Sociolinguistic Competence of EFL Students


English language is being widely used world over as the most spoken international language. Many countries have as well adopted fully or partially the use of English as the official language or as a means of instruction in the schools. English therefore without doubt plays a very crucial role in the international scene as far as communivcation, education, trade and world peace is concerned. (SIL International, 1999)

However, English language has been taught by teachers who studied it as a second language to their official language. In this light therefore English is considered as a foreign language. Most of these teachers leant it to diploma or degree level and have sufficiently been good at it. English in Kuwait is one of the languages taught in Kuwaiti schools alongside Arabic which is the official language. Even though a large number of Kuwaiti citizens, many still experience the cultural inclinations as they communicate but it has not influenced the standard of English whatsoever. In fact just like any other person learning English as foreign or second language many Kuwaiti are equally proficient in English. (FunEasyEnlish2008)

For teachers teaching and people speaking a particular language in a foreign place where the language is not used as they do, there is need to understand the social context of use of certain terms to avoid controversial information. This act will require sociolinguistic competence which gives the ability to interpret the social meaning of the choice of the linguistic elements and the use of a language with the appropriate social meaning for effective communication. (Jeffrey L. Martin 1997)

Occasionally many people experience linguistic interference due to cultural inclinations. An exemplary case is understanding what a cashier at a railway station means when he or she asks, “Would you like a travel card”, a learner of English as a foreign language needs to know what a cultural and social message a given utterance implies in a given context. A non-native speaker of English might have developed a profound knowledge of English grammar and vocabulary, and might know the meanings for travel and card, but to understand what a cashier means in a railway station context, he or she still needs to learn the culturally and contextually appropriate use of English, and the cultural background knowledge required for that specific context. That is, a foreign language learner needs to develop his or her sociolinguistic competence to know the accepted and expected linguistic performance in understanding the cultural/contextual meaning of the message. (Bruner, 1996)

Kuwait principally has a large foreign teacher population who use English as a means of communication.Notably, Kuwait uses Arabic as the official language and English is as well widely spoken by the foreign population that doubles that of Kuwaiti citizens the total population of the Kuwaiti is approximately 1 million to over 2 million people of foreign origin. Statistics of the education system of Kuwait also shows that English is being used as a means of instruction and communication in the private schools which is frequented by the children of expatriates, foreigners and wealthy Kuwaiti who prefer the Western Education because of the following reasons: Inadequacy of state education in terms of quality of the education, importance of English as an instructional tool and as a means of communication at work and for business purposes besides preparation of their students for studies abroad. (Hendon, 1980)

The western education provides an advanced curriculum as compared to the Kuwaiti, lack of teachers since Kuwait relies heavily on expatriate teachers from abroad and intent to take a coherent educational system that would allow their students join universities and colleges abroad. The most effective way to develop an apt sociolinguistic capabilities would be spending enough time with the target group and as well as having a competent teaching staff. However, some EFL students may not access quality local education or the western education due to fiscal constraints. (Bacon, 1995)

The question therefore lies in the possibility of English as a Foreign Language teaching and learning resources teach their students the culturally appropriate content of the English language without compromising the standard of education and to develop their cross-cultural awareness. Kuwait’s educational system stresses majorly on religious values providing a big challenge for the foreign teachers. (Pesola, 1991)

Teaching about the Cultural content by use of traditional stories (fiction and nonfiction) in EFL classrooms at higher levels of education have the potential of creating a socio-cultural awareness in the in the learning environment in turn the learners effectively promoting sociolinguistic competence. (Spinally & Siskin, 1992)

Language is a cultural artifact, and learning a cultural artifact requires internalization of the appropriate linguistic content and social practices of the natives. As a cultural artifact, a language needs to be presented in its native cultural context through adequate literary material and competent teaching staff. (Bloch, 1996);

