Lexical differences between spoken and written English among Year 12 students in Saudi Arabia

Author: Ahlam Algofaili

Algofaili, Ahlam, 2019 Lexical differences between spoken and written English among Year 12 students in Saudi Arabia, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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It is widely acknowledged that the effective learning of English should provide learners with the skills required to interact successfully with English speakers. Failure to gain interactional competence can result in misunderstandings between non-native and native speakers of English and in the fear of being evaluated negatively (Bardovi-Harlig & Mahan-Taylor, 2003; Glaser, 2014; Taguchi, 2011; Thomas, 1983; Yates, 2010).

While the debate on the effectiveness of English teaching in Saudi Arabia’s secondary classrooms is ongoing, little attention has been given to the acquisition of distinct registers in oral and written tasks. Register, broadly speaking, refers to the concept that our language varies according to the purposes or functions we are trying to achieve and to the situation in which we find ourselves; while some choices of vocabulary and grammar appear appropriate to specific contexts and functions, others may not.

The main question being investigated in this study is whether, and to what extent, school learners of English as a foreign language in Saudi Arabia are aware of the varieties of language registers and able to put their awareness into practice. Surprisingly, this question has been under-explored in the Arabic-speaking world in spite of the popularity of English courses in the Middle East.

This research began with the assumption that many Saudi students would speak and write in a similar fashion—typically using a formal register, due perhaps to a lack of explicit training in recognising the differences between registers.

In order to test the assumption, a mixed methods study was conducted to compare the lexical differences between spoken and written narratives completed by a group of female high school EFL learners in Saudi Arabia. The study also investigated the potential role of classroom instruction and the textbook in teaching differences between language registers. Five different methods were used to triangulate the data: picture-story retelling tasks, both spoken and written; a students’ background questionnaire; classroom observation; a teacher interview; and finally, the evaluation of the textbook.

Analysis of the data revealed that the original assumption was incorrect. While the overall results indicated that the student participants did not differentiate much between spoken and written registers, as expected, it was also found that the learners relied heavily on an informal English register for both speaking and writing. This was contrary to expectations, but, nevertheless an interesting and important result in terms of how English is currently taught and learned in a modern Saudi Arabia. The originality of the findings lies in the discovery that young Saudi learners draw on external resources to gain interactional competence. They acquire a considerable amount of colloquial English through their participation in diverse social contexts, mostly mediated through the Internet and movies, which they then transfer into their writing. Furthermore, the examination of the textbook and the teacher’s approach clearly indicated that Saudi EFL students were not being explicitly taught the differences between spoken and written English.

As a result, the contribution of this research to EFL pedagogy in Saudi Arabia is significant as it needs to respond to the challenges of modern ways of communicating. The conclusion outlines some practical suggestions to assist English as a second language teachers to plan and deliver effective English lessons, providing opportunities for learners to recognise differences between English speech and written texts with regards to vocabulary usage. Moreover, this research will be of interest to other educational stakeholders, policy makers and textbook authors in many similar EFL contexts to Saudi Arabia. It contributes to drawing their attention to the socio-linguistic content of language teaching besides the purely linguistic focus of current EFL teaching practices.

Keywords: lexical differences, spoken and written English, speaking and writing, language registers.

Subject: Education thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2019
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Eric Bouvet