English Studies in Yemen: some observations [Archives:2004/754/Education]

July 12 2004

By R.S.Sharma
Professor of English
Department of English
Faculty of Languages
Sana'a University

These observations apply to English studies in the Arab World in general, and in the Yemeni society in particular. They are based on a long experience of teaching English to the speakers of Arabic in Indian and Arabian universities; but they are not to be treated as definitive and are open to further discussion and consideration.
Study of English presents special challenges to the speakers of Arabic and therefore it is not surprising that on the whole, to communicate through English is not quite satisfactory in Yemeni society.
Genealogically and typologically, English and Arabic are miles apart. English is an Indo-European language while Arabic belongs to the Hemito-Semitic family. English is mostly an uninflected language in which word order has assumed a crucial importance. Consider, for example, the following:
(1) John killed the tiger.
The tiger killed John.
(2) ..an awful pretty girl
.. a pretty awful girl
(3)Only ,he invited me to dine with him.
He invited only me to dine with him.
He invited me to dine with him only.
On the other hand, Arabic is a highly inflected tongue,having not only prefixes and suffixes but also infixes; the verb takes pronominal suffixes and even linking words ,such as alladi, are inflected for gender,case and number, when the antecedent is definite.
Even while writing Arabic, the hand must move from right to left, which, according to one Arabic scholar, is more logical. However,a close look at the composition tasks of students will reveal that this habit is a cause of spelling errors involving transposition of adjacent letters.
So, for a native speaker of Arabic, learning of English is an uphill task in writing, pronunciation, grammar,and usage. I shall clarify this point by discussing just a few interesting errors which actually came to my notice.
Once a student approached me and said, 'Sir, do you bray?' When he received a stony look from me he added, “to Allah”. Only then I realized that he was in fact trying to say 'pray'. Now [p], which is an importation from Persian has been accommodated in Arabic phonology as an allophone in free variation with /b/. That is why we often hear baber in the place of paper, and so on.
Italian /I/ and /i:/ are often pronounced /e/ or // with slight lengthening and once a native speaker told me he heard six o'clock as sex o'clock and felt highly embarrassed.We often find her pronounced with an open /e/.
Quite sometimes, a straightforward application of the norm may lead to an error,because English is perhaps more idiosyncratic than Arabic or Hindi in phonology,structure and vocabulary. Once a group of Arabic students accosted a teacher with, 'Sir,you enjoyed us very much. “Normally,en-(also em-) is prefixed to yield the sense of 'put into or on' as in entrust or 'bring into the condition of 'as in enslave. Unfortunately, enjoy is an exception: it does not mean 'give pleasure'; it means 'take pleasure', as in 'I enjoyed the music'. Arabic students often confuse 'learn ' and 'teach' because both these verbs are derived from the same root.
Finally, a few examples of syntactic lapses. In correcting students' papers, I often come across the type of mistakes exemplified by 'This is the book which I bought it. “Analytically this is a case of L1 interference. Arabic has no relative pronoun (except alladi as a linking word when the antecedent is definite)and it habitually uses pronominal suffixes added to the verb .These things lead to the use of it in the above sentence,although English grammar does not require it. I resorted to the transformational approach in explaining the English structure, in the following simplified manner:
This is the book (I bought the book,)
This is the book (I bought which)
This is the book which I bought.
Clearly, 'which' has replaced “the book” and has been moved from the object position: there is no need to add the pronominal object it to the verb. Some other cases of syntactic errors are:
i. wrong use of tense (Arabic verb has no formally distinguished tense forms)
ii. omision of the the verb be and
iii. use of the adjective after the head noun
Inspite of such difficulties, proficiency in English must remain a desirable objective,not only in the Arab world but also in all the so-called developing nations( I would prefer to call them 'differently developed nations'). It is in our interest to promote and strengthen the study of English because it happens ,at the moment, to be a readily available medium for expression and dissemination of new knowledge and it is primarily the basis for designing and operating media equipment including the internet. Ability in English can bring to us new knowledge in science and technology;it can open new avenues of employment in companies and it can assist in promoting indigenous business. A clear example is provided by India's momentous rise in outsourcing ,which is now an important means of foreign exchange earning for the nation.This phenomenon has been possible ,I think,owing to the fact that the Indians engaged in IT enterprises possess a good command of the English language. By English language I mean 'world English' and not 'British or American English.' And it is of vital importance that English syllabi should be geared to the needs of each developing nation and not to the superstition that English carries some kind of imperial prestige.
I shall now turn very briefly to the specific areas of English study which,I believe, answer the needs of Yemen in particular and of developing nations in general. The guiding principle to be strictly followed should be English for use,not for linguistic knowledge,which means more practice and less theory.
The first component will consist of pronunciation,basic grammatical structure and basic vocabulary. In pronunciation word stress, sentence stress and distinctive features must be given adequate attention. Without proper stressing, intelligibility in English will be very difficult to achieve. I can recall an Englishman telling me that whenever he heard the word necessity pronounced with the primary stress on the first syllable,he took it for the word nasty.
The second component must deal with the issues of communication -its strategies and forms:
(a) Face-to-face communication including kinesics: dialogue and conversation, interview, group discussion, conference, lecturing, public speaking, etc.
(b) Telephonic communication and its strategies.
(c)Written communication: paragraph building and paragraph linking,memorandum ,reports ,letter-writing,forms of electronic communication, C.V., resume,etc.
(d)Research Writing, and so forth
So far, I have focused on what is needed by the learners for practical use and for earning their livelihood. Now I must mention what is needed-in a functional way,in a deeper sense.
The third component will comprise literature in English. Literature in any language can deal with the principal malaise of the modern world, namely, the crisis of values. But, since we are here concerned only with English studies,we must focus on literature in English. In my opinion, the text which is considered for classroom teaching must satisfy the following two conditions:
(a) It must deal with universal human values, such as love,compassion,equality, friendship and with conflicting elements withing human nature.
(b) It must sensitize the reader to forms of beauty as well as pain and suffering.
Finally, it must be accepted that the literary scenario and canon are undergoing a drastic change and in modern times the most vibrant and powerful literature in English is being produced by four groups of authors: Indians and Pakistanis, African Americans, Caribbeans, and Africans. Since the cultures or sub-cultures they belong to and the socio-economic set up they live in have a great deal in common with the Arabic world and since their societies have a diffused but widespread Arabic element, their writings in English are bound to make a persuasive appeal to the students of English Literature in this country.It would,therefore,not be inappropriate to consider for study some internationally recognized writers of the above groups and to give them a place on the syllabi for English literature. I believe authors like R.K. Narayan, Arundhati Roy, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Tony Morrison, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and V.S. Naipaul have a great deal to say to the post colonial and developing societies; they are also capable of making an intimate appeal to our mind and heart.