Language researchers have emphasized the importance of integrating language and necessary cultural content for the language to be learned appropriately. These studies have also shown that teaching a language isolated from its cultural content can only result in miscommunication and misunderstanding between the foreigner and the native speakers. most importantly, teach their students the cultural and social use of the target language. Accordingly, they can have a better chance to get their students to develop their sociolinguistic competence and cross-cultural understanding. (Ramirez and Hall, 1990)

Sociolinguistic Competence

Researchers have asserted the importance of developing the ability to use the TL appropriately and know its socially appropriate function as an essential element for learners to communicate effectively in the target language (Canale, 1983; Canale & Swain, 1980; Celce Murcia, 1995; Hymes, 1972; Savignon, 1983).

I n deed for learners to master the target language, they have to master the culturally appropriate use of that language. Linguistic competence is not the only competence language learners need. Canale & Swain (1980), Hynes (1972), and Savignon (1983) argued that language learners need to develop more areas of knowledge in order to be communicate effectively namely linguistic competences, sociolinguistic competence, and strategic competence, (Celec-Murci, Zoltan, and Thurrell, 1995)

Furthermore, for foreign language learners to acquire such ability, research studies have shown the importance of exposing students to the uncompromised language content through use of additional resource materials and noting that the teacher acts as a guide but not the ultimate reference (Burner, 1996)

Kuwait has many English language schools besides the private schools and the public schools where English is the principal instructional tool in communication. the real-world language as used by native speakers in their daily life practices. Authentic stories are one good example that can represent such language (Christensen, 1990;; Stewart & Talburt, 1996; Widdowson, 1982; Seclye, 1993, etc.)

The contextual use of the resource materials demonstrates the social function of the language. They expose learners to the target culture and the social practices of the native speakers. Further, they show learners how language is being appropriately and functionally used. Therefore, research has supported the effectiveness of using authentic stories as an effective tool in teaching a foreign language by providing resource materials of social issues and of meaningful input that is necessary for the language acquisition to occur. Research studies suggest that learners need interesting, meaningful, and contextualized input to successfully and appropriately learn the target language. Such input can be presented by using learning materials of cultural value true to narrate stories and teach. (Krashen, 1982).

To conclude, authentic literary texts in general, and true stories in particular have the potential to integrate language and culture which is very important in language teaching and language learning process for the purpose of comparative resource material content, translation and interpretation of the languages.. Folktales are a potential source of cultural beliefs, values and traditions. On the other hand, true stories written by members of the target language, about language use or other valuable resource materials like Compact disks, cassettes, music, dictation, video and valuable literature and even exchange programs in presenting real stories of real characters with mostly universal themes with which students from different cultures can identify with especially in a pluralistic school or society (Oller, 1983)

Developing Cross-Cultural Understanding

One of the most important concerns about the content of the curriculum includes standard the of foreign language education especially if the students are following a hybrid, integrated or Anglo-American curriculum. This standardization measure will help in the continuity of education in foreign countries with ease. With the globalization notion, sociolinguistic competence is important in effective communication. Therefore, people all over the world, children in particular, need to be prepared to be global citizens who can appreciate other peoples’ cultural practices and perceptions and hence To achieve this, foreign language reading texts should include stories that reflect the relevant level of the learners.. Use of comparative literature texts like text books, novels, magazines and reviews are essential documents in the development of the pupils’ competence due to varied reading resources. (Galloway, 1992)

By reading and discussing such stories, learners can have the opportunity to develop a sense of cross-cultural awareness; they may or may not agree with the cultural practices they read about, but at least they understand the levels of language from familiar to standard from the texts they read and the use of the same in the school environment or at home and even at social places. Learners can develop a global perception through the exposure in respect to the diversity of methods of problem solving common to humanity. The importance of promoting students’ cross-cultural awareness may lie in the fact that although humanity’s common practices, like shopping, food, clothing, and transportation are universal issues and shared by mostly all the cultures, the way people in different societies use their languages to their advantage especially in trade and sustenance of world peace.(Bacon, 1995; Kramsch, 1983).

