Sunday 12 September 2010

Why Singaporeans should stop teaching ourselves English

I recently came across an article on the Asia Sentinel website written by an anonymous “correspondent” who had visited Singapore for a day and was “irritated by the smug attitude of the island republic's officials, taxi drivers and others”.

While I disagreed with many of the conclusions in the article, there was one comment I found pertinent.

“The English language,” observed the writer, “taught only by natives who learn it from others on the island, starts to evolve into a strange crackle.”

Okay, maybe “strange crackle” is a bit harsh, but the fact that the Speak Good English Movement returned for its 11th year is an acknowledgement that the way Singaporeans (not just Phua Chu Kang) speak the language could be ... well, less “strange”.

But do we “natives” speak not-so-good English because we have been taught by “native” teachers who themselves speak not-so-good English, which is what the writer seemed to be suggesting?

Yes, I believe so.

Our educators’ standard of English is so low that a few of my son’s teachers have mispronounced his name, Graeme, as “Jeremy”.

Perhaps it’s my fault. I should have just given my son a simpler name like Jack or Ah Seng so as to not confound our teachers and spare him the emotional scar.

Our teachers are unwittingly passing down bad language habits (like mispronouncing “divorce” as “die-vorce”, and “gross” as “grause”) which they picked up from their teachers who picked up the bad habits from their teachers and so on.

So how do we break this cycle?

For one thing, we have to stop the blind from leading the blind. Singaporeans have to admit that our English just isn’t good enough and stop teaching the language to ourselves.

We need to be taught by native English speakers, which means they can’t be “native” to Singapore.

Of course, it’s impossible to have every teacher teaching English in Singapore be a native English speaker.

But can’t we at least have native English speakers train our teachers and weed out the bad language habits that have been passed down for generations?

But that means recruiting more "foreign talent", a touchy subject nowadays. And native English speakers mean Westerners, whose accents and reputed liberal attitudes tend to bring out the xenophobe in us.

So what do we do instead?

Last week, the Speak Good English Movement introduced the all-powerful sticky notes to battle bad English.

If only I could stick them on Jeremy’s teachers.

- Published in The New Paper, 12 September 2010

UPDATE: After this column was published, I learnt that the Government had considered hiring native English-speaking teachers in 2006 but faced some resistance and now seemed to have abandoned the idea.

Dear Mr Ong,

I refer to your article (12 Sept). The 'strange crackle, you refer to, I am more than familiar.

As a teacher of English, as a second language, I come across all kinds of deviations.

As a native speaker, I concur with your thoughts that Singaporeans 'need to be taught by Native English speakers'. I hail from East London, England, where I can assure you, the vernacular is no different from 'Singlish or Manglish'.

In fact, as I have been teaching, in Kualar Lumpur, for the last six years with 'native' speakers from Somerset, Yorkshire and London, as well as those from the U.S.A; Canada; Australia and New Zealand. I can assure you that all their accents can confuse most teachers, let alone the students.

I suggest that, Singaporean educators should take a monthly course (British Council); or sit in at one of our schools, to gauge what is needed. Many of our non-English teachers have the same problems that the referred article outlines.

I have written a book referring to basic phonetics that are the cause of the problems referred to. Teaching phonetics is a skill.

I have written to The Straits Times regarding their misuse, also, of nouns and adjectives. They quote from articles that use the noun instead of the adjective in descriptions. For example, the Britain footballers instead of the British footballers. It is small wonder then, that Singaporeans ' speak not-so-good English'.

I would be deeply obliged if you could forward me the Speak Good English Movement's 'all-powerful sticky notes', so that I, also, can 'combat bad English' in Malaysia.

Yours sincerely
Phil Rashid Ba.Dip.Eur.Hum

P.S. You would not believe the deviations my surname has conjured up over the years!!

Dear Mr Ong,

Having read the article you wrote about having native English speakers teach our students, may I, in my capacity as an English teacher in a local secondary school, address the issue and present my viewpoints. In the educational field, you belong to the group of advocates who blame 'rising tide of mediocrity' solely on the school.

