Difficulties Saudi Students Face In English Language English Language Essay

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In educational settings the language is both the medium and content of instruction. Academic success is dependent on proficiency of spoken and written forms of the language used for instruction' (Shatz and Wilkinson 2010: 55).


Next to the United States, the United Kingdom receives the biggest number of international students in the world. In 2009, 13 percent of the total undergraduate population enrolled in the UK were international students (UK Council for International Student Affairs 2009). More specifically, college entrants from Saudi Arabia increased rapidly by 42.2 percent from 3,535 in 2008 to 5,205 in 2009 (Times Higher Education 2010). This dramatic rise of the Arabic international student cohort in the UK requires immediate attention especially in relation to the academic adjustments these students make in the school environment. One of the most significant adjustments for Arabic international students is learning the English language, a phenomenon driven by the demands of globalisation and the now widespread use of English as a second language in the educational curriculum even in Arab countries (Tahaineh 2010). While the process of English language learning among Arab students within their home countries has gained much academic attention (Khatib, 2000; Tahaineh, 2010; Ghaith and Diab 2008), not enough research focus has been made on the experiences of Arabic international students in the UK. What is known today is too scant to be applied practically in policymaking or in educational practice. This dissertation explores two main points, firstly, it highlights how little we know about the difficulties that Arabic international students face in learning the English language and secondly, it calls for the need to undertake more robust empirical work on the growing Arabic international student cohort in the UK. This mixed methods research will be a valuable contribution to UK educators in helping Arabic students learn effectively at the same time achieving institutional goals as well as meeting the educational expectations and needs of Arabic students in the UK.

Research question

This dissertation aims to answer the central question, What difficulties do Arabic students in the UK face when learning the English language? There are two sub-questions proposed which will guide the outcomes of this research.

What issues do Arabic students face in English language learning?

The literature review suggests that the difficulties Arabic international students may face when learning the English language are multi-faceted. It may involve basic structural differences between Arabic and English (Shabbir & Bughio 2003), cultural issues (Elyas and Picard 2010), motivation and self-esteem (Al-Tamimi & Shuib 2009), and social issues (Shammas 2009).

What strategies do they use to overcome the barriers identified?

After discovering the issues that Arabic international students face in English language learning, it is important to uncover the strategies that they employ in order to cope with the difficulties faced.

Rationale and context

The context of this proposed dissertation is of a general and personal nature. ESL literacy has always been an ongoing academic interest of the researcher. While in the past, learning the English language was viewed as a betrayal of the mother tongue for most Arabic students, the demands of free market globalisation has prompted a renewed vigour among Arab universities and Arabic students to become proficient in the English language.

On a personal level, I have always been concerned with the skills of Arabic international students in reading and writing. Studying the English literacy experiences of these students will contribute to an increase in our understanding as to what strategies could help Arabic students obtain English proficiency and attain their educational goals. At the same time, it will also address the gap in literature which can inform the policymaking and institutional practice of UK universities in meeting the needs and expectations of Arabic international English learners. By describing the experiences of Saudi students in L2 literacy experience, we can begin to draft useful conclusions, implications, and recommendations to contribute to second language acquisition and proficiency in general and ESL literacy in particular.

Literature review

A preliminary literature review reveals significant themes related to the difficulties that Saudi international students experience in learning the English language.

1. Basic structural differences of Arabic and English

The most common difficulty experienced in English language learning and proficiency among Arab students lies in the basic structural differences between the mother tongue and the second language. For instance, Arabic writing does not use capitalisation and uses different rules in punctuation from English (Shabbir & Bughio 2003). Spelling is also a problem since in Arabic, there is only one letter per sound so the spelling part is much more challenging in English. A study revealed that students struggle with spelling silent alphabets located in the middle of English words such as 'half' or 'knowledge'. Pronunciation of English words is also problematic since Arab speakers often use Arabic phonetics to pronounce words (Salebi 2004). As a result, words like 'stupid' are pronounced 'istobbid' while 'pregnant' is pronounced 'brignent' (Shabbir & Bughio 2003). The use of commas and conjunctions is also another difficulty for Arabic students because the usage is different in Arabic and English contexts (Rabab'ah 2002). The same is true on the use of English prepositions; due to the varied nature and usage of prepositions in English, many Arabic students opt to translate each Arabic preposition in English (Shabbir & Buhgio 2003). Kambal (1980) documented major syntactic errors in the compositions of Arab students in the Sudanese University particular in verb formation, subject-verb agreement, and use of tenses.

