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.

Friday, August 11, 2006

A Tall Order

The headlines screamed "Judge raps teacher for infantile behaviour" (ST, 12 Aug). I have now developed the instinct to cringe in nervous anticipation whenever I spot the word "teacher" in a newspaper headline. And this time my reflex action has proven my fear to be valid.

Now, why can't the headline read "Judge raps 43-year-old adult for infantile behaviour"? Surely that should be the thrust of the report. That an adult is behaving in a juvenile way, and not that a Teacher is guilty of the misdemeanour. What is it about Teachers that presupposes we are moral icons of society? OK, so we are tasked to "mould the future of our nation" and that carries with it some heavy responsibilities but surely how can any reasonable person expect us to be saints?

I am not saying the Teacher in this particular report is any less wrong for her behaviour. We are talking about the obnoxious Everitt Road resident whom we wouldn't want to feature in the One Million Smiles campaign. But the point is, does being a Teacher precludes one from being less than perfect?

How on earth can I live up to the ridiculously tall order that the general public has of me?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Forum writer Lin Kaiping also wants MOE to do this :

"...consider importing not just native-speaking English teachers, but also native-speaking Mathematics, Science, and Humanities teachers. Alternatively, ensure that all would-be teachers have a minimum English standard before they are accepted into the MOE service." (Emphasis mine. ST, 12 Aug)

OK, lets get this straight. I think I can just about swallow, albeit with some difficulty, the need to hire native-speaking English teachers. There is a serious lack of qualified English teachers in Singapore. While doing my teacher training at NIE not too long ago, I was quite shocked to count among my peers, Physics and Maths graduates who were assigned to teach English. They struggled with the definitions of nouns, verbs and adjectives. Some wrote essays that were quite badly organized. Compulsory modules on English Grammar and Phonetics were foisted on these poor fellows. But we know it was a desperate move. I'm sure these teachers would rather be teaching something else rather than English. Hence, hiring native-speaking EL teachers may solve the problem of this temporary shortfall.

But native-speaking teachers of other subjects? Are you out of your mind, Mr Lin? Have you kissed the asses of too many Caucasians that you are ready to dismiss local teachers so derisively? Granted, local teachers may not speak perfect English all the time, but what makes you think native-speakers speak flawless English, and are far superior in teaching Maths or Science? Is the prime responsibility of a Maths teacher to teach Maths well or to model good English?

Many local teachers do speak intelligible standard English. Even if Singlish creeps into their teaching, it is essential to build rapport with the students. If Britons or Australians or Americans appear to speak better English than us, it is because they are ensconced in a largely monolingual society. As long as we insist on bilinguallism in Singapore, then Singlish is here to stay. Eradicating it from our daily lives is as easy as asking Singaporeans to be less kiasu, if you ask me.

Local teachers are very aware of the need to speak good English in class. So give us some space and time to use it more and more in the classroom. Let's not rush to embrace foreign 'talent' at the expense of developing our own resources.


At 2:26 AM, Blogger Woof! said...

well, I've been out of school a long time, but I'm sure most adults still hold teachers in high esteem, hence the "sensationalism" when a teacher does something less than perfect.. kinda like a religious figure.. heh..

At 11:08 AM, Blogger John Riemann Soong said...

I find your use of "native speaker" to exclude local teachers insulting to all Singaporeans, as it would imply that somehow we are not native speakers of a language that was our first.

Please in the future, do not conform to government definitions. Put "native speaker" in quote marks if you must.
We must dissent.

Most of us are all native speakers. Now, being a native English speaker and being an expert on English linguistics is different. One can be a native speaker without ever consciously realising the language rules - it just flows. On the other hand, non-native speakers tend to be especially conscious of concepts like conjugation, declension and morphemes.

At 7:10 PM, Anonymous petals said...

yes.. the expectations that the public has of the profession is more demanding than ever despite the deterioration of social mores. it does not help when the media seems not on our side when it chooses any slant just to sensationalise the news.

but cheer up.. you are not in it alone.

At 2:13 AM, Blogger trisha said...

I guess if a teacher is a child molester, then it justifies some sensational headlines. But 'infantile behaviour' - hmm..sometimes I'm guilty of this too.

I apologise if you feel slighted by my exclusion of local teachers in my use of 'native speaker'. Perhaps you feel, rightly maybe, that you are qualified to call yourself a native speaker of English as any Briton or American.

However, I do not agree with 2 of your statements :
1) "we are not native speakers of a language that was our first". I am assuming you are referring to English, and by stating that English is our first language, you are already using the government's definition of our first language (i.e. Eng), which is far from the truth. Just because Eng is the language medium in our schools here does not mean it is our first language. I have argued in another post that for the majority of Singaporeans, English is more like a second or even foreign language, and should be taught as such. The student profile in many local schools here reflect this.

2) "Most of us all are native speakers" - Again I'm assuming you are referring to English and again I want to say there is no statistical evidence to show that MOST OF US here grow up in a predominantly English-speaking family. In fact, such people are in the minority, including your local teachers. Which is why people like Mr Lin can suggest that we import teachers who are 'native speakers' because we really don't have that many here.

I think what we may eventually get in Singapore, a few generations down, are native speakers of Singlish for the majority, and a few native speakers of English.

At 2:32 AM, Blogger A Simpler Life ... said...

Hi Trisha,

I think it is good that many of us still hold high expectations of teachers. It means we respect their contributions and think they are worthy of our respect :)

In the case mentioned, it was not just an action out of an 'infantile moment'. I think she should seriously reflect upon herself her actions in the saga. She was my classmate long time ago :(

Sure, we have our moments of follies and silliness and we understand them, but as a teacher, one should take more responsibility in one's actions.