Learners should as well be given the opportunity to access the Information Technology and realize the role played by their local languages as compared to other international languages lie English. Such an endeavor will make learners realize the need to learn English and to identify their potential at an early stage in life and to ensure that these valuable resource materials could be used to translate the technological terminologies into their languages.( Kuwait cultural office, 2008)

Foreign Language Learning Through the Prism of the Host Culture

It would be very interesting to investigate why in some countries a foreign language is taught and presented deprived from its authentic cultural practices and perspectives. It might be prematurely proposed that because of the social, religious, or political gap between some cultures, a foreign language might be taught in the context of the host culture. (Ortuno, 1991)

That is, the foreign language usage is not being presented in the way it is used by native speakers. Situating and teaching the English language in a non-native cultural context may lead a learner of English to appear lost and confused if a sales person in a mobile shop says to him or her would you like a top up? His or her confusion may result from what the sales person says at that specific time and at that specific context and not from lack of knowledge of the meaning of the word: ‘top up’. (Gajdusek, 1988)

What the learner may have actually missed to learn is not the meaning of those two words as much as their contextually appropriate use. Some cultures may welcome and encourage foreign language learning as a means of communication. However, they may not be willing to expose their children to social practices that may contrast with the students’ cultural beliefs and values. As much as they are willing to teach the target language to their children, since this could lead to extreme confusion of the young minds. (Lazar, 1996 Oller, 1983; Ramirez, 1999; shook, 1996; Shrum & Glisan, 1994)

In addition, the most obvious reasons behind this inclination towards learning a foreign language could as well involve vested interests. The concept of culture can be integrated in the studies of the humanities but one does not have to study someone’s culture so as to be proficient. The language is one aspect of the culture hence no need to study more than the language itself. Apart from the cultural shock of either party, foreign teacher or native student and vice versa, curriculum content verification by the Ministry of education of Kuwait is in itself enough to regulate the learning content of which the teacher is just a guide. (Teachervisionn, 2008)

The government may as well reinforce its political agenda beyond its religious beliefs and curtail infiltration of its tradition by English language or any other language. The issue of co-education or male-female relationship in learning institutions is contemptuous practices but the institutions should reinforce its regulations but make education accessible and affordable to all. Irrespective of gender or religious affiliations. (Forza Kuwait, 2008)

As a result of these orientations, foreign language learning experiences resistance due to the state machinery rather than the will of the people. This argument is based on the premise of the use of Arabic language which is a regionally recognized language as the official language at the expense of English. Target language is introduced and taught through the prism of the cultural context of the host country. For example, English as a foreign language in Kuwait public schools is presented through the prism of the Kuwaiti culture. The EFL textbooks and the reading texts reflect what the Kuwaiti do and believe. They only reflect Kuwaiti practices and perspectives through which English is presented.

English as a Foreign Language in Kuwait

Since Kuwait has a very different and peculiar culture from the culture of the speakers of English, and because of one or more of the above-mentioned reasons, original literature in English such as stories and magazines may be perceived inappropriate to be introduced to students in the public schools. Thus, in Kuwait public schools, English language text books are all developed locally to reflect the Kuwaiti culture and express daily life events in Kuwait. The reason for developing local textbooks is to provide students with socially acceptable learning content relevant to their consumption. Issues like dating and dancing are not to be presented in classrooms in Kuwaiti schools. Since most of the foreign reading texts in the market include such issues, Kuwait may have deemed it necessary to develop its own textbooks. (Al Muthana Kuwait Bookstore, 2008)

This might give some explanation of why despite more than eight years of learning English in Kuwait public schools, some if not many students who come to the U.K. or United States find it difficult to communicate comprehensibly in English.

