“Most of the Teaching is in Arabic Anyway”, English as a Medium of Instruction in Saudi Arabia, Between De Facto and Official Language Policy

“Most of the Teaching is in Arabic Anyway”, English as a Medium of Instruction in Saudi Arabia, Between De Facto and Official Language Policy

Ismael Louber (University of Hail, Ha'il, Saudi Arabia) and Salah Troudi (University of Exeter, Exeter, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/IJBIDE.2019070105


There has been much debate about the issue of English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI) and the place of English in the context of international education in general and in the Arabian/Persian Gulf region in particular. This study explores the use of EMI in an undergraduate engineering programme in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Using a qualitative approach to data collection by means of open-ended questionnaires and semi-structured interviews, this study explores the views of Arab expatriate teachers of scientific subjects, Saudi engineering students and preparatory year EFL non-Arab expatriate teachers on the use of EMI in their institution. The study sheds light on a certain gap in terms of actual classroom practices, between EMI as an official language policy and Arabic as de facto medium of instruction. Furthermore, the findings of the study suggest that the implementation of EMI may pose several challenges to both teachers and students.
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Background And Context

Like in all other Gulf countries, universities in Saudi Arabia have adopted EMI for scientific subjects (Barnawi & Al-Hawsawi, 2017) so the use of English is no longer limited to a discrete subject studied at school or university but is gradually taking a greater role within the education system. As a result, curriculum content, assessment and instruction are officially in the medium of English. Nonetheless, although English is widely spoken within the country, it has not reached the status of a second language and remains a foreign language for all Saudi students for whom the first and official language is Arabic and the language of instruction in state schools. It is also important to highlight that Saudi university students are all Arabic speakers, thus forming a rather homogeneous monolingual speech community. At the university where the study was conducted, the medium of instruction is English; however, no official curriculum seems to be in place and each department adopts a syllabus-based approach. Therefore, it has not been possible to put the official curriculum under scrutiny. As far as the teaching faculty are concerned, a wide majority of them are Arab expatriates mainly from Egypt, Jordan, Sudan and the Maghreb. Saudi nationals represent a minority of teachers but occupy all managerial and administrative positions. The university also recruits Western expatriates mainly for teaching the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) preparatory year courses.

EMI is being officially and gradually implemented across the country’s universities and appears to be posing a number of challenges including the recruitment of a qualified, proficient work force; it is also a source of concern in terms of students’ academic achievements and cultural identity. It is worth adding that EMI is, as described by Macaro (2015, p. 4), “a growing global phenomenon taking place primarily in tertiary education. It is also already being established as a potential engine of change in the secondary sector and it is not escaping the attention of those concerned with the primary section.” This description already applies to the situation in some Gulf countries where the secondary and primary private sectors are increasingly shifting to EMI. There has also been a recent shift to EMI in the public sector at primary and secondary levels in the UAE (Sanassian, 2011). A recent British Council survey of fifty-five countries confirmed this global phenomenon, with some countries such as Uzbekistan shifting to EMI (Dearden, 2014). Saudi Arabia is therefore following a global and, seemingly, irresistible and unavoidable educational trend.

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