The adversarial tone of Obeidats paper is set by his title, "Language vs.
Literature in English Departments in the Arab World," which is somewhat deceptive.
When one reads further, it becomes clear that "language" in this context really
means language and linguistics. Thus, Obeidat feels that there is an over-emphasis on
language and linguistics input into the English curriculum, and that this emphasis is not
of much use in raising the standards of the students proficiency in English.
Essentially, his thesis is that the best way to teach language is through literature. This
is a very challenging view which needs careful consideration.
My first objection to Obeidats discussion are his references throughout the paper
to literature courses on the one hand, and language and linguistics courses on the other.
This grouping of language teaching and linguistics teaching as one unit in opposition to
literature teaching is inaccurate and misleading. Teaching linguistics is not the same as
teaching language. The former involves teaching the content of an academic discipline,
while the latter involves the teaching of skills. Both are important activities, but it is
wrong to lump the two together.
The fact is that the teaching of linguistics may enhance and extend the students
awareness and understanding of a particular language, but it will not, per se, teach that
language. The teaching of language skills is a separate operation requiring its own
techniques and expertise which differ from those required in the teaching of linguistics.
But the same could surely be said about teaching literature and teaching language. A
certain level of proficiency in the language is required before a student can experience
any presumed language-enhancing benefits from either discipline.
By grouping language and linguistics courses together as one, Obeidat is unfairly
attacking the linguists in the English department for an implied weakness of the
students English. Furthermore, teaching linguistics or literature as a language
skills operation is a rather weak defensive position for members of either discipline to
adopt. The objective of teaching literature is surely to develop in the student the basics
of aesthetic appreciation of the literature produced in a given language, while that of
linguistics is to enable the student to see something of the intricate beauty of
linguistic systems and the wonder of mans adeptness vis-a-vis this complexity.
As academics, we should not be defending our respective disciplines by sheltering
behind the claim that we are really teaching language skills, a secondary, although
nonetheless important by-product which may or may not be realised in individual students.
My second criticism concerns the statistics Obeidat has presented in order to prove his
allegation of the language/linguistics domination. In view of what I have just stated, his
treatment of the total number of literature courses in contrast to the total number of
language and linguistics courses offered in various universities is not only misleading,
but actually argues against his thesis.
I refer in particular to his figures for Kuwait University which, he says, offers
undergraduates in the English Department 12 courses in literature and 14 in
language/linguistics, and for Sultan Qaboos University (Oman), which offers 13 literature
courses and 18 language/linguistics courses. If linguistics is correctly taken as a
separate academic discipline like literature, then it can be seen that if any single
discipline dominates the curriculum, it is literature. He further states that 46% of the
offerings in the English Department of Kuwait University and 42% of the offerings from
Sultan Qaboos University are literature courses. This means that the remainder (just over
half the total course offerings) are shared between language and linguistics. I feel that
these figures hardly add up to the sidelining of literature courses. If one were so
inclined, one could argue that any deficiencies in the students language proficiency
might be attributed to a domination by literature courses.
Even for the other universities he cites, where admittedly the figures for literature
courses are smaller, the picture is muddied by his failure to provide any breakdown in the
respective numbers of language skills courses and linguistics courses.
As far as the English Department at Kuwait University is concerned, the figures are
outdated. In recognition of the different preferences existing among the students, we are
now offering them the option, after the second year, of specialising in either linguistics
or literature. Under this plan, all students take six language skills courses, and up to
three remedial, non-credit courses, then five compulsory linguistics courses and five
compulsory literature courses. After that, they may choose to take either nine linguistics
courses or nine literature courses. The figures for Kuwait, at least, do not support his
However, quite apart from this confusion of language courses with linguistics courses,
there are also some very biased and unscientific statements about the relative merits of
literature and language/linguistics courses as the better approach for English
For example, one author writes: "Without an immediate acquaintance with words and
idioms in their actual context of literature, the formal knowledge of grammar and
grammatical rules alone is futile, if not worthless!" This rather sounds as if the
stuff of linguistics and language textbooks is simply lists of grammatical rules. Perhaps
the author should look at recent language textbooks based on the communicative approach.
He or she should consider of the range of subject matter that may be studied under the
rubric of linguistics. Even if we take a rather extreme case and look at the published
works of Chomsky, there is certainly considerable challenging and authentic text to be
found and not simply what the previous author alludes to elsewhere as "fruitless
linguistic trees," itself a somewhat insulting and really rather ignorant phrase.
Literary works are not the only source wherein a student may encounter words used
effectively in viable contexts. Indeed, a case could be made that many of the literary
texts studied in the English curriculum provide outdated contexts and obscure expressions
which fall far outside the range of any non-literary use of language. This point has been
ably set out by Zughoul (1987). Obeidat refers to this study, but he does not
satisfactorily address the valid points it raises. Instead, he sidesteps the whole issue
by underlining the idea that literature extends the students awareness of the
expressive capacity of the language. I do not think that any reasonable person could
dispute this, but it does not nullify the fact that there is also much that is unclear and
Obeidat, however, in trying to defend the case for literature seems to carry his
arguments too far. "Students," he writes, "should not be forbidden to study
it (i.e., literature). For it is only from literature that the student can obtain the
skills he/she needs." In the first place, I know of no English department which would
ever suggest forbidding the study of English literature, and in the second place, to
affirm that the study of literature alone is sufficient to ensure mastery of the language
seems to me to be a very unrealistic position.
