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Status and functions of English in Saudi Arabia

Last updated: Tuesday, December 11, 2012 12:40 AM
Status and functions of English in Saudi Arabia

Dr. Khalid Al-Seghayer


ARTICLE 50 of the Educational Policy in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia states that students should learn at least one foreign language so that they may interact with people of other cultures for the purpose of contributing to the message of Islam and serving humanity. This sets forth the rationale for English teaching in Saudi schools, where the learners’ ability to communicate with international language users ranks as a priority. Hence, it would seem that policy-makers, stakeholders, and other decision-making bodies in Saudi Arabia are well aware that English can serve as a very important tool for the development of the country in terms of both international relations and scientific-technological advancement.

Consequently, the official status of English in Saudi Arabia is that of a primary foreign language and the country continues to show considerable interest in the English language. However, the country’s political stance, if it could be termed so, does not recognize English as the second official language in Saudi Arabia due to the fact that it does not fulfill certain functions that are necessary for intranational communication and it does not have any special administrative status in the country’s society.

Regardless, English currently serves several functions and enjoys an eminent status in various sectors at all levels within the Kingdom. This perceived growing position of English is in response to the development of Saudi Arabia in a variety of ways, including the number of founded social establishments, and the rapid changes that the social fabric has witnessed in recent years. There is an expansion of education at all levels, and the economy of the country is growing rapidly, as is its industrial and commercial base. The flux of foreign manpower, the ever-evolving attitudes of the Saudi people toward English, as well as the presence of various media sources cannot be ignored if an accurate picture of the current status of the English language in the Kingdom is to be presented.

English has a strong and a palpable presence in the Saudi educational system due to a range of considerations. It is the main and sole foreign language taught in Saudi Arabian public schools. English is also taught in private schools, universities, and a variety of industrial and government institutions. At the primary, intermediate, and secondary levels, and in all grade levels in private schools, English is also taught as a core subject. English, in addition to being taught in pubic educational establishments, is taught in all Saudi universities as either an elective subject or as a major field of study. Even students who are not English majors are required to take an introductory English course. English is used as a medium of instruction in most university departments in areas such as science, medicine, engineering, allied health, and other technical subjects. Both King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (founded in 1975) and the newly establish King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, the graduate-only research university, (founded in 2009), use English exclusively as the medium of instruction. Additionally, English has become the medium of instruction in some newly established private universities which choose to teach content areas in English.

A number of technical and vocational institutes, as well as military academies, include English as a subject in their curricula in recognition of its utility and importance. The same is true in various public and private organizations and establishments, which often set up training centers to teach English to their employees. The recognition of the importance of English in the sphere of education is also evidenced by the increasing number of newly established English departments in Saudi colleges and universities and the proliferation of language institutions offering English-related courses. Furthermore, the demand for recruiting and training additional Saudi EFL teachers, translators, and more qualified graduates for various jobs that require English proficiency has grown significantly.

The status of the English language in Saudi Arabia also applies to other aspects of employment. Employers in private-sector areas such as industries, hospitals, and hotels expect applicants to possess a certain level of proficiency in English. Advertisements for job openings, the teaching profession’s publications, and national newspaper supplements stress the preference of employers for English-speaking applicants. Both local and international companies are keen to hire English-speaking staff members. Graduates of secondary schools and even colleges, as a result, often find themselves at a disadvantage when attempting to secure decent or rewarding jobs if they do not have a sufficient command of English. Hence, competence in and knowledge of English opens doors for Saudi citizens and gives the rank-and file employees, the cogs of private commerce and industry, greater access to promotion and advancement.

In addition, business transactions between Saudi Arabia and most other nations in the world are conducted in English; thus, there is a real and growing need for more Saudis to be proficient in both spoken and written English. Furthermore, the importance of knowing English is apparent to many Saudis, given its prominence in the modern international business world.

Saudi Arabia is expanding its economic relationships with other countries, and an increasing number of joint ventures are being undertaken between Saudi Arabian and foreign companies, investors, and businessmen.

Another vehicle for the presence of English in Saudi Arabia is its growing use in the mass media, including, broadcasting, print media, and the Internet. One of the two national Saudi TV stations, Channel 2, is an English channel. Its programming consists of a balanced blend of cultural programs, entertainment and music, non-Arabic films and serials, children’s programs, and news and current affairs programs. The European-language radio station, whose programming is predominantly in English and, to a lesser extent, in French, transmits 24 hours a day with programs of different orientations. There are two English daily newspapers in the Kingdom and satellite broadcasting, which began in the mid-1990s, has exposed Saudi citizens to English via various types of programs. In 1995, Saudis were introduced to English through the Internet and gained access to the global network through Saudi ports.

It is worthy of note that English is also used for communication between Saudis and expatriates, and among the multiple nationalities and ethnic groups that reside in the Kingdom. Today, there are approximately eight million expatriate workers in Saudi Arabia. This is because the country draws a significant portion of its labor force, low-skilled workers, skilled workers, and skilled experts, from foreign countries. As a result, English has emerged as a lingua franca for communication between Saudis and the multiethnic and multilingual non-Arab expatriate community working for Saudi official and non-official establishments. English also serves as a link language utilized by large contingents of non-Arabic speaking expatriates of different ethnic linguistic backgrounds working in the country.

The status and functions of English are assumed to be shaped by the attitude of the people of Saudi Arabia. In general, Saudis’ attitudes toward English are highly positive; most Saudi people believe that English is vital to the country’s future prosperity and that it is needed in various domains. This attitude toward English can be seen in the results of a number of empirical studies conducted in the past two decades on the attitude of Saudi people toward English language in general and learning it in particular.

In the light of these facts, learning English in Saudi Arabia is important and a valuable commodity. On a personal level, one could even go as far as to suggest that knowledge of English is the bare minimum for any Saudi citizen and is important to the success of any endeavor that he or she may undertake. Currently, those who can communicate in English face a much brighter future in terms of securing a wide range of employment opportunities, seeking knowledge, enriching their understudying of other cultures, pursuing their studies abroad, especially higher ones, and widening their horizon and having a better understanding of the world, or even leisurely pursuits, such as traveling internationally for pleasure.

It can be, thus, asserted that English in Saudi Arabia at both the individual and national levels for the main part is utilized for external purposes and to a lesser extent for internal employment purposes. Along the same lines, the use of English in Saudi Arabia remains instrumentally motivated as opposed to being used for integrative purposes. It is viewed as an instrument for modernization, advancement, technological transfer, a dependable means of strengthening and expanding the economy, a means of assimilating modern technology and of absorbing world science, and as a vehicle for global communication.

— The writer is a Saudi academic who can be reached at


Disclaimer: Writers’ and readers’ opinions do not necessarily reflect Saudi Gazette’s views unless otherwise stated.
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