I’m on my way back from a week in Saudi Arabia, where I observed an interesting bit of sociolinguistic phenomena taking place. Saudi Arabia is home to five and a half million foreign workers from a variety of countries, including, but not limited to Eritrea, Bangaldesh, Pakistan, India, and the Phillipines. While some of these foreign workers speak, or come to learn, Arabic, many don’t.
However, a huge proportion of service jobs, including cashiers, waiters, drivers, and hotel staff are filed by foreign workers, and these types of work require interaction with the public. So both the workers and the Saudi public are filling in the gap by interacting in English. It’s a perfect example of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) at work. (See Jennifer Jenkins, or Barbara Seidlhofer’s work for a description of ELF.)
I was in one cafe in a Riyadh mall staffed exclusively by Filipina women, and the only Arabic I heard throughout the duration of my meal with between the diners themselves. From what I could observe in restaurants, cafeterias and hotels, Saudis seem to gauge upon first meeting a service employee whether he/she will be able to speak Arabic, and address them accordingly. The English I heard in these interactions ranged from fluent, to very basic, on behalf of both the Saudis and foreign workers involved.
I didn’t have a chance to ask any Saudis ( or workers, for that matter) how they felt about this; whether they interacted begrudgingly in English, or whether they relished the chance to practice their foreign language, or if they simply accepted it as a consequence of no Saudi wanting to fill these low-level jobs. It would be interesting to hear the attitudes toward this practice by those directly involved.