However, considerable thought must be given to what it is that the student needs in
this context. Obeidat argues that a knowledge of "the semantic, syntactic,
morphological and phonological rules, principles, functions, theories, and
structures" is of little use to a graduate from the English department who is trying
to find employment as a high-school teacher, translator, or diplomat. Although querying
his particular choice of occupations, I do have some sympathy for this point. Many of our
graduates here in Kuwait end up working in banks or offices where a knowledge of Chomsky
is hardly an essential qualification. But then, neither is a knowledge of the diction of
T. S. Eliot or Shakespeare.
Is it, indeed, the role of the English Department to provide ESP or vocational language
training to qualify people for jobs in the banking industry? Surely, a university
departments main objective must be to provide for intellectual development within an
academic area congenial to the individual. With this in mind, let us call a truce and
recognise that some of our students may prefer the literary route, and some may prefer the
linguistics route, with very few of them doing doctorates in either discipline.
The issue is one that is much more basic than what appears from this rather unsavory
posturing that has been taking place between linguists and literature scholars. It is that
the majority of graduates from the English department are simply not as skilled or
accurate in the language as employers would like or, if the truth be told, as proficient
as they should be in order to deal effectively with their studies in literature or
linguistics. Instead of regarding either of these two disciplines as core to language
proficiency development and arguing over which one is superior, it would be more realistic
to admit that without a high level of proficiency in the language to begin with, the
average student could not be expected to derive much benefit from either. Chomsky himself
(1965) cautioned against the direct application of the insights obtained in linguistic
theory to the teaching of languages. And, as a linguistics teacher, I would honestly admit
that I do not regard the teaching of practical language skills as my professional
I remember Robert Penn Warren saying in a public lecture that he did not feel that it
was possible for a nonnative speaker to appreciate literature. In our context, this may
seem an unrealistically extreme position to adopt, but I think we can take from it that it
is only when a student has sufficient command of and expertise in the language that he can
derive any kind of aesthetic appreciation of literary works, which is surely a fundamental
aim of literature teaching. Thus, the focus of our concern should be on how to upgrade the
language skills of our students before they embark on these specialised courses. In most
cases, the hoped-for language improvement does not take place simply from the
students exposure to either linguistics or literature classes, and it is a sad fact
that all too many students graduate with a knowledge of transformational grammar and
Shakespeares plays but without having attained the ability to produce
well-constructed, error-free sentences in English.
Part of the problem is that many students end up taking fairly advanced courses in
literature and linguistics somewhat against their will and not really liking either.
I recently administered a detailed open-ended questionnaire to 71 students in the two
final years of the English Department of Kuwait University. I asked them a number of
questions about their feelings and attitudes vis-a-vis what they were studying. Students
filled in their responses anonymously and were encouraged to be as frank and extensive in
their replies as they wished. The result makes for very interesting reading.
One of the most enlightening things to emerge was that students overwhelmingly gave the
wish to perfect their language or their love of the English language as their aim in
joining the English department. Closely following this was the idea that studying English
would get them a good job. Neither the love of literature nor linguistics figured
significantly in their responses. In fact, it was not uncommon to encounter students with
a very vehement dislike of either discipline. There may be common sense grounds for
believing that the force-feeding of literature and linguistics courses on to an unwilling
student population may be counter-productive in terms of their language enhancement.
It is time for English departments to reassess their roles. The very fact that there is
this ongoing debate indicates that all is not well. On the one side are the demands and
wishes of both students and society that the English graduate have a good command of
English, which does not happen in many cases. On the other side are the valid aspirations
of the academics who are concerned with conveying the content and perceptions of their
At least four viable options are worth considering:
1. Let literature and linguistics be the chosen specialisations of those students who
show a genuine interest in and aptitude for these subjects and a sufficient command of the
language. This would rule out the misconception that these subjects are being taught
"merely as the means to raise the language performance of students who
can barely struggle through even the most basic of English texts. Such an approach would
drastically cut down on the numbers of under graduates entering these disciplines, but
would certainly make for a more satisfying professional experience for the academic
2. If current student numbers are to be maintained along with the existing
literature/linguistics emphasis, a much greater stringency has to be applied in language
proficiency teaching and testing before allowing students to embark on these specialised
courses. This may mean that some of the academic courses may have to be sacrificed for
more language skills courses or that students may have to spend more time taking
non-credit language skills courses. Whichever method is chosen, students should be
required to demonstrate a serviceable standard of English in a rigorous test of language
3. If we listen to the voice of both students and future employers then the
literature/linguistics emphasis may not be appropriate. Students taking part in my
questionnaire stated categorically that the aim in joining the department was to improve
their English and not to become linguistics or literature specialists. This seems to me to
be a viable position. However, the problem is to ensure the continued status of English
departments as centers of academic scholarship and to avoid their developing into some
kind of vocational training institutes. One way to deal with this might be to retain some
basic literature and linguistics courses and to expand the content orientation. There are
many well-written and intellectually challenging works in English beyond the range of
linguistics or literature that might be more mentally appealing to the students than what
they are currently required to read. Where there is interest, the language will follow.
4. Allow for a greater infusion of translation training into the degree programme.
Training in translation offers the chance of combining the literary, the linguistic, and
the practical. It would satisfy some of societys needs in relation to English
graduates. It would also require similar language prerequisites as outlined in (3) above.
The discussion of these suggestions and others that may be put forward in this vein
would provide a focus for debate in this context. English departments should recognise
that societies and individuals have various needs and offer choices which cater to these
differing predilections and requirements.
We need not focus on whether linguistics or literature lead to better proficiency as
there is room for both. We only need remember that our common aim is to provide a good,
intellectually challenging language education for our students and recognise that what
suits one individual may not suit another.
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