"…Gaturia was at least aware that the slavery of language is the slavery of the mind and nothing to be proud of…”
The above comes from a novel, Devil on the Cross, by Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thion’o. The idea of “the slavery of language,” however, is an issue on many Saudi minds, these days, particularly as it relates to the increasing enrollment of Saudi students in private schools that deliver their curriculum in English. The result, according to both students and teachers, has been a number of Saudi high school graduates unable to take a test in Arabic or even adequately express themselves in Arabic. And, in the eyes of many, the repercussions are far greater than purely linguistic.
The trend toward education in English will not end soon. An increasing number of Saudis are enrolling in international schools and there are plans to erect more such schools in the Kingdom.
Sahar Marzouky, owner of Alfaris International schools, said recently: "Saudi interest in international schools has increased by 40% and more than 60% of students in international schools are Saudi."
With instruction overwhelmingly in English, the concerns for the Arabic language and for the implications of an English-language educational system on local culture and world views are entirely legitimate.
There are two main schools of thought regarding this issue. Some find instruction in English a sign of progress and development, a step toward raising the educational levels of Saudi students and enabling them to compete more effectively in an increasingly globalized arena. Others, however, believe it is a phenomenon that warrants caution and examination, seeing education is a matter of sovereignty: the cultivation of new generations with information, values, and, indeed, a worldview. Yet another group outright rejects the notion of Saudis learning in international schools and considers it a tool of Westernization and even imperialism.
In investigating this issue, Arab News posed a number of questions to educators: Why is there an increasing interest in founding international schools and attending them? What are the sociocultural implications of adopting these educational systems, specifically regarding first language loss or deterioration?
Khalid Al Derais , supervisor of Crown Prince Naif Chair for Intellectual Security Studies at King Saud University, focused on the link between intellectual security and early education in international schools. Defined by sustaining and safeguarding society's positive cultural identity, intellectual security, according to Al Derais, is of paramount importance because it shapes the minds of children. He believes, and is backed up by many studies, that language is a crucial element in this context since it is not a mere vehicle of communication, but rather an integral part of a person's personality, mental structures and overall identity.
"This means that learning in a foreign language from an early age affects the process of identity-building as well as one’s mental frame of reference," Al Derais explained.
He believes it is important to ask : Are these schools nurturing society's cultural identity? Although he admits to the difficulty of answering such a question due to a lack of relevant studies, it is precisely this difficulty that makes it all the more necessary to analyze this phenomenon of teaching Saudis in a foreign language.
"It is essential that the Ministry of Education examine this experience and evaluate it every 3-5 years especially from a human product aspect, factoring in variables such as the improvement of the national educational system as they reflect on the viability of international schools and the actual need for them." Al Derais noted. "Still, we have to acknowledge that there is general discontent with the state of education in the Kingdom and that is pushing parents to find viable alternatives. In the past, wealthy Saudis sent their children to boarding schools in Beirut, London and other cities. Nowadays, many prefer to enroll their children in local international schools, keeping the kids at home."
Anecdotal evidence shows that the substandard status of Saudi education along with the dubious belief that instruction in English provides a more profitable future for their children drives many parents to enroll their children in international schools in which English is the language of instruction. English is treated as a first language in these schools. This trend is peculiar given that there are studies that lament the exclusion of a student’s mother tongue from his or her education.
A 2010 study by the University of Leicester showed that the exclusion of the mother tongue from the learning environment hinders students' identity construction, language learning and critical thinking development. Moreover , according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, some children who are English language learners (ELLs) undergo the phenomenon of language loss where their first language capabilities suffer. Experts state that "under ideal conditions, ELLs would be taught in their first language 90% of the time and in English 10% of the time in kindergarten and first grade. Gradually, as they learn more English, students would be taught in their primary language 50% of the time and in English 50% of the time. This should happen by the sixth grade. Studies have shown that children who are taught in this manner outperform ELLs who are taught mostly in English from early on."
In the Human Sciences Research Council Review Vol. 3, Kathleen Heugh, chief research specialist in the Assessment, Technology and Education Evaluation Research Program, demonstrates research results that would " shock governments across the continent." The article states that "studies from Africa range from the earliest internationally significant study of bilingual education which took place in South Africa in the late 1930s, to a Nigerian study in the 1970s, an HSRC study headed by Carol Macdonald in 1990 and more recent studies in Niger, Mali and Ethiopia. When children are tracked over a long period from Grade 4 onwards, significant gaps begin to appear between children who continue mother tongue education (MTE) and those who have switched to a second language medium ... Despite popular wisdom, the longer students have MTE plus well-resourced second language as a subject, the better they will perform in this language, and are more likely to achieve well in mathematics, science and their own home language than those learners in models with an early transition to an international language."
These studies show the need to look closely at the effect of an English medium education on Saudi and Arab students. Some of these effects have been widely discussed in studies in Egypt, Jordon and other Arab countries as well as studies done by non-Arabs. Specifically, there are five effects that deserve our attention.
1. Students would be more exposed to knowledge produced by English-speaking countries, which is not a problem as long as it is not at the expense of exposure to knowledge stemming from their own culture and heritage. But is this balance possible if their English capabilities outweigh their knowledge of Arabic?
2. Mental structures of theses students would be largely alien to Islamic and Arab culture and, in some cases, in opposition.
3. As a result, a sort of disassociation with native culture, heritage, history and society would take place in varying degrees, which would negatively affect social assimilation. This could create a class of citizens that have little in common with the rest, like foreigners amid their own people.
4. Students may not attach importance to Arabic language since they are taught all critical knowledge in English, which implies that Arabic is less effective, less "prestigious" and less capable of conveying important concepts.
5. Students would be less capable of communicating their knowledge to their fellow citizens because they cannot articulate it in their native tongue.
Several teachers at various international schools in Riyadh and Jeddah mirrored these concerns regarding students' Arabic skills. Many of them observed a deterioration in Arabic despite it being taught per mandates from MOE. Huda, an Arabic language teacher in an International school in Jeddah, said: "It is a challenge to teach Arabic in an international school because children are so immersed in English throughout the day in every subject that it becomes almost a first language, and therefore they struggle with learning Arabic. So if the parents are not emphasizing Arabic at home, the child becomes weak in Arabic . With Saudi and other Arab students in these schools, it is a tragedy to find that they cannot read or understand the Qur'an correctly, which has a lot of implications."
According to Huda and several other teachers interviewed, Arabic is being taught per mandates from the Ministry of Education. Guidelines require International schools teach 50% of the Saudi curriculum in the subjects of Arabic, Islam, history and geography. The ratio of Arabic instruction to English instruction remains overwhelmingly in favor of English, raising serious questions about students' proficiency in Arabic and the construction of their personal, social and cultural identity.
The issue, however, goes beyond the role of just language in a Saudi student’s education. A coordinator of KS2 elementary stage at one private school in the Kingdom that teaches the national and the British curriculum said that international curricula are inarguably superior to the Saudi curriculum in terms of teaching methods, scientific content, skill cultivation and comprehensiveness.
— This is the first of a two-part series on the increasing trend of sending Saudi children to private schools utilizing English as the language of instruction.