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The perceived value of english: the case of tunisian university students

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par Mimoun Melliti
Faculté des lettres, arts, et humanités Manouba - Maitrise en Anglais 2008

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3.4. Prospects of adopting English and Arabic at science higher education university

institutions 51

3.4.1. Prospect of adopting English in education 51

3.4.2. Prospect of adopting Arabic 52

3.4.3. Measures to promote learning English 54

3.5. The use of English among students 54

Conclusion 56

Chapter Four: Discussion of the findings 57

4.0. Introduction 57

4.1. Tunisian university science students' claimed proficiency in English 58

4.1.1. Exams results 58

4.1.2. Reported communicative abilities 58

4.1.3. English vs. French in science students' daily use 59

4.2. Tunisian university science students' perception of the value of English 59

4.2.1. English in students' plans 60

4.2.2. The reasons for English 61

4.2.3. Science and the question of language choice 61

4.2.4. Obstacles of learning English and some suggested solutions 62 Obstacles of learning English 62 Some proposed solutions 63

4.3. The use of English among Tunisian university students 64

Conclusion 64

Chapter Five: Conclusion 66

5.0. Introduction 66

5.1 Major findings 66

5.2 Contribution of the study 67

5.3 Limitations of the study 67

5.4 Suggestions for further research 68

5.5. Recommendations 68

References 69

Appendix A: Questionnaire for students 71

List of acronyms and abbreviations

BC: The British Council

EFL: English as a Foreign Language

ESC: Higher Institute of Commerce

ESL: English as a Second Language

ESP: English for Specific Purposes

I.B.L.V: Bourguiba Institute of Living Languages

ISCAE: Higher Institute of Commerce and Business Administration IPEIT: Engineering Preparatory Institute Tunis

L1: First Language

L2: Second Language

List of tables

Table 1: Distribution of sample 15

Table 2: Some domains of English use in six East African states 20

Table 3: Major international domains of English 27

Table 4: Reasons concerning adopting English 52

Table 5: Students' view about the prospects of teaching science in Arabic 53

List of figures

Figure 1: Kachru's three concentric circles of English 21

Figure 2: Categories of science students' reported proficiency in English 45

Figure 3: Science students' claimed proficiency in English 46

Figure 4: Ability to communicate only in English 46

Figure 5: Choice of language in favourite films 47

Figure 6: Language of the computer interface 47

Figure 7: English in science students' plans 48

Figure 8: Studying English out of public institutions 48

Figure 9: Reasons for not studying English out of pubic institutions 49

Figure 10: Domains of English use 50

Figure 11: Obstacles preventing students from learning English 51

Figure 12: Prospects of adopting English 52

Figure 13: Prospects of adopting Arabic 53

Figure 14: Students' preferred solutions to promote learning English at science

institutions 54

Figure 15: English in science students' exchange of e-mails 55

Figure 16: Major situations where students were obliged to use English 55

Figure 17: The language of science students' mobile phones 56

0. Introduction

The purpose of this introduction is to provide background related to the value of English in the world and in the particular case of Tunisian university science students. For this reason, the situation of language in Tunisia will be described in order to offer an overview of the context of the study and especially the linguistic situation. This introduction is going also to explain the aims of the research and provide information about data collection, and the way the paper is organised.

0.1. Background to the study

Since English is no doubt the most important language in the world today (Crystal, 2003; Graddol, 1997; Phillipson, 1992), then it is of interest to researchers to explore how it is valued by users all over the world. Research on English and how it is perceived can be tackled from many angles. This research will focus on the issues related to how English is valued by young university science students in Tunisia. Reasons behind choosing this topic are mainly linked to the functions that English fulfils in Tunisian society and the complexity that it adds to the linguistic situation in Tunisia in addition to its importance for science students. Whether the decision to teach English as a compulsory subject in higher institutions is viewed as positive or negative, depends on the fact that the society as a whole and persons involved or affected by its presence will see the phenomenon from a perspective of language competition or not. Those persons are going to perceive it also with reference to various interpretative frames such as perceptions of agendas underlying the policies or the felt needs for it. Within this context, the issues related to the value of English in the world and in Tunisia specifically are to be discussed in order to witness the benefits that teaching English offers and the claimed drawbacks of such a decision.

In fact, English is generally considered by policy makers in Tunisia advantageous for fulfilling an important role in creating and sustaining links with the world in terms of knowledge and transfer of technology (Salhi, 1985; Derbel, 2001). Therefore, it will be of interest to explore the views of the Tunisian population investigated in this research and to find out how they see the importance of English. In contrast, English can be seen as a new vehicle of colonialism (Phillipson, 1992) or as a threat to native languages; this may well be a view held by some science students investigated in this paper. The aim of such investigation is to track the value attached to English and the extent to which it is perceived crucial in Tunisian science students' studies and future careers. It is anticipated that Tunisian university science students are aware of the value of English despite the fact that they are not taking the «right» measure or following the effective strategies to master it. Concerning the use of English by Tunisian university science students, there is observable evidence of heavy domination of French over English and to some extent over Arabic in the use of electronic devices and in communication with foreigners. However, English is more present in the lives of Tunisians due to technology and media in English that is more and more available. These expectations are, in fact, connected to the linguistic situation in Tunisia and this research is seeking to empirically investigate such impressions and observations in the case of Tunisian university science students.

