Monday, January 19, 2009

The appalling standard of English in schools

I'm prompted to write this post because Andre came home with a spelling list last week and one of the items on the list was "swimming gears". I had to explain to him that "gear" used in this manner was a collective noun, like "equipment", there shouldn't be an "s" (unless they meant actual gears that could swim, which I seriously doubt...) What I couldn't explain to him was how it could appear on a spelling list that would supposedly have been set and approved by a few English teachers.

Andre also told me that his teacher explained the difference between "suitcase" and "luggage". She said suitcase refers to the actual bag whereas luggage refers to the items inside, that's why you use the phrase "unpack your luggage". Aiyoh, there are so many things wrong with that statement I don't even know where to begin!

In the end, I called the school's English Head of Department to inform her of the "swimming gears" error, but I let the luggage issue slide with just an explanation to Andre because he was very uncomfortable with the thought of me telling his teacher she was wrong. "Aiyah, she's very nice already, you know!" he protested. In his eyes, having a nice teacher more than makes up for her linguistic shortcomings.

It just vexes me that my kids are picking up bad English in school, of all places. And the problem appears to be endemic - I've spotted grammar and spelling errors even in the English exam papers of the top schools. (Here's one: "Mother sewed the hole in Peter's shirt.") As mentioned in an early post, a friend of mine was appalled that her son, who attends a mission school, told her his teacher pronounced "kennel" as "canal" and told him to "on the computer". The latest anecdote - the same teacher taught the class that "Tom's father reads papers." The worst part is that the child treats his teacher's words as the gospel truth, so my friend has a hard time trying to correct his mistakes.

Is it my imagination or is the situation getting worse? You would have thought that after decades of adopting English as 1st language, standards would have improved but on the contrary, I believe they have declined. I'm really not sure why. I was recently lamenting about it to a friend, saying all these teachers were supposed to be trained and she said, "well, maybe all the trainers in NIE are teaching bad English!"

Could it be, that the reason why bad English is so pervasive in schools is because it's being handed down like some long-standing tradition? When Lesley-Anne was in p2, she wrote in her composition, "After hearing the news, it made Jane feel better." Her English teacher corrected "feel" and wrote "felt". Thankfully Lesley-Anne was confident enough about her English to know her teacher was wrong, but what a fiasco.

I don't know if our multi-racial, multi-cultural society makes it harder for us to pick up the language because we're confused by all the different language systems and rules. Or maybe Singaporeans can only learn by fixed formulae and rules, so while we can shine in subjects like maths, we falter in areas like languages which require a certain amount of intuition and familiarity since the rules tend to be more arbitrary.

I have no idea. I also have no idea how to solve the problem, except on my own little part, to correct my kids when I spot the errors. What I do know is that all these kids who learn sub-par English will grow up imparting this same standard to the next generation.

I also know that bad English is widespread in Singapore, not just in schools. I've spotted bad grammar and spelling in the most unlikely places - signs at community centres, government brochures, even in the national newspapers and media websites! When I was at one of the National Library branches, I spotted a sign above the bookdrop - "24-hours bookdrop". (For those of you who are unaware, it should be "hour" without the "s"). If even the national body promoting reading and literacy can make elementary English mistakes, I think the situation looks bleak for the rest of the population.


Anonymous said...

Hey there, Monica
Glad you raised this issue and I would sure like to add on to this thread of discussion. I may not be as sharp as you are to spot all the linguistic errors, but I agree that the English standard in Singapore has not been up to the mark at all. ( even the " mark" is debatable and questionable in the first place ) I have been teaching English as a first lang. in several local govt. schools ( supposedly first lang. ) and sadly, through all those years, I've been swimming up stream with this issue too, amongst other things that made an English teacher's day rather miserable. However, after I left MOE, I joined an international school to teach English as a second lang. to Korean students. I had a chance to work with native speakers of the English Lang. and hence was not only more challenged, but experienced a whole new level of English Lang. standard! Monica, I think this has partly to do with Singapore's history and we're still a pretty young nation compared to Japan or China or Egypt... and really English lang is taught in school "supposedly" as a first lang. but is it really treated as first lang here? And if so, first lang. should attain an even higher standard so that when we speak the way we do overseas, native speakers of the English lang. should understand us and not go " huh?" ( ie. not just grammar, spelling and semantics, but right down to pronunciation as well. ) Oh... we can go on and on discussing this in the open but to have concrete practical actions taken to improve the situation... sadly to say, looks rather bleak.

monlim said...

