Arabic reader and even less considering there is no uniform pronunciation. Basically, there are 12 pure vowel sounds in short and long form and another 8 diphthong sounds in English and here we are talking only about standard pronunciation like the British Received Pronunciation. These factors ensure that reading is slow and because it is slow, it is difficult and boring and interest and effort required are often lost.


Attitudes to effort and discipline and self-discipline
Many of the students from the Arab countries come from wealthy families where much is done for them and their economic status and spending power is guaranteed for life. Also a lot of students, from Saudi Arabia for example, are funded by the government and although the Saudi embassies try and keep a tight check on their students’ performance, this does not eradicate the fact that in some cases there is a lack of real motivation and ability to make a sustained effort. There are, fortunately, many other students who are keen to learn and take full advantage of the opportunity and put in the effort and where the student has paid for himself there is always more effort and better results.

Cultural Issues
Most of the students are young men and very few women students are to be seen. This will depend greatly on which country the students are from and obviously in the countries with a more liberal attitude to women there is more opportunity for women to study abroad. As is usual in the case where women have to get on in what is traditionally a man’s world, their effort is greater and likewise their achievements.

Most of the students are friendly and charming but sometimes a woman teacher may find herself having her authority and knowledge questioned as maybe the student is not used to receiving knowledge and authority from a woman.

Students usually take English courses, at least in the UK, for a long period say an academic year or even more as they need to get their IELTS (or TOEFL) exam so as to gain entrance into university. Settling into a new culture where little is prohibited, alcohol freely available and women walk the streets independently and don’t cover up and people have dogs as pets living in the home as well as a host of other things like the climate are all factors that the student has to take on board and are part and parcel of his/her English language learning. Many men are away from their wives and families which has its difficulties. Many male students (and this applies to other nationalities) are not used to sitting for hours at a desk learning a language and find it irksome and, indeed, boring. Learning a new language is mentally very tiring and it is frustrating not being able to express yourself adequately. Maybe some language schools could do better in working out a syllabus which includes more action and less sitting.

Another factor is that it would seem the Arab world is still very much an oral/aural culture rather than our more book orientated, intellectual, rational culture. People from the Arab countries are excellent communicators in that with little English they are happy to speak! These people have a centuries’ long tradition as middle men merchants between the East and West and any visit to a souk will show you how the vendors have picked up aurally/orally a smattering of many languages with which to do business! So the effort to induce accuracy may be a hard task both for student and teacher!


Blackberries, IPhones, Androids and Dictionaries
Now everyone has a Smartphone with a store of information in it like a dictionary. Generally in class, many schools have a policy of cell/mobile phones to be switched off. This is, however, difficult when the student says he has his dictionary in it but you as a teacher realize that the student is miles away texting and receiving texts and just not paying attention to what is going on in class. It is just much quicker and less effort, to look up a word in Smartphone dictionary and translate it into Arabic. Getting students to use a good paper dictionary or even good online dictionary, be it bilingual or monolingual can be a task in itself as a good knowledge of the alphabetical order is fundamental. Unfortunately, some of these Arabic–English dictionaries are really poor and biblical in style and not at all useful. Also it is good to get students to use a monolingual dictionary to improve their general English.

On one occasion I had beginners’ class of late teenage Saudi students who were totally addicted to their Smartphones and speaking Arabic in class and having been sent were not generally very interested in sitting in a classroom for 5 hours a day learning English. School policy was mobile phones switched off in class. I tried all sorts of ways to deal with these Blackberries as this was a total distraction from class activities, even placing a basket for depositing the phones when entering the class but that was almost like amputation so used are some people to having a devise in their hand all the time! European students are more self-disciplined and discreet in their use of Smartphones in class. Obviously a creative teacher can include Smartphones into the teaching as we move more and more into blended learning and everyone having the essential Smartphone for modern living. If you can’t beat them, join them!

It is, therefore, important to take time at the beginning to ensure that the students learn to write and read with fluency. There may be some resistance here as some students feel it is like going back to first grade! It is crucial to help students learn to think for themselves otherwise they will find it more than difficult to complete tasks in the English course and when involved in university subjects. How to induce the need for personal effort and self-discipline is a hard nut to crack when everything has been served to you on a plate! So here is an interesting cultural challenge for everyone be they teacher or student!

About the author

Rosie is British born and lives in Patagonia Argentina. She is a language teacher and translator and loves exploring places. When not typing articles on her ‘compu’, she’s busy outside tending her beautiful small holding or ‘chacra’ in the foothills of the Andes.