Trisha Reloaded

Dedicated to Trisha, as always. Dedicated also to L, my source of inspiration, and the reason why I choose to see the bright side of teaching.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The problem language

ST journalist Chua Mui Hoong echoed something that I've felt for a while since I started teaching. Her article "The problem language is really English" (ST, June 24) identified a problem that I see everyday in the neighbourhood school that I teach.

The average HDB kid has not much problem passing or doing reasonably well in Chinese. It is English that they struggle with most of the time. And yet, for so many years now, MOE has been putting its spotlight on the teaching of the Chinese Language, going so far as to recruit teachers from China, fiddle with syllabus changes, embark on study trips to China, introduce Syllabus B for Chinese, etc etc. Who will benefit most from these changes? If you ask me, the kids who have a hate-relationship with Chinese, come mainly from English-speaking homes, and hail from the more elite segment of our society.

Your HDB Ah Seng watches Mandarin soaps, listens to Mandarin pop, and converses in Mandarin most of the time, even in English class. I know, because I teach them everyday. So when Lee Hsien Loong's son claimed that he could not understand what went on in the Worker's Party rally, he epitomises the plight of many teenagers who are bred in English-speaking homes. I can confidently vouch that many of my students from my school can attend and appreciate Low Thia Kiang's delightfully eloquent Mandarin speeches.

So, Chua Mui Hoong is definitely right. The problem language is English. The majority of the students here are not coping well with English, despite the fact that MOE erroneously call English our first language. Why we took so long to recognise or admit this, is probably a result of who complains the loudest. Whose kids cannot handle Chinese in school? Who is emigrating because of our Mother Tongue policy?

Who does MOE want to help first?

Now that we are finally putting the teaching and learning of English under the microscope, I really hope something good will come out of this. Still, I am miffed that ang-moh teachers who are newly qualified could apply to teach here in Singapore. Plus, MOE's insistence that they should be those who are qualified to teach English as a first language. I personally think English should be taught here as a second language because that's the reality for most of us here. And we need teachers with experience in teaching EFL/ESL.

Anyway, now that we have identified the real problem, I hope we can move on to finding the right solutions.


At 7:07 PM, Anonymous piper said...

Hi :)

This has nothing to do with your post above really but I just wanted to say thanks for your comment. Also, how do you find the MEd in NTU? Is it useful in your day-to-day teaching?

At 8:51 PM, Blogger trisha said...

Hi piper,
I just started in June so can't comment on its usefulness yet.
In fact, I'm way behind in my reading. Watched too much soccer during the hols!

At 12:53 AM, Anonymous thebro said...

I just wonder, while the adults are debating about this issue, are the students themselves bothered?

In my classes, I've often told students that it is vitally important to improve their ability to express themselves, their thoughts, their understanding. I no longer expect good, grammatical English, just comprehensibility. But even that is beyond many students. Students (and I believe, some educators as well) seem to believe that English ability is unimportant in an area like IT: "But you're supposed to assess my understanding of programming/databases/etc, not my English!" Hello, if you can't even express your understanding in a comprehensible way, how am I to assess it? Now, to give myself less pain in marking, I need to regularly remind myself, when setting test/exam questions, to avoid setting those that require students to explain, describe, compare, etc. I.e. anything that expects students to write English sentences (or even phrases) that express their understanding. I hate to cave in like this, but I feel quite powerless to change anything. Very sad, but that's how it is.

Probably this *acceptability* of mediocre English in Singapore is going to be the biggest obstacle in this battle to improve our English standards... They say the first step to solving a problem is to first recognize it - unfortunately the very people we want to help don't seem to think they have a problem at all.

At 10:50 AM, Anonymous Germs said...

There've been a number of occasions where i've been asked the question: "where are u from, u speak such good english?"
(Ok, point taken that good english is relative, as u probably u can attest when i return to Singapore & try to converse in english - & u guys laughing away).
Of course, these "AngMos" just couldn't place my accent - clearly not a native speaker but also not mainland chinese.

My point is that ALL of my english teachers were locals & i do pride myself in being able to communicate in more-or-less grammatically correct (AND COMPLETE) sentences. So i fail to see that a foreigner as a teacher would be better.
One possible point to note would be perhaps the pronunciation of certain words wh i now discovered is different between Sing & my British/Native speaker colleagues.
And i also support what thebro says abt "comprehensibility". A foreign student here just defended his doctorate & was disappointed that he had such a bad grade despite his years of hard work (almost till midnite each day with weekends thrown in). His problem was his failure to realize how poor his English was & was trying to learn German for his daily life here; when he shd have concentrate on improving his communication skills in English. Sigh!

At 12:49 AM, Blogger trisha said...


I can empathise with your problem. I try my darndest now to get students to recognize their problem but they seem to think they are OK. Perhaps in the poly, you get the bulk of students from the non-elite schools, and many come from non-English speaking homes. So the problem looms larger at your end.

It's sad when people do not realise that you need language to think. And when you speak/write poorly, then you are incapable of thinking deeply.

Welcome back!
Your English is very acceptable to me. Of course we tease you when you're back here because you seem to fumble over simple words sometimes. I won't even comment on your Chinese, which (shame shame!) you are even worse in!

At 11:47 AM, Blogger John Riemann Soong said...

I'm tired of all this.

I'm tired of remarks on my country of origin (which they think is China) when I'm in the US.
I'm tired of being made fun of my accent when I'm in Singapore, or being accused of intentionally acting ang mo.
I'm tired of explaining where I learnt to speak "such good English", because though my accent is different from most Singaporeans, it no longer conforms to one geographic region.
I'm tired of being judged by the colour of my skin and hair, which seems inescapable wherever I go, whether in Singapore, the United States or any other country.
I'm tired of constantly being reminded of my race, tired of the looks I get when I walk in a public place, tired of that line that says "Race: Chinese" on my student transit card.
I'm tired of being isolated from other Singaporeans because of rigid streaming, of not being able to interact with other schools, unable to understand the plight of individuals that are not of my race, my religion, my stream, my school, because the government seems to intentionally segregate us so.
I'm tired of getting looks of despisal when I say I have replaced taking Chinese with taking French, or having to explain to an unsympathetic teacher my situation.
I'm tired of the government's bilingual policy, not because of bilingualism itself, but because the government's ideal bilingual is one who speaks English and Mandarin, and based on race.
I'm tired of English-as-a-first-language speakers being classified as non-native, while at the same time
I'm tired of a government who wishes to suppress Singlish by censorship
I'm tired of a government hostile to dialects of all languages, ridding Singapore of true diversity with democide, ethnic cleansing, pomp and fanfare
I'm tired of a government who condones the preferential treatment of Caucasian expatriates as though they are superior in all things, including language
I'm tired of a government which does not seem to recognise Singaporean Caucasians as one of their own, and of the label "Caucasian" in general.
I'm tired of a government which preaches authoritarianism as a form of "Asian values", as though we're not eligible for liberal democracy on account for our race.
I'm tired of a government which forces rigid classification schemes for everyone with no thought for those, numbering many, who might not conform.
I'm tired of a government which fails to realise the unique individuality of every Singaporean.

I'm tired of all this.

Even if I decide to emigrate to somewhere other than Singapore permanently, that isn't a solution, because I am deprived of my cultural identity, not to mention racism still endures. Sometimes, I even think about death.

At 4:49 AM, Blogger cabtrix said...

I apologise if this is a rather redundant question, but I'm curious about where that bit about PM LHL's son.. I've met him perhaps a few dozen times and he's definitely not elitist.


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