Students of the Faculty of Languages: Between great expectations and reality [Archives:2008/1212/Reportage]

December 1 2008

Almigdad Mojalli
Established in 1997, the Faculty of Languages at the University of Sana'a is considered to be one of the most effective learning centers to train the Yemeni workforce in language skills. Many young Yemenis aspire to join the faculty, confident that if they speak a foreign language fluently, they will have brighter career prospects. However, once enrolled, the latter complain of many obstacles to their learning, including a lack of classrooms and the scarcity of specialized foreign staff.


Students study different languages as they aspire to join high-powered organizations, travel abroad and master the language of globalization. They consider learning a foreign language to be a promising skill for their travel overseas.

The most popular department in the faculty is the Department of English, and students who compete to be accepted to study there know that if they master the language it will prove an asset in the labor market. Some students who are not accepted even join another department for one year in the hope of later qualifying for a transfer.

“I decided to study German for a year and then to travel to Germany,” said Izzaddeen Humaid, an enthusiastic second year student.

Ekhlas Al-Meqdam said, “I joined the English language department because I like the language and it is the language of the world and I wish to travel the world.”

Mohammed Al-Khohlani, a third year student, stated that he joined the Italian department because he liked the language and wanted to prove that he could be as fluent in Italian as others are in English.

Amro, another student, hopes to secure a high-powered career in the corporate world and so he aspires to master the English language. His friends hope to join international organizations and work in multi-cultural environments.


Students who succeed in the admission test and join the Faculty of Languages are shocked when they discover all the obstacles -in the faculty in general and the department of English in particular- that hinder their progress in learning. These include a lack of buildings for the English language department, the near-absence of native speakers as lecturers, an out-dated syllabus and an incomplete library.

Lack of lecturing halls

There is no designated building for the English faculty. Ever since the founding of the faculty, English language students have attended their classes at the Faculty of Shari'a and Law. Two months before the end of each academic year, the students are surprised when the administration asks them to leave the premises to make way for the students of the law faculty, who only turn up at the end of the year for the final examinations. For a number of years now, language faculty students have spent the end of the academic year in the buildings of the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Education.

Last year, to address this problem, the Faculty of Languages decided to schedule the final examinations three weeks earlier, to avoid clashing with the schedule of the Sharia and Law students.

Thaiban Al-Thaibani, a third year English student, angrily complains about the lack of designated premises for language faculty students, “We have no building and every year we study in the Faculty of Shari'a and Law, but at the end of every year we are asked to leave and have to look for another faculty to complete the academic year.”

Dr. Hana'a Al-Sultan, head of the French department, emphasized that the lack of designated lecturing halls had affected both teachers and students, “Honestly, the most negative factor is the lack of building. We only have four halls for the students in all four academic years in the old buildings of the Faculty of Education. Sometimes we find ourselves compelled to go to the building of the Faculty of Shari'a and Law, sometimes only available sometimes after 2:00 pm,” she said.

Lack of native speakers

The lack of native speakers for each language represents another obstacle for the students of the faculty in general and of the English department in particular.

Although thousands of Yemenis who studied English at university were taught by Indians have succeeded to become professors at various Yemeni and Arab universities, the English students still complain about their Indian teacher's poor background and incorrect accent.

Thaiban described the Indian teachers as “a misfortune for the English department”. He added, “The Indian lecturer with PhD needs another doctor to teach him. It is obvious that [the lecturers] have very poor academic background, and it makes us question their academic qualifications. If you ask him any question from the page that he is reading, he won't be able to answer you directly,” he said.

According to Thaiban, the Indian accent presents another problem. “The accent and pronunciation is totally wrong,” he stressed.

A student, who requested anonymity, confirmed that the most significant problem he faces is the accent of the Indian professors. He said that the shortcomings in their accent mislead the students.

No lectures in the language laboratory

Students are allegedly deprived of lectures in the language laboratory, a room already equipped with audio visual material.

Many students from different departments complain that their timetables don't include any lectures in the language laboratory. “In the faculty, we have a language lab, but no lectures in the laboratory on our timetable. If students want to study in the laboratory, they have to go individually without teachers,” a student in the English department said.

In most universities worldwide, study is mostly practical and based on research. The teacher and syllabus are only guides for the students and most of the learning is independent.

While most other students in Sana'a University complain about the amount of research they have to conduct every semester, students of the Faculty of Language complain that many of their teachers ask them to conduct research only in fourth year before their graduation.

“A [language] student is asked only to conduct research when he reaches fourth year,” said Thaiban.

Aseel Al-Thale'e, a level four student in the English department, stated that the only research teachers had asked him to do was his final year research, usually supposed to be the last assignment of many. “The teachers didn't ask us to conduct any research,” he affirmed.

Outdated syllabus

Students from different departments inside the faculty question whether they study in the Faculty of Arts or in the Faculty of Languages in view of all the literature they are lectured on. The lack of practice also constitutes a barrier to language students.

“When we read magazines, newspapers or anything else, we find the language we read very different from what we study. We study one thing and find another in reality,” Aseel Al-Thale'e pointed out.

“What is absent in this department is real practice of the language. Everything we study is theoretical and that's what makes us tired,” said Humaid, “We can't find any native speakers to practice with.”

Al-Zaikam criticized the faculty and went on to say, “This is called the Faculty of Languages but what we study is literature, not language. Studying language means studying the four skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking, but here we study arts. If we want to improve our level, we have to go out and try to find native speakers to practice speaking the language, otherwise we will not learn the language,” he commented.

