Teaching Words to Adult Students in Saudi Arabia


Teaching a new language to a learner is a challenge. This is especially true in Saudi Arabia. The environment is a challenge because Saudi Arabia has a different writing style. It becomes a challenge when teaching the English alphabet and practicing the language. In Saudi Arabia, there is gender segregation in both public and private schools. Pictures of the opposite gender should not appear in the textbooks of the learners. This is not acceptable in Saudi culture.

Yet textbooks have pictures of both genders. Therefore they need to be revised. Furthermore, the new language has different rules that the learner has to learn immediately. When teaching a second language the cultures of both the learner and the teacher must be understood. This is because the teaching of a foreign language is more than teaching learners how to communicate with native speakers. This is because the language and culture are the same.

Language is used to transmit culture from one generation to another. On the other hand, as learners are exposed to an alien culture a lot of emphases should not be put on the differences because this would result in the opinion that there are a lot of differences between cultures of the learner and the teacher that cannot be bridged (Dobson 20011:1). On the contrary, if the cultural differences are ignored it would lead to insensible universalism with globalization where people would be without empathy for their fellow human beings. A balance should be struck in teaching cultural differences because it is a sensitive exercise.

When teaching a foreign language it is important to pass the correct cultural information because cultural information contributes to the image forming about other cultures which in turn reinforces our view of a world that is subdivided into different regions.

This is because it would be impossible to teach a foreign language without understanding the culture of the community. This is further reinforced by the notion that learning linguistic forms is not sufficient for one to attain fluency in communication (Dobson 2001: 63). This means that the learners should know the culture of the community they would like to learn a language from. However, most scholars of second language acquisition agree with this point. Culture includes many aspects that and therefore it is not easy to determine which areas should be adopted.

Teaching Saudi Arabian students a foreign language is particularly challenging. This is a result of some failing to understand the cultural values associated with speech acts. Some end up having a negative experience when they communicate with native speakers. The foreign language teacher should enable the Arab students to realize that people from different backgrounds react differently to similar realities experienced in everyday living. The learners have very little exposure to the cultural practices of the native speakers and this may make them have premature judgments concerning the speakers of the native language (Kharrat).

This is because most of them have been brought up believing that their culture is right and they can only accept other people’s cultural practices if they reflect what they believe in their cultural community. Each community in the world has a set of values that are taught to its members. This explains why the Arab learners react with intolerances towards values that are different from their own (Shanahan 1997).

According to Kramsch (1993), different languages have different connotations of certain expressions that are different from the denotative meanings. For example, the phrase “lovely weather, isn’t it? In the English culture may be a form of greeting or an ice breaker when one wants to start a conversation with a stranger. On the other hand to an Arab, the phrase just carries its literal meaning.

Therefore when teaching a foreign language it is important to teach about the culture of the foreign language as failure to do so would only mean that we would only teach words, and the learners may end up attaching wrong meanings to them. If the learners are not taught the cultural implications associated with certain words or statements they will give their cultural meaning to those words or phrases which will result in miscommunication (Kharrat). The teacher should strive to equip the learners of a foreign language with sociolinguistic competence so that the learners can understand why others behave the way they do.

This will lead to the foreign learners respecting the cultural practices of the other people. More importantly, the teacher should never assume that what is done in his or her culture should be done the same in every other culture. Instead, he or she should give a chance to the foreign learners to say how their cultures do the same thing. This will lead the learners to come up with a way of communicating to people from a different group well because their ability in the pragmatic analysis will have been awakened (Kharrat).

Integrating new words in a different culture

When people from different cultures interact they have good intentions only. However, things may go wrong because they are from different cultures especially when they are not aware that they operate on different rules on certain topics thus may end up seeing the other person as unfriendly (Savignon 2002: 180-235).

Adults are said to have more difficulties acquiring a second language due to cognitive differences that take place as they grow up. This would explain why it is easier for children to acquire a new language. The adults face a lot of roadblocks e.g. anxiety, motivation, and even self-confidence. Krashen says that the above variables may reinforce or hinder a second language acquisition as they may have a role to play between the linguistic input and the environment of learning for the student (30-32).