Anon: You're right, if native speakers can't understand us, it says something about our standards! And you know, I'm not expecting all pri school English teachers to be walking English dictionaries, but just to get basic grammar right. Even if they don't understand a phrase or word, it's ok to say "I'll check it up and get back to you." What is not ok is when they don't know (or think they know) and teach wrong meanings and usage. I feel for non-English speaking parents whose entrust the English teaching to schools and are unaware that their kids are learning the wrong things.

Lilian said...

Like anon, I'm not as sharp as you are in spotting errors, only the jarring ones.

My parents' generation definitely spoke better English than mine. Native speakers will have no problem understanding my English-speaking uncles and aunties in Malaysia, who are in their 50s and above. I believe this is because they were taught English by native speakers.

Those of my generation who learnt English as a 2nd language don't speak as well, but still benefitted from good English teachers who had been taught by native speakers. And during our time, mission schools were run by brothers and sisters, some of whom are native speakers themselves. Sad to note, the last of the La Salle brothers in Malaysia retired last year.

The trouble is, bad English doesn't seem to concern many these days. I remember a young colleague who speaks pretty bad English arguing that language is about communicating, as long as he's understood (I suppose he means by Singaporeans), he challenged, "who cares?"

For a start, I think retired English teachers should be recalled and only they be allowed to teach English to primary school children. Ideally, hire more good native speakers to teach English. A monumental task, but this seems the only way to stop the rot. Unless nobody cares about the "Nowsaday", "Thanks You", "I need your advices", "I scare I will fail my PSLE", "You got eat lunch or not?" that so grate my ears.

joh ju said...

hi monica,

after reading that line about 'suitcase' and 'luggage', i actually had to PAUSE and check (see, i'm not that confident about my std of english. there are days when i can only think/say powderful england.)

anyway, i put this entire sub-standard English phenomenon on the self-confidence of singaporeans. that they are the best, the cream of the crop, etc.

well, that's my take on it.

oh, let me add to your 'gears' book - ppl have said that they have many 'works' to do.

i kid u not.

rgds - kjj

Anonymous said...

Well I think Sgp has come a long way in the generation since independence, while we must acknowledge that there's still some way to go.

Up until 2 years ago I had been working in a polyclinic in a HDB estate and routinely met >60 Sgp 'heartlanders' everyday in the course of my work (much more than 'Meet-The-People sessions, leh! :-). And more than 50% of the time I conversed with them in Mandarin (the language they're most comfortable in) rather than English. Those of my friends previously from 'jiak kantang' English schools (e.g. ACS.. ) had to adapt and probably never spoke so much Mandarin in their lives before...

When living abroad, the English-advantage that Singapore students have over students form other Asian nations is obvious. The other students have to struggle with the English language in ESL (English as 2nd Language) classes while Singapore students often surprise native teachers with their relative proficiency in the language.

One native parent--who has probably never met a Singaporean before--remarked that I spoke 'such good English' (well, compared to HK & Korean parents she's met, probably... :-).

I would usually explain that in Sgp, all students take English as 1st language. Hence our students don't have to take ESL when they come here.


bACk in GERMANY said...

For 7 years we've been living on a 23rd floor, but every time when we stepped out of the lift, we were greeted by a sign board that read 23th storey.
I'm quite excited about the recent renovation. I'm hoping this glaring mistake will be finally removed. But I have a suspicion that this time, the sign would just read Storey 23. :)

monlim said...

YY: It's true we have an edge against other Asian countries cos of the English as 1st language policy. Having said that, I suspect many of those fluent in English are those who grew up speaking the language at school and at home. So it's more a matter of usage that honed the skills (it's true for me anyway). Those who come from Mandarin/dialect speaking families, like the heartlanders you mentioned have a tougher time. I guess these are the ones who will suffer most from sub-standard English teaching.

Lilian, JJ & Cindy: Some bad English phrase just grate! I used to be so amused at a sign in a corner of Plaza Singapura's carpark - it said "Place of Refuge". Obviously they meant "Place of Refuse". I would imagine this guy crouching under the sign seeking refuge :P I wonder if the sign's still there?

Anonymous said...


