This is with reference to the article “Winds of change: English teaching in Saudi Arabia” by Ozma Siddiqui (May 9). The writer states correctly that, “rote learning is still the preferred mode of study in subjects across the schools’ and university curricula.” It should not, therefore, be a surprise that the World Bank considers that the Saudi educational system is deficient in “imparting higher-order cognitive skills such as flexibility, problem-solving and judgment.” I have observed this initial lack of mental ability throughout the twenty-seven years I have been teaching English here, both in the oil industry and in the field of aviation. Saudi school pupils “study” or “learn” English purely for the purpose of passing examinations. At no time is it impressed upon them that English is a valid means of communication in the world today.
Saudi Aramco is a multi-national business and its operational language is English, and a great deal of time and money are spent on training their people to speak it. The same goes for international aviation: Pilots and air traffic controllers must have a proven level of English proficiency in order to keep their jobs. Saudi Airlines and the General Authority of Civil Aviation do their best to ensure that this is maintained, but only practice can ensure that their employees keep up their level of proficiency.
The French have been traditionally anti-English because we fought them for almost 1,000 years and beat them more often than not. Henry II, king of England in the 12th Century, actually ruled more of France than the French king at the time. It is only recently that smart young French people have realized that, if they do not wish to be taxed into poverty in France, there are job opportunities across the English Channel — if they have the language ability to function in an English speaking environment.
The writer is quite correct in stating “language in its essence cannot be taught in isolation from its culture.” Learning about another culture is not, in essence, anti-Islamic; it means acquiring knowledge, which cannot be a bad thing. I would not like to think of the time I have spent teaching world history and geography to my English language classes, but it was necessary to put textbook information into a perspective that my students could understand — giving them hooks to hang on, dealing with the “flaws and inconsistencies” that exist in the educational system here.
In many ways, I believe that one should stop thinking of English as a foreign language in the Gulf region; rather, it has become for many people a second language, especially for the students returning from the King Abdullah Scholarship Program in English-speaking countries.
Nobody in their right mind would suggest that English is a substitute for Arabic, but most of the Saudi university students I have met have very clear ideas of their Arab and Islamic identity. They do not need “protection” from the English language. — Richard Stone, By e-mail