For adults to acquire the language well they need to be relaxed and self-motivated. However, this is not always the case as many learners of English often feel discouraged and even embarrassed in the learning setting.

According to research done by Alexander Guiora that focused on personality; he argues that for anyone to acquire a second language they need to have a new identity. Identity is acquired within the family setting when one interacts with family members where the language plays a major role in forming relationships that form the self. Hence it becomes very difficult to change ones identity to fit in a new language. When trying to acquire anew language one faces difficulties in communication and thus their confidence is eroded away. This calls for the learner to have a high self esteem to face their areas of weakness in the second language (Savignon 2002: 118-126).

The teacher has to be aware that the learners experience culture shock which makes it further difficult for them to acquire the new language. The learners should be introduced to new words gradually and should not be judged when they fail to use them correctly. This is especially true for those Arab learners who have been socialized not to ask questions to their elders. This means they will be passive students in class who will not ask a question even when they do not understand. The teacher should encourage them to speak up as this will increase their willingness to learn by motivating them.

The adult learners may have negative attitude towards the new language. Some may view the English language as being inferior to their native language like in the case of Arab learners who value Arabic. Others may view English s the language of the rich and the powerful because it is an international language. These attitudes may inhibit the acquisition of the new language. The teacher should therefore include the language of the learners in the learning process of English. This will ensure that the learners feel that native language is important as well because the teacher recognizes it as such (34).

When introducing new words to learners it is important that the teacher is sensitive to the learners’ culture. For example in the Saudi Arabian culture there are two types of language. There is the written and the spoken language. The written language is the language of the Quran which is considered holy. This means that when one wants to write about taboo words e.g. sexual topics one has to use the spoken language which is tolerant to the outside world.

The Arabic system of forming words is different from the English system. For instance the Arabic words are made from three letters that form the roots of words. For example k-t-b means writing and when other letters are added to other words which have associated meanings are formed such as writer, book author etc (Arabic Language).Thus when the teacher of English introduces words in English he or she should explain how words are formed in English. This is because words in English can be derived from a root word e.g. or they can be formed from other word classes e.g. from the noun acid an adjective can derived by adding a suffix for example acid (noun)+ ity(suffix)= acidity(adjective).

The learners should be aware that the word order in English sentences is different from the word order in Arabic. In English the normal order of words is subject –verb-object (SVO) while in Arabic the order is verb- subject- object (VSO). This will help the learners from speaking the English language in the same order they do in their mother tongue as this will only result in errors (Arabic Language).

In English words form words by adding -es or -s to regular nouns e.g. book – books while in Arabic the suffix aat is added to feminine nouns and the masculine nouns form their nouns by changing vowels in the medial position of words e.g. kitaab( book) kutub (books) (Arabic Language).

Due to the differences in the language system of the two languages the position of the non-native speaker should not be ignored. They should not be left at the mercy of native speakers to determine whether the language they speak is intelligible or not (Jenkins 2000: 72). Intelligibility is defined as a number of factors that include identifying an expression and knowing what it means in its socio-cultural context. This means that both the native speaker and the learner determine how a speech act is interpreted.


In Saudi Arabia there are words or topics that are offensive. The government and the ministry of Education have censored their usage. For example the words boyfriend and girlfriend should not be taught at all. To the Saudis the words have a different meaning from the western culture meaning. The word girlfriend to them means a girl who is in a romantic relationship with a boy and boyfriend means a boy in a romantic relationship with a girl.

This posses a problem when taught in schools as the boys and girls are not allowed to date. On the contrary these words area acceptable in the western culture and will be found in the school textbooks. In the Saudi Arabian culture these words must be removed from the textbooks (Traynham 20006:1). This means that the teacher should know how to teach these words. They can alter them all together or find their equivalents that are not offensive.

Words like mother-in-law and father-in-law are acceptable and they can be taught to Saudi students. These words show respect for the elders and are used to refer to relatives. On the other hand in Saudi Arabia one cannot call father or mother to any person except to parents by birth. This is different from other cultures where adopted children or step children call their adopted parents mother and father.

