Why Is English Level So Low In The Arab World?


Why Is English Level So Low In The Arab World?

Fri, 15 Feb 2019 14:36:23 +0000Géralde Vincent-BancroftBy consensus, English is considered the “lingua franca” and 1 billion people worldwide study it. In 2017 it was reported in the English proficiency index that of the 80 countries indexed, the level was “very low” or “very weak” in every Arab country. The report also pointed out that…

By consensus, English is considered the “lingua franca” and 1 billion people worldwide study it. In 2017 it was reported in the English proficiency index that of the 80 countries indexed, the level was “very low” or “very weak” in every Arab country. The report also pointed out that “average English proficiency across the region remains too weak for academic or professional use. This puts the Arab countries in disadvantage. It is well known that English is mostly the language used in international trade and it’s the language required for global transactions.

This concern has been risen and has caused various studies trying to identify the challenges that EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teachers and learners face in the Arab world countries.

These studies highlighted various hurdles:

  • Lack of preparation of teachers,
  • Inadequate teaching methodology.
  • Absence of motivation in the learners
  • Compartmentalisation of language
  • Lack of emphasis on developing skills
  • Minimal exposure to English
  • Inadequate textbooks and teaching materials

Lack of preparation

Although many of the teachers have a BA degree (in English literature, translations, education) many of them didn’t take any course in teaching English as a foreign language.

Inadequate teaching methodology

Most of the class is taking place in Arabic and the students have very little opportunity to practice during the class which is totally teacher-centred.

Slow learners and fast learners are ignored leading to them getting easily bored and thus they lose motivation and there’s almost no participation from them.

Absence of motivation

Boredom leads to lack of motivation and this is reinforced by the strict environment deprived of creativity.

Compartmentalisation of language

Teachers think that English can be taught as several disconnected skills that are learned separately. For example, grammar is taught independently of reading and writing and a holistic approach aiming to a communicative competence in learners is totally ignored.

Lack of emphasis on developing skills.

The emphasis is given in memorisation and thus students do well in exams, but they fail when they must use their creativity and critical thinking. They translate too much from their mother tongue to English and their writings lack sense.

Exposure to English

Exposure to English is minimal. Arabic is frequently used in classes; the students barely talk in class. The class size is usually large which make students participation more difficult.

Textbooks and teaching materials

They conclude that the teaching material is not culturally appropriate, and this alienate the students and as such they develop negative attitudes towards learning a foreign language. It appears there is a cultural clash, and the next question is how could this be avoided when teaching English in the Arab world?

We can’t deny that there is a strong link between language and culture. And learning about the place where a language is spoken whilst studying it is also part of the language acquisition. The Arab world has strong connections with the west and English is the international language, as there is a need for communication and dialogue. Isolation is no more an option. On the other hand, English teaching might be perceived as a threat to student’s cultural identity in various parts of the Arab world, so the question is how can this be avoided?

There are different view points to answer this.

Some think that target language culture should be taught alongside English. According to them if you do not learn about the culture you might be able to speak, but you won’t understand the language’s social and philosophical content. “Learning a language entails also learning about the culture….

Language is the symbolic representation of people because it entails cultural and historical background as well as an approach to ways of living and thinking.” For FL learners, language would be senseless if they know nothing about the people who speak the target language. (Pulverness, 2003)

Some other scholars suggest the avoidance of teaching the culture inside the FL classrooms. They support that English has become a lingua franca and should be taught in a culture-free context (Alptekin,2005; Jenkins 2005). Learning about things totally alien to their culture may have a negative effect on students and force them to reject the target language. Using cultural familiar content while teaching English could reduce overburdening EFL students according to Wei, 2005.

The last approach is the Interpretive approach in teaching culture.

This supports a cross-cultural understanding involving comparisons and contrasts with the learner’s native culture and the culture of the language they are studying (Valdes, 1986). Learners and teachers should be familiar with the intonation pattern, gestures, body movements, grammatical structures and taboo topics to analyse their culture and the target culture according to such criteria (Dubin and Lezberg, 1986). This can lead the learner to think about both cultures.

Students should be able to decipher the codes belonging to each culture, analyse and compare them so that they can be more appreciative of both. This approach encourages individual interpretation instead of rigid stereotypes.

The result would be that the learner would be able to use English to effectively communicate in a way that reflects their own local culture and beliefs (Sullivan & Kramsch, 1996).

This approach appears to be more acceptable in my eyes because the culture of the target country is not totally ignored, and the students are able to have a more holistic view of the English language without resorting to the use of stereotypes.


English is a global language. The Arab countries are aware that it is required for communications with the West at all levels: economy, sciences, technologies, political, sports etc… though the level is very weak.

The main reasons are the lack of preparation of teachers and the use of traditional methods that are not favouring a holistic view of the language for communication.

Another reason pointed out is the culture shock the Arab students must endure when learning English.

It has been proposed to teach EFL avoiding cultural references of the target country, but this would take the learning process out of contest.

The best solution seems to me the interpretive approach where both cultures are taken into consideration. The Arab authorities should step up if they want their nations to compete globally.

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