As Pesola (1991) put it, “without cultural insight and skills, even fluent speakers can seriously misinterpret the messages they hear or read, and the message they intend to communicate can be misunderstood” (p.331 Exemplary cases of misinterpretation arising from the sociolinguistic competence confusion of common expressions and use of particular terms to a disadvantage. For example, I bought some items from a gift shop in the U.K and the salesperson asked if I wanted a gift certificate of which the “NO” response was to my disadvantage.. (Galloway. V.1992).

According to Bennett (1997), I was ‘a fluent fool.’ The reason behind my confusion was that I had not had the chance to spend some time in the social environment neither had I ever been exposed to varied contextual language use. Therefore, for learners to communicate effectively in the target language an orientation of popular and common practices should be done to avoid misinformed decision making arising from the sociolinguistic ignorance. (Spinelli and Siskin, 1992, p. 306).

Tentative Solutions

In response to the question on how a very conservative culture, like Kuwaiti would teach a foreign language, the English language in particular, to its students without exposing them to the socio-cultural practices of the English without infiltrating their cultural practices and beliefs, I would advocate for revision of the educational objectives in line with the global development trends and gauge the necessity of selective content integration into the Kuwaiti Curriculum. The Ministry of education should regulate the curriculum effectively and ensure that the students’ knowledge acquisition process and content is not compromised. (The English School, 2008)

The Kuwaiti government should train more local teachers who will be able to implement their educational policies as effectively as possible while ensuring quality education is provided. Evidence of hypocritical practice of government sponsorship of the Kuwaiti University students abroad yet at home there is a concerted effort to control the use and practice of the language as possible. The government therefore needs to reevaluate its policies carefully and ensure quality education is provided without complacence. It is a fact that one does not have to go to “English land” to study English for proficiency but the adequate regulation and varying of the resource materials on the language besides a competent experienced teaching staff are enough to deliver the language at Kuwaiti doorsteps. Considering that the foreign population in Kuwait is twice that of Kuwaiti citizens and that English is widely used for transactional purposes, the government should consider adopting English as the official language and Arabic as a national language. (Jehan S.Rajab.Invasion Kuwait: 2008)

This act will not infiltrate its culture whatsoever and if it does the effect will be minimal. This is because there is a big difference between the content of culture and a language. A language is just an element of the culture and mostly involves communication rather than the practice of the English tradition. Sociolinguistic competence in English will play a vital role in increasing trade and relationship due to improved communication. Having a global perception of how the naïve speakers use their language in dealing with their daily life events, learners can find the foreign language interesting and meaningful. Thus, it might be safe to say that using Anglo-American oriented literary materials and audio-visual learning resources will improve the learners’ sociolinguistic competence. (KISR Publications, 2008)

Foreign language teachers, however, need to be trained and encouraged to use the resources recommended in the syllabus. The government should also expand its scholarship program to a wider student body beyond the present partial scholarships it gives. The government should also establish national libraries alongside existing language schools. It should as well subsidize the existing English language promotional media including English Television, English Journals, English Radio, English mobile libraries and English activities among many other strategic measures towards development of the language and trade partnerships. The Ministry of education should initiate exchange programs with English and American schools for first hand experience of value and use of the language. (King, Edith.2006.)

In conclusion, considering that languages are elements of a culture, and that a language is a tool of communication, it can be used constructively to explain the English culture and to differentiate between the English culture and the English language. The global pace of development has made it reasonably unavoidable and to ignore English is an exercise in futility. Besides the change agents will affect every aspect of our livelihood.

Statement of Purpose

The purpose of this study will be to describe and investigate selected Kuwaiti EFL teachers’ views and attitudes toward teaching the target culture in their classrooms and using it to develop their students’ sociolinguistic competence and cross-cultural understanding using a case study design. For the purpose of this study “the sociolinguistic competence” will be defined generally as the socially and culturally appropriate language use as expected and accepted by native speakers (Canale & Swain, 1980; Celce-Murcia et al, 1995; Savignon, 1983).


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