Teaching words like alcohol and pub should be taught with warnings. This is because drinking alcohol in public is prohibited in Saudi Arabia. People found drinking alcohol in public places are punished severely by the government. It is important that the teacher is sensitive and explain their usage in other cultures. For instance the word pub means a small hotel or inn to people in Canada and the United States. This will help the students to be open minded and thus they will not always take all the words they are taught in the same meaning they have in their culture to avoid misinterpretations and thus conflicts in class Cohen (2008:425)

When introducing words that are unacceptable in the Saudi Arabian culture, the teacher should explain the meaning to the learners. These meanings will depend on the culture in which it is used as it would not be possible to separate culture and language. The teachers should teach vocabulary that is acceptable in the Arabian culture to avoid conflicts. For example some words are forbidden in the Arabian culture for example words that have sexual connotations or that refer sexual body parts. The restricted words have different meanings in the western culture that makes it alright for the westerners to use them freely.

It is important for the teachers of English as a foreign language understand the religious values of the learners. The Saudis are deeply religious and God is part and parcel of their speech acts. They believe that everything happens according to the will of God. Thus they say “insha’allah” meaning God willing. This creates confusion when the Arabic learner says “insha’allah” after being given an assignment. To the teacher the statement means “may be” or “someday”. Thus the teacher does not understand hoe the learner can say may be they will do the assignment because the assignment must be done as this shows discipline and commitment to learn (Kharrat).

The Arab culture vs. Western culture

Most Saudi Arabians are Muslims. Those who are conservatives do not eat pork or indulge in alcohol. They pray five times a day and observes fating during the holy month of Ramadan. The women are required to wear long dresses and cover their heads. This is done for decency sake (The Middle Eastern community). A majority are the members of the Christian faith and they are free to practice their faith how they see wish. This is because religion is a personal issue.

When it comes to health matters others will wear amulets that protect one against evil while others burn incense which they believe takes away evil for the sick. They also pray for the sick. They readily go to hospital and trust doctors more than nurses. Once they are well they do not continue with medication and would not even go for any appointments with the doctors. For the westerners they believe in the seeking medical help when they are sick.

Elders are highly respected and they are consulted for advice by the rest of the family. Paternalism is prevalent in the Arab culture. It is men who give the final words. They can only take an order from a woman in the family because it would be a shame to do so in the public. In the western culture women have the same rights as men. Men do not dominate the women as much as they do in the Arab cultures though we have a bit of male dominance due to hegemonic masculinity that runs across all humanity (Clausen 2006).

In social interaction gender segregation is observed men and women usually do not interact outside their domestic confines. For example, if the shopkeeper is a male and a female customer comes the interaction should be formal and only related to buying and selling. In addition they are restricted from referring to members of the opposite sex.however they can inquire about the welfare of each others families and strict formality is observed.

When a guest arrives they should be greeted by a hand shake and if they are familiar with three kisses on the cheeks and the one being greeted is expected to be standing. It is obligatory to offer refreshments to the guest and an invitation for another meal should be offered. Long greetings follow where each individual inquires about the health of the other and wishes them God’s protection.

When one fails to offer refreshments it is taken as a sign of rudeness. In public places like airports, banks etc there is gender segregation where men and women queue in different lines. On the other hand in western cultures social interaction is not restricted. Women and men interact freely. It is no surprise to see men and women holding hands in public, queuing together in public places. When a guest calls in especially uninvited refreshments are not a must.

They take the shortest time in greetings and not go to the trouble of asking about each others health. They keep a distance physically especially when speaking to strangers. Members of the opposite sex can visit one another as much as they like (The Middle Eastern Community).

People come into close physical contact as they interact. Holding hands of the people of the same gender is common. Staring at strangers is wrong and passers-by are not given direct eye contacts. The person who arrives first will greet the other “peace be upon you” and the respondents replies “and upon you peace” in Arabic. Biding goodbye in Arabic one says “in the custody of God” and replied as “In the custody of the Generous One”.