I agree with your observation about the English spoken by our parent's generation. I think people in that generation either don't speak English at all, or they speak 'good English' i.e. the type of English spoken by LKY--without Singlish accents or jargon.

I recommend watching the Monday broadcasts of Jay Leno's Late Show. The 2nd segment on Mondays feature 'Headlines'--which are side-splitting gags from newspaper headlines mailed to the show by people all over America. They aren't any less ridiculous than some of these gags highlighted by some of you :-)

And regarding 'native' English-speakers, I'm not sure I can easily understand someone speaking with an Irish, Scottish or Cockney accent/slang either. And here in Canada, if the 'natives' speak a bit fast or mumble a bit, I often have to ask them to repeat themselves.

My sis-in-law, a Singaporean who's living in England, has always spoken good, grammatical, well-enunciated English without the lahs, lors or lehs. Even then, when her kid's British classmates go over to her place, they sometimes have to ask her to repeat herself before they could understand her.


Lilian said...

YY, you are right, the older folks either spoke good English or not at all. Eg, my dad and his sister went to English schools and couldn't speak much Mandarin; his two older brothers went to Chinese schools and couldn't speak much English. But what they spoke well was the language they were taught in. Does this have any implication for the bilingual policy? ie in the pursuit of bilingualism, except for some talented linguists, most end up excellent in neither language? Unless they hail from strong English/Chinese speaking families? Just a thought.

Lilian said...

Another observation. Mon, you said, "I suspect many of those fluent in English are those who grew up speaking the language at school and at home."

That may be true now. But not in the past. My dad and his friends come from dialect-speaking families (though some were from Peranakan families who spoke a mixture of Malay and English). What they had in common during the colonial times (1940s-1950s) was that they were educated in mission schools or schools started by the English. So it is possible to learn and speak good English even if one comes from a non-English speaking home, BUT you've gotta have good English teachers, something we are lacking these days.

monlim said...

Lilian: Definitely true and that's my point. We used to make fun of the older generation teachers who were very pedantic and strict about teaching English but on the other hand, the results are that the kids learnt better English. If all the kids today didn't grow up in English speaking homes today, they'd be picking up really bad English in school.

Alcovelet said...

Gasp, I actually left an inane joke here this morning ...
Here I go again:

Passenger: So, what were you doing before you joined the airlines?
SQ Stewardess: Study Law!
Passenger: Oh my! So what made you decide to become a flight stewardess?
SQ Stewardess: Never study law!

Yes Mon, it is sad. A lot of us speak colloquial English because it's a way to ease in socially. But we can turn that off. The problem comes when you can't. I'll always remember "1984", where if you don't have the word, you can't have the thought. So if you speak pidigin, you can never rise above yourself and society is doomed to be limited simply because their thoughts are similarly contained.

I don't have any answers, but perhaps the best thing is awareness that speaking well IS important. If we can inculcate this in our kids, then that could immunize them against their (can't believe I'm saying this) teachers.

tjmummy said...

Interesting discussion. What is good English?

Is it the pronunciation, the accent, the slang? Is it the grammar or the spelling?

Like someone who commented earlier that he can't understand an Irish speaker for example? There are many nations in the world who are native English speakers, but their accents vary greatly.

Even their slang and colloquial terms are different. Is American English standard too? Not so. Someone from Brooklyn cannot understand a Texan and vice versa. Their first language is English.

An Australian, a British and an American, they are all native speakers but they use different spelling for words, they use different terms.

While living in USA, we used the term "once a fortnight" and they had no idea what "fortnight" meant because they just don't use it.

In fact, being in Singapore makes us aware of both sets of spelling _ British and American- and we are familiar with both sets of terms. For example, we know how to use the word "elevator" in USA and "lift" in UK.

Having lived now in USA and China, and having met people from many countries, both native English speakers and ESL speakers, I think if our grammar is correct, and we have always been reading good books and using proper language widely, we can be confident that we speak good English?

I don't have to be apologetic about my accent. It is uniquely Singaporean. As long as the structure and grammar is correct.

However, to enable others to understand me better, I do switch and speak with the accent they are using sometimes. I hope that doesn't get me the label that I am "faking" an accent. :-)

monlim said...

tjmummy: I agree with you, as long as the grammar and spelling is right, I would consider it good English because usage varies from place to place. And it's perfectly ok to adjust your accent to be understood. It bugs me that the English teachers in SG can't even get grammar and spelling right!

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