You argue that improving education depends directly on improving classroom instruction, in this case having native speakers teach our students perfect pronunciation would solve the perceived problem. This idea has natural appeal, given that it promises direct action where it matters and clarifies accountability.

However, such accountability is excessive and appears punitive to teachers. May I also add that the poor usage of language among our younger generation nowadays reflect not just the shortcomings of schools and teachers but also the decline of family, dissolution of community and growth of diversity.

Schools alone cannot make up for the support children are losing because of changes in families and communities. In short, there is a role for every stakeholder involved in the child's education journey, and playing the blame game certainly isn't one of them.

I feel it necessary to reply to your article as it is reflective of the inaccurate assumptions held by many 'so called' experts. Thank you.


Dear S M Ong,

I have happened upon your incisive article on how we need to stop teaching English to ourselves.

I do wonder about that anonymous article on the Asia Sentinel; it mirrors one that I wrote some time ago. During a visit to Delaware, I wrote to The Review, a college paper, suggesting that Americans need to stop teaching English to themselves. The way Americans misspell "color" annoys me to no end. Also, the way the English sometimes find an additional "h" very hacceptable, years (yes)?

In the case of the latter, I suspect they may have problems not teaching English to themselves; they will just have to rely on some migrant Italian, German, Polish or even (heaven forbid) American teacher to get it right. Imagine that happening, anywhere in the world.

At any rate, I suspect that your anonymous article writer plagiarized my work. Still, nothing to be done about that now; we can't keep track of all the second rate columnists in the world.

I am, for the most part, in agreement with you. English should not be taught by non-native speakers; we have all seen the disastrous consequences of this. It is just the occasional oddity when non-native speakers have coped. Barring Portugal, Argentina, and much of Western Europe during the Industrial Revolution, "proper" English (or do you mean proper grammar, I'd hate to step on the toes of any linguistics majors) has never developed without a massive import of native speakers.

I am sorry to hear of your son's "emotional scar". A simple name such as Jack or Ah Seng may be, as you claim, the limit of our capacity in this country. The part may as well constitute the whole, and if his teacher cannot pronounce "Graeme", it may as well be that I or most others cannot. I fear that it may be catching; I could swear I once heard a colleague of yours pronounce "Jorge" as "George." An unforgivable error, so I'm sure it a Straits Times editor would never do it.

An obscure method of applying a Kantian principle perhaps? I can think of no better reason why an article against native English would be written by someone with a tag-line that reads "Act Blur".

I was much entertained by your assumption of our xenophobic attitudes, and our disdain for liberalism. Until you raised the issue, I never knew I preferred conservative immigrants; imagine my surprise at you confident assertion that I would prefer a flood of beer drinking, NASCAR loving, cross-burning, Alabama-born rednecks. Thank you for alerting me to my own sociopolitical inclinations, over which you claim such confident authority.

Overall, I'd have to say I am impressed by your work thus far. As an article writer, you are always full of surprises. I liken your work to coral: alive, even if it often looks dead.

(P.S. I daresay you can get away with sticking notes on the back of your son's teacher. Perhaps she will be replaced by an American or Briton, whose "liberal" values will embrace it with a laugh.)

Yours in amazement,
Ryan Ong

Dear Mr Ong,

I refer to your article in The New Paper on Sunday (12 Sept) about the teaching of English and agree with much of what you say. I read your column every week and enjoy reading it.

I am an expatriate English teacher at Bukit Panjang Government High School and one of my tasks is to help staff with their English. I conduct lessons at every contact time on pronunciation and speaking good English. This is an initiative of the Principal and the MOE who have recognised the need for such lessons.

Teachers are also attending lessons, in their own time, conducted by RELC so we are taking steps in the right direction to address the problems you raise in the article.

We don't put sticky notes on our teachers (not yet, anyway) but they are made aware of common errors in pronunciation and are striving to do better. As you may appreciate, this is a long-term exercise and we don't expect miracles overnight.

Paul Osgodby

UPDATE: My response to the e-mails