I would very much like to view teachers as professionals, no different from doctors or lawyers.

But my experience with some teachers here has been rather disappointing.

But, I still don't think native speakers are necessary :) This obsession with native teachers is someone's colonial hangover, in my opinion.

We just need better teaching methods and more training for our teachers, like you said.


At 7:46 PM, Anonymous teck soon said...

I think many Singaporeans are native Singlish speakers, but not native English speakers. There is a big difference. Bilingualism is also not the only cause of Singlish creole. Many other bilingual societies, like parts of Belgium, Quebec province in Canada, Welsh-speaking Wales, or anywhere in Western Europe where English is learned at a young age, do not develop creoles. The Dutch, though they speak English only with foreigners, do so with better (more standard) grammar and vocabulary choice than the typical Singaporean, regardless of "native speaker" status. Perhaps whether someone is a "native speaker" or not is irrelevant. What counts is whether Singaporeans can communicate effectively or not with the rest of the world. Using Singlish is fine in Singapore, but be prepared to be ridiculed abroad and lose business in advertising, marketing, etc., to people who can speak the same language as the customers. Many Singaporeans cannot effectively switch from Singlish to Standard English when the situation warrants it. That is the problem, and it also demonstrates that these Singaporeans should not arrogantly assume that they are "native speakers".

At 12:08 AM, Blogger ILJ said...

i agree with most of your comments. However, I'm not too sure about how bilingualism leads to singlish. Singlish is a mix of languages, yes. But how does bilingualism being a policy choice to teach more than one language lead to that mix and match language we call Singlish?

Second, your point about developing local talent seems dubious. What makes you think that making local teachers *try* to speak good english would help develop these talents? I honestly think sending those teachers back for grammar lessons would be more useful than having them self-regulate their flawed mastery of the language. After all, who are you expecting to correct them when they make mistakes? the students?

At 12:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From my experience, "native speaker" does not automatically equal "good language teacher".

A very good example:
The Japanese spends billions of yen going to English language schools taught by "native speakers" every year. Most of them still have English level worse than Singlish.

At 4:28 PM, Blogger Kelvin said...

Hi Trisha, I thought I had to write something to Forum regarding this issue -
Dunno if they will print it.


At 9:29 PM, Blogger John Riemann Soong said...

Teck soon: But I can easily make an argument that the Quebecans do not speak "standard French" either. Drastically different pronunciations from that of Parisian French, as well as often a different set of vocabulary in regards to loanwords. They're ironically more purist but there is a noticeable rift between francais quebecois and francais de Paris ...

As far as I am aware, using Singlish particles ("chey", "sia", "leh", etc.) does not warrant ridicule in the outside world .... well because I've been using it since I returned to the United States without incident (a lot of people I've met think it's rather cool, actually). However, where the problem lies is when people fail to make the proper conjugational and declension agreement (which is actually in quite a reduced form in English - confined usually to plural-singular agreement) ....

Furthermore, Dutch English-speakers are likely to be less numerous, and hence, those who do pick up English are likely to study it formally. It's an observed phenomenon - often people who acquire a language academically end up being more grammatically correct than their native speakers. Take French for example ... a lot of Parisians would drop the "ne" for negated clauses entirely, (ie. "c'est pas possible"! - it's not possible, as opposed to "ce n'est pas possible...")

According to Wikipedia, there are some statistics in which one can gauge native languages - which language is most frequently spoken in the home. There is no majority language - the plurality is Mandarin, at 35% (see the Wikipedia article for Demographics of Singapore) - barely above a third. Dialects make up a significant portion (and used to be more than Mandarin), while English composes around 20%. (It's harder to gauge true bilingual families since they might be native in both but one just happens to be spoken more than the other.)

Of course, I am beginning to suspect it's because of demographic alignment: for example in the schools I went to, Fairfield and ACSI, for the students whose language they learned first wasn't English, they were in the minority. However, I see in other schools like New Town Sec (my sister's former school) or Yew Tee, mother tongue use in English class is more prevalent. I was rather perturbed to discover this, firstly not just the fact itself, but the fact of the fact: that I didn't know before - I had no idea. The very isolation among the students - isolation aided by streaming the students so that native English speakers like me had no idea of the plight of other students elsewhere in Singapore - is even more perturbing.

As I suspect, it's also very much a socioeconomic issue. Have you seen our Gini coefficient? It's 0.42 - higher than India's (0.35), even with its Calcutta, where documentaries have made it reknown for income disparity and where beggars sleep not too far away from the mansions.

On the other hand, Singlish is a dialect of English, and it is basically mutually intelligible if one tones down the non-English phrases (one doesn't even have to exclude the lahs and the lehs) .... it would be like suggesting individuals with a heavy US Southern accent aren't native speakers of English, because they have their own unique constructions.

At 1:01 AM, Blogger Ensui said...

i do agree that most of us can't speak good english and that fact should be corrected. using foreign talent to teach english might not solve the problem.

being in australia for four years, i was somewhat astonished to discover that some of them are as bad as us: ignorant to the definitions of nouns, verbs and adjectives. i won't be surprise if that trend prevails in America or England as well. :p

At 6:24 PM, Blogger trisha said...

Hi Ensui:

Welcome back! Haven't heard from you for awhile!

Oh yes, native speakers are often quite clueless about grammatical rules. I used to have penfriends from U.K. and the U.S. and I think I write better than them.
On the other hand, my penfriend from Ghana writes beautiful English. Go figure.


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