Published — Monday 1 April 2013
Last update 1 April 2013 5:08 am
Most Saudi students today study English for six or more years, from middle school right up until the end of high school. Why, then, are there constant reports that their English speech and comprehension is below par?
And what can we do to improve matters, short of offering them the opportunity to live in an English speaking country for a time? That is still the best way to become fluent foreign language — particularly if it happens early in life, before age 13. But even as teenagers and adults, there are elements that can optimize our learning a foreign language, and with some resources and planning, they can happen anywhere. The problem is that they don’t seem, currently, to be happening here.
The concept of immersion is common in second language teaching. When someone is immersed in a new language, he or she is forced to speak and function in it. That’s probably the main reason why living somewhere that the new language is spoken is the gold standard of foreign language learning. At the other end of the spectrum is a situation where language learning happens in a limited and predictable way.
Students merely memorize what they need to know for tests and assignments. Unfortunately, that pretty much sums up English language learning as Saudi students experience it. When learning is by rote — that is, dependent on memorizing a limited number or arrangement of words and phrases — it’s possible for students to get good grades in that language subject without really having to exercise creativity or ingenuity in their use of it. Then, when they encounter a situation where fluency is required – for example, a natural conversation with an English speaking person — they are poorly prepared. They’ve never been immersed in the language.
Full language immersion may be impossible within the existing educational system, but even small tastes of it can go a long way to building fluency. Why don’t more teachers have an “English-only” rule inside the English classroom? Or why not a social club where all conversation has to take place in English? Both of these situations do a very important thing- they turn the language into a living thing rather than a dead artifact. When language is living, we tend to worry less about using perfectly memorized structures and more about functional communication. And those students will have a big head start if they are lucky enough to travel or study abroad, or participate in an exchange program, in an English speaking country.
Of course, to truly build fluency through learning advanced vocabulary and correct use of grammatical structures, we must have teachers that are able to do more than teach by rote from a textbook. In general, with a few exceptions, this means teachers who are either native speakers of English or who have studied extensively in an English-speaking country. We know this is not currently, generally speaking, the case. Many of our English teachers simply are not equipped to give students what they truly need to support their learning.
Learning a second language isn’t like learning other subjects, because language is a living, interactive thing. Languages can’t be learned purely through memorization. They have to be used — so we have to come up with situations in which students use the new language in a naturalistic way, with plenty of knowledgeable support. For better or for worse, English is a global language, and to be taken seriously as members of the global community, we must become better able to produce proficient English speakers.