People interact in same gender groups. Social interactions inn this groups is allowed and they visit each other on courtesy call or on special events.

In the Arab culture people are required to remove their shoes when in the houses and in mosques. On the contrary the western culture does not require them to remove shoes and are free to remove them if they wish in their houses.

When it comes to marriage in the Arab culture marriage spouses were chosen for the young men and women and they only met on the wedding night. Lately the situation is changing and more young Arabians are given an opportunity to choose their marriage partners though their parents still have a big say in the matter. For the western culture the members are free to choose their marriage partners and only inform their parents of their choice. The parents do not make any decision concerning marriage for their children apart from giving them support.

There are some similarities between the Arab culture and the western culture. They both value wealth and people work hard to acquire wealth. The youths in both cultures are more open-minded and tolerant of each other culture than their parents. This is because with globalization they have been able make friendships through the social networks available on the internet. This has helped to some extent to breakdown the stereotypes that the two cultures have had for so long about each. However more needs to be done to bring understanding between the Arab cultures and the western cultures.

Factors that unite culture and the Preservation of Arabian culture

Language is one factor that unites culture. When people speak the same language they are able to share values and beliefs. They understand each other and thus values are passed from generation to the next. In addition songs, poems cam also unite cultures. When people share the same songs or poems they feel as one because they have something that they share in common.

Recreating past elements to create national heritage by the state and the people e.g. preservation of old buildings like houses and mosques, camel races, museums have been set up. The hotels use rugs that have patterns similar to the traditional Bedouin households. Old practices like reciting poems in wedding ceremonies are being observed nowadays.

Many Saudi Arabians are conservative. They do not readily accept anything foreign. Most of them do not read foreign newspapers or listen to international media. The use of the internet is censored. This restricts the Arabs from coming into contact with foreign culture.

This ensures that their culture remains untainted and thus pure. Again English is not seen as a threat to national identity of the Arabians and their unity i.e. the Arab world. They do not see it as a threat to their cultural heritage because they still see Arabic as a superior language as it is their religious language and thus a sacred language because it is the language of the Quran. They also consider Arabic as a more rich language linguistically thus more expressive and beautiful than English (Fishman, Conrad & Lopez 1996:477). These practices are going a long in preserving their culture.


Learning a second language is a journey. The knowledge of a learner of any second language is never the same as that of the native speakers. This is because they have another language i.e. their first language. This means that their thinking is different from that of the native speakers who are monolinguals. It would be a tall order to try to get learners of a second language to speak like native speakers. They will always have a different knowledge of the language from the native speakers.

The objective or the parameters of successfully acquisition of the second language should not be compared with the native speakers. This would be a great misconception that leads to second language learners being judged unfairly as having never acquired the language successfully.

The learners of the second language should learn the language to fit their purposes according to their ability and should not strive to be like native speakers because they may not even have the same use for the language. They should know that they can be successful in their acquisition of the language if they stop comparing or trying to match the native speakers.

The learners of a second language should expose themselves to the culture of the target language community. This will make learning of the foreign language easier. In case of the English language the culture can be learnt easily because it is available through the television programmes that are broadcast in many parts of the world. Again through the internet on can access information about the culture of a particular people even if they are not able to access the community directly to learn first hand the culture.

They should use the internet because it is a great tool for leaning in this era of information technology and globalization. On the other hand the teachers can utilize the internet to learn about the culture of the learners so as to make their teaching a lot easier. The internet has resources such as newspapers, journals, periodicals, Television and radio channels that broadcast online, chat rooms etc that have a lot of information.

Teachers of adult learners should be very sensitive when teaching these students. According to studies most adult learners experience anxiety, they suffer from issues of self confidence. The learners may be under pressure to acquire the new language so as to pursue a graduate course or as a requirement to graduate. The teachers ought to realize that it is not easy to get a new language in a class setting because language is best acquired in the natural environment. The adult learners need be handled with care so as not to erode their self confidence and derail their acquisition of the new language,


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