2. Motivation in learning EFL

Motivation has been an established predictor of success EFL outcomes (Al-Tamimi & Shuib 2006). Consequently, a learner's attitude towards the second language affects his or her outcomes in English language learning. Gardner and Lambert (1972:3) explained that a learner's motivation to learn is reflected in the latter's attitudes towards English speakers as well as towards the English language itself. In fact, empirical research has pointed to a learner's general attitude towards knowledge as an influential variable in second language acquisition and proficiency (Arkoudis 2003). Moreover, self-esteem has been shown to be a significant predictor in writing achievement among Arabic secondary students (Al-Hattab 2006). Beliefs on the English language are mediated by culture and social characteristics (Ely 1986). This means that not all people hold uniform epistemological beliefs about L2 language acquisition and that our appreciation of the knowledge process is dependent upon our different contexts. Some argue however that while motivation and attitudes towards the L2 language is important, it is not a sufficient condition in language proficiency (Ely 1986). In a survey of Arabic students in Australia, general attitudes towards the English language were positive; most believed that English symbolised technological advancement and modernity (Suleiman 1983). In another study, it was found that positive attitudes toward English language learning were related to EFL outcomes (Ghaith and Diab 2008).

3. Cultural issues

Culture plays an important role in the English language learning process, especially in relation to language instruction (Elyas and Picard 2010). In Saudi Arabia, classroom instruction is delivered in a different manner from Western schools. The classroom is a place where the teacher is an established head and the student's role is defined in terms of 'quietness of loving to listen' (Jamjoom 2009, as cited Elyas and Picard 2010). Teacher-student relationships in the Saudi context are feudal; teachers and instructors occupy a high tier in the classroom and so-called 'student-centred' pedagogy is not a common practice (Gallagher 1989). The implication of this is that most Saudi students are not accustomed to interactive teaching processes, one that cultivates proficiency in the English language. Arabic students only learn English from formal instruction and the classroom itself does not provide a venue wherein they could practice their English communication skills (Rabab'ah 2002). This classroom acculturation creates potential problems in the context of English language learning in a UK university where classroom interaction is a popular teaching model. Most Arabic students become unsociable in class, do not recite as often as needed, and speak English only when directed formally (Ghaith and Diab 2008). Moreover, teacher attitudes and behaviours towards Saudi students may also count against EFL. Cross-cultural differences have been shown to affect classroom sociability of Arabic students (Rabab'ah 2002).

4. Social issues

Alienation in the university setting has been found to influence the academic outcomes of Arabic international students in the USA (Shammas 2009) particularly after the 9/11 terror attacks. The same alienation was reported by Arabic students when the school climate became hostile in some universities within the UK (Rich and Troudi 2006). The level of integration that Arabic international students experience in their universities is helpful in enhancing motivation to learn the English language (Shammas 2009). Feelings of isolation due to the loss of social capital increases sociability among Arabic international students and may result to loss of self-esteem and motivation. Those who are able to renew their social capital by connecting with new friends - Arabic or not - have a greater chance of being successful in being proficient in the English language.

