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Using Arabic to teach English in Saudi public schools

Last updated: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 8:45 AM
Using Arabic to teach English in Saudi public schools

Dr. Khalid Al-Seghayer


One of the most critical problems facing the teaching of English in Saudi Arabia’s public schools is whether or not the mother tongue should be used in the classroom.

If we consider the classroom as a microcosm of a larger society reflecting the larger forces of society, then use of the native language should be avoided. The English classroom should be designed as a natural or authentic environment for learning a language. In addition, students need to be trained to understand the learned language without outside aid and need to be encouraged to use and think in the target language. A number of related issues include the need to place learners in real-life environments, the consequences of using the native language as the medium of instruction, the importance of only using English as the medium of instruction, and the perspectives of students, teachers, and language educators on using the native language as a medium of instruction in English classrooms. 
At advanced levels, where students already have a certain degree of mastery of the language, nothing other than the learned language should be allowed. Students need a natural setting to help them acquire the language more effectively, consisting of an environment where they hear, are exposed to, and interact with the target language properly. As a result, when students are outside class, they will encounter the same or similar experiences as those they had in the classroom. In contrast, if a teacher tends to teach by relying on the students’ native language, students are learning in a less effective environment, because most students believe that classrooms should be very real and authentic places. They expect to go to class to hear and use the language in a meaningful way.

By using the native language as the medium of instruction in the foreign/second language classroom, students are not encouraged to use and think in the target language. In other words, permitting the use of a language other than the target language during instruction will encourage less-motivated students to rely on their first language to convey the messages they want to deliver, because their teachers are failing to create an environment in which they build their confidence in using the target language. Also, use of the native language encourages students to translate from the first language into the second language.

By introducing the target language through the native language, full attention is not given to training students to understand the target language without seeking outside aid, and opportunities are not created for them to learn. Furthermore, students who experience such instruction are not trained to think in the learned language. Thinking in the target language is a substantial aspect of the process of learning a language. Helping students to reach that stage means removing the need for translation and assisting them in becoming better students of the target language.

Although many teachers throughout the world choose to teach English using their mother tongues, this is not optimal. Teachers may be the only source of English as the learned language for their students, so to achieve positive results, they must provide sound and structure patterns from the target language, i.e., English. The more the target language is used as the medium of instruction, the more such opportunities will arise. Common sense tells us that to learn a foreign/second language, one must be exposed to it. Although it is possible to learn a foreign/second language through the medium of the mother tongue, such teaching does not generally prepare students for face-to-face communication. The ultimate goal is to make the classroom a more effective place for students to acquire the language. The teacher’s concern should be the creation of an environment that enables students to be exposed to the language in question and gives them more opportunities to use the target language, because no one can learn a language without using it.

In working with students who are acquiring English, it is important to encourage their participation and to provide a stress-free, trusting environment for learning. Reducing anxiety is critical, as a low anxiety level is conducive to second language acquisition; the more students are encouraged to use their second language in a positive environment, the more comfortable they will feel doing so. It is extremely crucial to make the language classroom as natural as possible, with no translation or use of the mother tongue. Motivation is much higher when students see the need for the target language in reaching goals that are meaningful to them, thereby making the target language the medium helping them achieve and experience enjoyment and fulfillment.

Unfortunately, teachers tend to take the easiest path, and use the mother tongue as the medium of instruction. They apparently have what they feel are valid reasons for doing so, such as a belief that the students’ levels of proficiency are not sufficient for target language instruction, or a belief that it is easier to get the message across in the mother tongue, and so forth. Students, on the other hand, especially those who have spent three to six years as students in foreign language classes, frequently complain that, during these classes, they neither spoke nor heard the language in question.

Many teachers believe that teaching in the target language is simply too tall an order and they do not consider it feasible. Among the most common reasons for this position is that the ability levels of students in the class differ. There is also the constant need to be efficient, to save time, and to be understood by all students. Consequently, the majority of teachers view some mix of the mother tongue and the foreign language as most appropriate. Language educators and researchers, however, hold strong beliefs that suggest that it is extremely important that the medium of instruction in the language classroom be the target language and that teachers and students alike should always use the target language in the context of the classroom.

Language educators have discussed this issue from several perspectives, including theoretical rationale, feasibility, and desirability. There appears to be the widespread assumption among teachers that, theoretically, the case for 100 percent target language use has been, quite simply, proven. This is generally agreed upon by theoreticians, and researchers tend to argue that if the classroom is to focus entirely on acquisition, then the 100 percent direct method would be appropriate. In addition, if the teacher uses the communicative approach, 100 percent use of the target language should be insisted upon. Students should engage in activities that mirror the situation in which people use language outside of the classroom, in real situations. Nevertheless, if theory cannot provide us with all of the answers on this issue, we must arrive at a position on the basis of teacher experience to decide whether a particular approach should be used in the classroom. As advocated by the teacher, we need to determine whether such use is practical and desirable.

From the sociocultural and methodological perspective, the target language should not be used 100 percent of the time as a medium of instruction. The sociocultural viewpoint suggests that banning the mother tongue from the classroom leads to alienation of the students, depriving them of their cultural identity and leading to acculturation rather than increased intercultural communicative competence. The methodological viewpoint argues that it is difficult to effectively use a 100 percent method, because some types of activities are relatively easy to conduct in the target language, while others are impossible.

What has been proposed above notwithstanding, we must note that lack of the use of the target language in the classroom is one of the major methodological reasons for poor achievement levels in language learning.

Regardless of the points raised, the use of the target language as the normal means of communication is possible. This requires a planned approach not only in terms of the choice of language, but also in terms of the teaching activities themselves. Considering what is said by the teacher, if instructions are systematically given in English, and the texts and the recorded materials used are in English, and what students say to each other in various speaking activities is also in English, the use of English can become dominant and normal, and the use of the mother tongue accidental in comparison. When this is achieved, the teacher can feel confident that students are being given a proper chance to acquire the target language under classroom conditions.

— 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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