American Bedu had an email exchange with a language teacher who routinely teaches Saudi students. She shared her experiences of how she interacts with them and also asked some questions, which American Bedu answered in italics. This teacher gave her permission for the exchange to be posted on the blog to help others who may be teaching English to Saudi students and to also encourage others to share their experiences. This is the prime time of the year when many Saudi students will be traveling to differing parts of the world for studies and many of the students will undergo a one or two year English language program before starting their University studies.
I’m a single woman and I teach English at a private language school, and because I teach the beginner’s class, most of my students are Saudi Arabian men. (Other nationalities already have some English). We have students from all around the world who come to learn English here, but our three major nationalities are Koreans, Brazilians and Saudis. So I have met hundreds of Saudi men over the 2 and a half years I’ve been teaching them, and I really want to be able to understand them better.
Generally, I really enjoy teaching them, and have a lot of fun with them. I’ve found that I really love their sense of humour. We laugh a lot! Their sense of humour seems to involve a lot of teasing, and a bit of silliness too, the same as my sense of humour. What have you found about that? How would you compare their humour with American humour? Did you laugh a lot with them?
Yes, Saudis do enjoy teasing and with silliness. I think their humor is more “clean” than some of the American humor. I’ve had many laughs with them.
The majority of them are good students who respect me. But some of them can be difficult, and I’m always nervous when I get new students that they may be difficult ones. These are the main negative things I’ve observed about them. I would be interested to hear your comments. I’d really like to understand better what it is about their culture and thinking that makes them this way.
- They are always late, but this doesn’t really bother me too much, and I’ve figured out ways to handle this. We have 3 breaks in our morning class which gives them 4 opportunities to be late. So I don’t let them in if they are more than 10 minutes late and this works. I don’t generally mind them being late if all of my class is Saudi – it gives me a longer break and it’s their money they are wasting. It’s only really a problem if there are other nationalities in the class who are always on time then we are waiting for the Saudis. The other thing I do is before they are allowed to sit down is I make them apologize in correct English, and they have to get it right at least once before they are allowed to sit down. Eg “I’m sorry I’m late because I was smoking.” I wouldn’t do this to someone who was shy, for example a Japanese student, because they would be mortified. But Saudis aren’t the slightest bit worried about being put on the spot, or even looking silly in front of the class.
You have discovered “Saudi time.” I think your way of dealing with the lateness in the classroom environment is superb.
The other rules I really enforce are: no mobile phones which I enforce by asking them all personally if their phone is off, and are they sure it’s off, and getting them to show me if I don’t believe them. And no Arabic in class. This is pretty difficult to enforce if they are mostly all Saudis, but if they speak Arabic I give them their homework and send them out of the class for 5 minutes. They always protest but I don’t back down and this does seem to really work, and stop them from speaking Arabic.
The mobile phones can always be a problem. While many dislike it, sometimes they even need to be collected at the beginning of a class. All speaking Arabic is problematic and again, I think you are handling that well.
- A lot of them seem really unmotivated and lazy, and completely uninterested in learning. They seem to be very spoilt and pampered, and don’t really need to learn anything because they’re just going to work for their father anyway, who is usually some kind of businessman. Thankfully at the moment I have 10 Saudis who are all good and keen to learn.
That is very typical. ):
- They are often not very good at thinking for themselves whenever I give them written exercise where they have to work on their own. They want me to tell them the answers, or someone else to tell them the answers, they don’t want to actually think. When I do get a Saudi who will sit there and work through the exercises on his own I’m so impressed.
Sadly this is likely due to the culture and the educational system. The educational system has been rote memorization for many years. Secondly many Saudis are accustomed to cajoling answers from others and particularly expat teachers.
- They are very demanding. Recently one of them told me that it’s rude to cut in on an elder when he is speaking. But this clearly does not imply in class, and not with their female teacher! They all demand my attention at once. For example I am talking to one student, but three others are crying out “teacher! Teacher! Teacher!” And don’t stop until I answer them. And they always try to cut in when I’m speaking. This doesn’t bother me too much if they are generally otherwise good students.
They will not cut in on an elder when speaking but that is usually a man or woman who is similar in age to their parents or grandparents. Otherwise it is common for them to interrupt, talk loudly as well as over one another.
- A lot of them cheat in their weekly tests, and if they’ve been absent they will never tell me the truth (eg I just didn’t want to come to school), they always come up with some sort of excuse.
That is likely due to the culture.
What are your experiences of these things?
There are some other things I’m wondering. In their culture, are they willing to take the blame and admit when they are wrong? Or is this considered extremely shameful?
There is not a pat answer on this one. Much depends on who and what.
What things are loss of face for them? Is a woman telling them off loss of face? I always think that surely Saudi women must be hot-blooded and strong-minded and surely they are used to their mothers telling them off and bossing them around. So I think of myself as their mother (even though I’m not that much older than most of them) and that works for me.
A woman telling them off is a loss of face or at least pride. A Saudi woman may do so but usually in private, never with a group. If you are not too much older than them, then that can be viewed as a challenge to some of them.
Some people say that Saudi men regard all uncovered women as prostitutes, and up for the taking. What do you think about that? If it is true, what percentage of them do you think would be like that? I’m happy to say, most of them don’t seem sleazy to me. Most of them look at my face, and don’t stare at my body.
Some Saudi men do think that woman are up for grabs but also much depends on the woman too. If she dresses modestly and is in her country, she should be treated respectfully. In Saudi Arabia many Saudi men feel western woman are fair game based on all the propoganda and b-grade movies on tv. It would be viewed as very rude for them to stare at your body.
When we do have other nationalities in our class, and girls, they never have any idea about Saudi culture, and often the girls innocently touch the Saudi men. Particularly south American girls will constantly touch the Saudi men while they are talking to them. I know it’s completely forbidden in Saudi for them to ever touch women. Some Saudis respond to the girls by touching them in the same way (on the arm, etc). Sometimes I see them even kissing South American or European girls on both cheeks as the girls do in their culture, and I quite like seeing that. Other times I’m not too comfortable with them touching women, and I’m not comfortable when they touch me (for example putting their arm around me when taking a photo with me). I generally try not to ever touch them. What are your thoughts about that? I wonder if I should take the girls aside and tell them not to touch the Saudis.
I would suggest mentioning privately to female students from other cultures that it is viewed as a cultural no-no to touch a Saudi man. This is so the Saudi does not mis-perceive the woman’s intentions. I’m glad that some of the Saudis are demonstrating a polite worldliness but I don’t think it is a good habit to encourage. Especially as a teacher, I think it is wiser to remain a little conservative.
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