Research approach

Empirical work examining the processes of second language acquisition and the effectiveness of strategies focused on learning English as a second language has utilised both quantitative and qualitative research approaches (Ghaith and Diab 2008; Al-Hattab 2006; Rabab-ah 2002). This study proposes a mixed methods approach integrating both qualitative and quantitative elements to more adequately explore the English language learning process among Arabic international students in the UK. Considered a bridge between the quantitative and qualitative realms of research, mixed methods research draws upon the strengths of both paradigms to generate a more complete and thorough investigation of a topic or phenomenon (Johnson and Onwuegbuzie 2004). To this end, mixed methods research supposes that the two research paradigms can be reconciled, maximising the strengths of both while minimising their weaknesses at the same time (Tashakkori and Teddlie 2003).

In deciding what research approach best suits the purposes of this study, I considered two ontological positions - constructivist and positivist - on the topic. Firstly, I consider that Arabic students are differently situated and construct their realities from their own experiences and values. In this regard, there is no one version of reality that could be gleaned (Denzin and Lincoln 1994) on how Arabic international students experience English language learning. Secondly, however, I believe that it is possible to establish what a causal relationship (Creswell 2003) or the particular factors predict English language proficiency among Arabic students in general. In other words, we can determine what specific difficulties can influence English language proficiency among Arabic students. From a pragmatic point of view, both ontological positions are useful in this investigation, hence, a mixed methods paradigm. Why use a stand-alone paradigm when you can use two paradigms and in the process, capture the phenomenon being studied more fully?

Mixed methods research is 'a methodology… philosophical framework, method, and techniques of data collection and analysis' which combines both quantitative and qualitative processes throughout the entire research cycle (Creswell and Plano Clark 2007:5). The benefits of conducting mixed methods research are three-fold: 1) it allows a holistic investigation of a phenomenon; 2) it enables a macro- and micro- investigation of the phenomenon; and 3) it has validating capacity of quantitative with qualitative methods and vice versa (Onwuegbuzie and Leech 2004). This study proposes a research approach consisting of two phases. The first phase is the quantitative phase; the goal is to determine what specific issues Arabic students face in learning the English language and how these variables are related to each other. The second phase builds on the results of the quantitative phase and explains the outcomes more fully. The quantitative phase will utilise a web-based survey questionnaire to be followed by face-to-face interviews for the qualitative phase. The idea of this research technique is that by integrating both numerical data (survey questionnaire) and textual data (interviews), the difficulties Arabic international students phase in English language learning can be captured more completely and comprehensively.

Research Design

There are several variations in design to a mixed methods study. Three issues are considered in the selection of the specific mixed methods design for this particular research: priority, implementation, and integration (Creswell and Plano Clark 2007). Priority specifies which method is emphasised; implementation identifies whether data collection and analysis is done sequentially (different stages) or concurrently (parallel stages); and integration defines the connectedness between the results of the two phases. This study uses the sequential explanatory design to investigate the experiences of Arabic international students in English language learning.

Sequential explanatory design

A sequential explanatory design is chosen. The data collection and analysis will consist of two phases (Creswell, 2003; Onwuegbuzie and Teddlie 2003). The first phase will use a web-based survey questionnaire to be answered by a manageable random sample of Arabic international students enrolled in one UK university. Data collected will be analyzed through descriptive statistics and chi-square. The second phase of the study will proceed after the completion of the first phase. It will build on the findings of the first phase and use individual semi-structured interviews of five Arabic international students. The goal of the second phase is provide a more in-depth explanation of the difficulties experienced by Arabic students and the strategies they use to overcome these difficulties. Through the integration of data from both the quantitative and qualitative phase, the results will be refined and the phenomenon explored in a more holistic manner. More specifically, this explanatory mixed methods research uses the follow-up explanations variant in an attempt to understand more fully the process in which Arabic students learn English in foreign universities. The follow-up explanations model is selected because the qualitative phase means 'to explain and expand on quantitative results' (Creswell 2003: 43). The priority phase of this study is the qualitative phase because of its capability to provide a more complete picture of the phenomenon being considered.

Using a pragmatic ontological position which values positivist and interpretivist assumptions, the study uses two general instruments and triangulation methods to establish validity and reliability of research findings.