0.2. Language in Tunisia:

The linguistic situation in Tunisia is characterised mainly by diversity (Payne, 1983). Standard Arabic is the official language of the country while a variety of regional dialects is used following the difference in the geographical areas (ibid). Concerning foreign languages present in the Tunisia, Payne (1983) documented the existence of French, Italian, and Spanish, which dates back to the colonial period.

However, English was introduced after independence and it went through various stages of development that are going to be described more thoroughly in the fourth section of the first chapter. The presence of English resulted in competition with French as the most dominant foreign language in Tunisia since the period of colonisation. The possibility of replacing French for English is according to some researchers (Battenburg, 1997) considerable viewing to the growing international interdependence of the world on English and the continuous vanishing of French as a language of world communication and trade with some doubt in Walters (1999) who identifies only a 2% or 5% as proficient users of English. Battenburg contends that the figures illustrating the amount of money spent to sustain the use of language by France, the UK, and the USA reveal that Tunisia is still considered a francophone country (Battenburg, 1997). He mentioned that in 1996 while the USA and Britain spent 600.000 and 400.000 dollars respectively on promoting the study of English in Tunisia, France spent 20 million dollars (Battenburg, English language teaching in Tunisia). The struggle over dominance between English and French in Tunisia is a matter of fact. In fact, some opposition figures in the parliament asked for the adoption of English instead of French since in Akkari's terms «the French themselves have begun to realise the inadequacy of their language and its loss of international prominence» (qtd in Daoud, 2001).

Apart from education, English is used in media. Not all kinds of media use English, but Walters (1999) mentioned that it is used an hour per day on the Radio Tunis Chaîne Internationale from 14.00 am to 15.00 am. Radio listeners can also listen to Voice of America and BBC World on local FM frequencies (ibid). The only newspaper that uses exclusively English, as observation shows, is Tunisia News. Observation shows also that the state owned TV channel (Channel 7) broadcasts in English only at 00.00 am when giving news and so is the case of Tunis 21 with

difference in time. English speaking songs are heard also by Tunisians on local radios (Walters, 1999) and more and more in all radio channels. Thanks to satellite dishes, Tunisians have access also to channels broadcasting in English like MB, MBC Action and MBC4 (with subtitles in Arabic), the world edition of CNN, and BBC World. All of the above-mentioned domains of exposure to English, though restricted can be assumed to have important influences on students' perception of the value of English in their lives generally and in their careers in the near future.

0.3. General aims

This paper aims primarily at exploring the value of English, as it is perceived by university students in scientific fields and investigating the use of English among them in the direction of recognising its status.

0.4. Research questions

Considering the research aims mentioned above, a number of research questions could be formulated especially with regards to the value students attach to English in the direction of recognising their needs for English and the arguments that they give in support of learning English. Thus, two research questions are proposed as research focus in this paper.

1. What is the perception of Tunisian university science students concerning the importance of English in their studies and future careers?

2. What are the domains of use that English occupies in the lives of Tunisian university science students?

0.5. Data collection

In order to investigate the perceived value of English among Tunisian university science students, a questionnaire covered (apart from the five background information questions) five sections. The questions were of two types. Closed-ended questions

aimed at enabling students to choose from proposed alternatives that concerned their level, perception, and use of English and open-ended questions aimed at extracting direct information concerning the reasons of their choices. The questionnaire was completed by one hundred university science students from five higher education institutions in Tunis and Manouba. The institutions investigated are stated in the following table.

Table 1: distribution of sample



of Medicine

Engineering Preparatory Institute Tunis


Higher Institute of Commerce (ESC)


Institute of Commerce and Business Administration (ISCAE)

Faculty of

Science Tunis

Number of female students






Number of male














target population


The diversity of the institutions included serves the purpose of collecting data from students specialising in different domains where English is claimed to be of great value in the academic and future professional life of these students. Therefore, it was expected that these students hold views about the value of English in their present situation and in the near and distant future.

0.6. Organisation of the paper

This paper contains five chapters. The first chapter deals with views related to the status of English in the world today. Chapter two is reserved for the explanations of the methodology used in this paper. It will clarify the `research design', `the participants', `the data collection instrument', `data collections', and `data handling'. Chapter three presents analysis of the data derived from the students' responses. The

discussion of the findings is to be found in chapter four that is divided into three sections. The first section overviews the results of the exploration of science students' proficiency in English. The second section will summarise the results related to Tunisian university students' perception about the value of English. The final section of this chapter will cover results from students reporting on their use of English. The paper will be concluded by synthesising the major findings and discussing the contribution of the study, its limitations, and by providing suggestions for other research.

The starting point of this paper is going to be the investigation of the situation of English in the world including its status in Tunisia. It is important to track these issues in order to have a clear idea about the perceived value of English that could be helpful in tracing possible change putting into perspective the attitude of Tunisian university science students towards English.

Chapter one: English in the world

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