The Problems of Teaching and Learning English

A study of Libyan Non-specialist University Students. A Proposal I have written in 2006


 Brief Description of the Project

This work is on the problems, attitudes and perspectives which Libyan non-specialist university students have towards learning English. After reviewing the literature written on this subject from numerous library sources, I will make a statistical analysis of the students’ responses to a survey questionnaire. Another questionnaire will also be distributed to university lecturers. A main concern is to find the reasons behind the hindrance of learning English in the past for university students. The questionnaire will be handed out, finished and collected immediately. Several suggestions will be provided for future application in teaching English to non-specialist university students in Libya.

Background and literature review

Some researchers focused on certain issues including language teaching, learning theories, teaching materials, teaching approaches, methodologies, and syllabus design. Although research is being carried out everyday, much of it has been powerfully constrained by western cultural assumptions .The topic of “how the local educational, teaching environment has influenced students learning” has been neglected. This leads to the unresolving of local English learning problems for long periods of time.

This work looks into some causes that may have greatly hindered the effectiveness of English learning for non-specialist students in Libya. Through survey data analysis, students’ attitudes towards English learning and the fears that may have grown out of previous experiences will be documented. It is the writer belief that a better understanding of language learners can have a beneficial effect on the process of attempting to help them in learning English as a foreign language. Only those who have actually taught English in Libya can visualise the scene of thirty, forty, even fifty students learning together in a single classroom. English teaching and learning theory, approaches or methodology established in the past do not often take the reality of large size classes into consideration. Little credit can be given to their practicality in terms of actual application in such classroom settings. For example, it seems to be the case that whenever big size class is encountered, a common language learning environment is created in Arabic rather than English.

This situation is strongly related to social, cultural, and economic differences as well as local teaching problems that appear to be insoluble. If the local situation remains unchanged, even after years of local researcher and practitioners advocacy of sound teaching and learning theories and methodologies that seem so well established in the west, there must be some facts that require re-examination at a more fundamental level than previously thought. As Sridhar (1994, p.801) points out:

“SLA [Second Language Acquisition] theories needs rebuilding from the ground up, in order to have a more functionally orient and culturally authentic theory: why do models of second language acquisition (SLA) developed in the US and Western Europe treat the vast majority of L2 learners, those that learn and use an L2 in non-native contexts, as marginal? the inescapable answer seems to be that current theories are powerfully constrained by cultural premises”

Indeed, when discussing any issue about teaching and learning, cultural differences should contribute tremendously to the thrust of the discussion. Issues may include the differences of educational systems, learning condition, teaching and learning styles, learning differences between Western and Arabic cultures and differences in needs for the language use in the job market.

Those who have the experience of living or being educated for a period of time in the west may have noticed that students are not afraid of asking questions or using the target language even when making errors. In Libya, most students remain silent even when they feel that they want to ask questions and participate. Those students are very conscious of making errors in front of their classmates.

Libya has an Islamic culture which seeks compromise between people. When applied to language learning, it is obvious that students are hesitant to air their views loudly for fear of losing face or offending others. In addition there are some Libyan sayings that discourage oral communication in class. The following are some examples: if talking is silver, silence is gold; your tongue is your horse, if you protect it, it protects you; the best speech is the one that is short but articulate.

Most language teachers in Libya today were previously students in Libya. Part of that experience included physical punishment dished out by teachers and insulting comments from classmates or friends, and maybe even parents. While the situation has somewhat improved, physical punishment for poor performance is still practiced in some schools. Such a profile of preparatory and secondary school education is not at all unique to Libya.

Objective of Study

The objective of this study is to investigate some factors that may have influenced the effectiveness of English learning for non-specialist university students in Libya, and their attitudes and perspectives about English learning.

The questionnaire, which will be used, examines the causes that may have influenced students’ English learning effectiveness and their views/attitudes about English learning. The students will be asked to rate statements, such as “studying English in preparatory and secondary schools caused fear and unpleasant feelings” on the following scale-type: (1) totally agree, (2) somewhat agree, (3) somewhat disagree, (4) totally disagree.

The questionnaire will be translated into Arabic because most of university students in Libya do not understand English very well, except those who study at English departments in faculties of arts. The survey will be analysed statistically. Such analysis can help us understand only students general views, but also, more importantly, any significant differences among the classes which will participate in the study.


In this study, we will have investigated students’ attitudes and perspectives about English learning and what their fears were in the past English learning process. Of special interest will be the way different students show preferences for different language skills and teaching methods. While it maybe difficult to measure objectively, it is generally observed by teachers of English in Libya that certain students have better English skills than others. What this investigation looks for is that while some groups of students may generally be accepted as having better English ability, students of Medicine and Science faculties for example, this does not exclude other students as having equal interests and potential, but with a difference emphasis and differences in attitude.

The general lack of research on the issues surrounding non-specialists in English in Libya has led many languages teachers in Libya to assume that all students can be treated with the same standard approach. This has inevitably given way to disappointment because our students in Libya are not studying English as a foreign language as apposed to English as a second language, but the same vast majority of students studying English are non-specialists. Can we assume then that different majors have the interest and outlook, value the same skills or generally appreciate our efforts in the same way? This work points towards understanding the special needs of each group of students. This may mean adopting methods to suit the target students. While fashionable teaching methodologies come and go, the teaching situation in Libya is generally similar with large class size and limited resources. Rather than dismissing teaching methodologies, such as the ‘grammar translation’, we should realize that such methodologies may have useful applications when combined with other factors such as students’ backgrounds, levels, preferences, future needs for English, teachers, cultures, etc. As Hsiu-Ju Lin (1996) put it: “the degree to which I would stress one or the other would depend on the level of students and their needs…” the difference among the students sheds some light on the special groups and their specific needs that make up non-specialist students studying English. While most studies of English learners in Libya have dealt with English majors, there are far more students studying English because it is a core requirement at all levels.


The following bibliography contains only a sample of the library sources which will be used. Various books and journals as well as the information from the Internet will be used.

Byrne, D. Focus on the Classroom, (Modern English Publications, 1988).

Davies, A (ed). Problems of Language Learning, Heinemann, 1975.

Harmer, J. The Practice of English Language Teaching, Longman, 1983.

Lin, H. J. (1996). The study of Students’ Survey in the methodology for English Instruction, Chaoyang Research Journal, 1, 107-120.

Lin, H. J. Different Attitudes Among Non-English Major EFL Students, The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. IV, No. 10, October 1998.

Norris-Holt, Jacqueline. An Investigation of Japanese High School Students’ Attitudes Towards the Study of English, Second Language Learning & Teaching: An electronic journal for postgraduate students, SLLT, Vol. 2, 2002. Available at:

Petty, Geoff. Teaching Today: A Practical Guide, Nelson Thornes, 2004.

Sridhar, S. N. (1994), A Reality Check for SLA Theories, TESOL Quarterly, 28 (4), 800-5.

Willis, J. Teaching English Through English, Longman, 1981.