Phase 1: Quantitative (Survey questionnaires)

A self-constructed online survey questionnaire will be used to gather data on the difficulties experienced by Arabic students in English language learning. Items in the questionnaire will be drawn from the literature review and will measure difficulties in five aspects: 1) structural adjustments from Arabic to English (spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc.), 2) motivation, 3) cultural issues, and 4) social issues. After the selection of participants, a URL will be sent via email to participants advising them to read the consent form and to indicate their compliance. The survey will also be available on Facebook and other social networking sites. After gathering data, results will be analyzed using appropriate descriptive and inferential statistics.

Phase 2: Qualitative (Face-to-face interviews)

After the first phase of data collection and data analysis, in-depth interviews will be scheduled with six Arabic international students in order to gather information that will further explain the results of the survey questionnaire. A semi-structured interview guide will be developed in order to allow the participants to discuss their answers in a more flexible manner. The semi-structured nature of the interview guide will also allow the researcher to clarify or ask follow-up questions that can further refine the data. Interviews will be audiotaped with the participant's consent and transcribed immediately afterwards. Qualitative analysis will be used to gather recurring themes from the interview data.

Validity and Reliability

To establish the validity and reliability of the outcomes of this study, content validity and triangulation through multiple sources will be used. To establish content validity, the survey instrument will be evaluated by a panel of specialists. Multiple sources such as documents and academic papers will also be requested from interviewees. Member checking will be done to verify the accuracy of the transcribed interviews.

Ethical Issues

The following ethical considerations are identified.

Institutional requirements will be met before data collection.

Permission to conduct the study will be obtained by securing approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) of the University. The researcher will complete the ethics form and wait for approval before beginning the collection of data.

Consent will be secured.

An informed consent will be drafted to explain to participants the purposes and objectives of the study as well as the rights of participants regarding confidentiality and voluntarism. The same form will be attached to the online survey as proof of compliance with ethical requirement for research.

Anonymity and confidentiality of information will be guaranteed.

Procedures will be done to protect the rights of human subjects. Every completed questionnaire will be coded in order to hide the identity of participants. For the personal interviews conducted, each participant will be informed that the interview will be audiotaped for documentation. Transcript of the interviews will use pseudonyms instead of real names. Data storage requirements will also be complied with. Transcripts and hard drives will be secured in a locked cabinet to be destroyed after the study is published.

Bias will be bracketed to minimise prejudicial interpretation of data.

Ethics requires the researcher to fully disclose any potential conflicts of interest. Bias is acknowledged to arise from data collection until the final phases of the study. Risk of bias will be minimised through bracketing and a written reflection log to trace subjectivities.

Research schedule




Completion of dissertation proposal


IRB form completed and passed


Additional literature review

Survey questionnaire developed


Methodology chapter finalised

Survey questionnaire piloted and evaluated

Revisions to questionnaire finalised


Selection of participants


First phase of data gathering

Analysis of results - quantitative phase


Write up of results and advising


Refining of literature review

Drafting of interview guide and approval



Selection of interviewees

Conduct of interviews

Transcription and qualitative analysis


Integration of findings from Phase 1 and Phase 2

Meet with supervisor

Pass first draft of findings and conclusions


Check references.

Finalise draft.


Final proofreading and revisions.

Send to binders.


Submit bound copies by May 2012.

Reflective commentary

Writing this dissertation proposal has not only been a significant educational experience for me; it was also a reflexive opportunity. I was given an avenue with which to consider my own perspectives about obtaining higher education in a foreign university and the experiences which have so far brought me to the level I am now situated. Preparing the literature review was the most rewarding part of all because it enabled me to acknowledge the multifaceted and complex nature of the English language learning process. Simply put, acquiring a second language is not a simple feat. It is influenced by multiple factors and influences. While I was able to gather the most significant themes associated with English language learning among Arabic international students, I look forward to constructing the more detailed literature review in the future.