In addition, many students feel that the faculty and its syllabus don't qualify them enough to be competent in their specialization.

“After graduation, most students only find jobs as teachers or secretaries although they studied English for four years,” explained an anonymous student in fourth year in the English department, “It's a shame on both faculty and students.” He added that students who graduate from institutes after only one year and a half often find better jobs than those who study at the University of Sana'a for four years and put the blame on teaching methods and the syllabus.

Insufficient resources

For students in university, institutes and school, a library is an essential part of the educational process, but the six departments of the Faculty of Languages do not recognize this need. Although there should be one library for each department, there is not even one for the entire faculty.

In this regard, Humaid complained that he studies German and is asked to make conduct research without an Arabic- German dictionary to check the meaning of the words he studies.

“We don't have library and sometimes we feel completely despaired, especially when we can't even find an Arabic-German dictionaries,” he said

The faculty responds

Head of the Department of English Dr. A. K. Sharma denied that the Indian teachers have poor academic backgrounds. “These complaints are baseless. All lecturers who come to teach here have prior experience teaching in colleges and universities, because the University of Sana'a does not appoint teachers who have no previous teaching experience,” Sharma stressed.

With regard to the lecturer's different accents, Sharma said, “As far as the accent is concerned, the British speak with a British accent, the Americans with American accent and the Indians with an Indian accent. In the same manner that you can't expect an American to speak with the British accent, you can't expect an Indian to speak British or American English. As all British or Americans do not speak in the same accent, all Indians also do not speak the same accent. What we look for in the accent is that one's speech is precise and clear. What matters in the English-speaking world today is that one should be easily understood by all those who speak English globally, irrespective of ones accent. However, when we have the choice, we go for those who have a native accent.”

Students of the English department staged a sit-in last year to demand the university provide native-speakers to teach them. The university, unable to meet their demand, explained that native-speakers ask to be paid by the hour. As the university's budget cannot allow for such expenses, it instead employs Indian teachers who are paid on a monthly -not hourly- basis.

The Vice President of Sana'a University for Academic Affairs Dr. Ahmed Al-Kebsi stated that the financial budget is the main obstacle to the university hiring native speakers.

“American and British teachers want to be paid about USD10,000 a month while we give USD1,000 or USD1,200 for the Indian teachers. However, we are considering bringing in native teachers to help the university,” Al-Kebsi said.

As for the alleged lack of research assignments, Sharma confirmed students' claims: “As far as research is concerned, we don't expect students in first, second and third year to write research papers. Fourth year students themselves write research papers with great difficulty,” he said.

“Writing a research paper entails knowledge, experience, information, skill, methodology, organization and logical strength. We do not expect students below fourth year to be capable of it. Students in the earlier stages of learning are exposed to different types of writing including essays, summaries, reports, letters and stories. Research writing is the most formal, technical and scholarly of all of these and comes at the end of studies when students are in fourth year,” he added.

“There is no library as such in the Department of English. In the faculty as a whole, we only have an apology for a library. By any standard it can't be said to be satisfactory, but the number of books is gradually increasing every year,” he commented.

Student responsibility

On the other hand, many students do praise both the faculty's teachers and syllabus, only complaining about insufficient oral practice of their language of choice.

A second year German language student said, “Language practice is very weak and I think that learning at an institute is better than in the faculty. Although our syllabus is very good, teachers don't give us enough time to practice. Some teachers just focus on particular students and neglect others,” she resentfully said, “Another problem is the lack of native speakers to teach us the language and correct our mistakes.”

Dr. Sharma stresses that students need to show more responsibility towards acquiring knowledge. “It is true that many students who graduate not only from this faculty but from any other faculty -and not only in Yemen but all over the world- do not have the knowledge and competence expected of a graduate, however, it is not because of teachers but because of the students themselves. Teachers can't study on behalf of their students, they can only show them the path,” he said.

He explained that although the faculty's syllabus is for full-time students, nearly 80 percent of those enrolled have almost no time to study at home because they have jobs. According to him, it is easy to be a graduate but much more difficult to acquire the knowledge and competence required of one.

Sharma added that the students of the faculty should give up two bad habits to deserve their degree.

First, they should buy books instead of making photocopies. He explained that students who bought books would keep reading them every now and then, even after their graduation.

Second, they should cultivate the habit of reading classics in their original version, instead of in their summarized or simplified editions.

“Students who aim at specializing in English as a language and as an academic subject must get to the spirit of the language by internalizing it through reading the original texts. Reading notes, summaries and paraphrases may enable them to pass the examination but it can't make them feel quite at home in English,” he added.

Progress in faculties

Other departments, such as the Department of Italian, have seen some real progress and development.

Mohammed Al-Khohlani, a third year Italian student, explained that in the past they had an Italian and a Yemeni teacher for all four years. Now they have four native Italian teachers.

“In the beginning, only 11 out of 70 students graduated from the department because of the shortage of teachers, but now we have enough teachers and the department has developed,” he said. Now up to 40 students graduate each year.

There are ongoing discussions on how to better develop the education process at the Faculty of Languages.

Dr. Hana'a Al-Sultan, head of the Department of French noted that the department was about to hold workshop to reconsider the current syllabus and discuss ways of developing it.

Despite the great efforts exerted by the lecturers to improve the quality of education in the Faculty of Languages at the University of Sana'a, the lack of dedicated buildings, lectures in the language laboratory, a complete library and native teachers have shocked and disappointed the majority of its students and remain obstacles to overcome.