Sunday, August 13, 2006

Speak Good English during Recess

Study says many Singaporeans speak non-standard English
By Valarie Tan, Channel NewsAsia
Posted: 18 July 2006 1640 hrs

Singaporeans generally may say they speak English but a survey shows that 6 in 10 of them actually speak non-standard English in their daily lives. The study by the Singapore Polytechnic involved some 3,000 English-speaking Singaporeans. So this year's Speak Good English Movement hopes more Singaporeans make it a habit to speak standard English.

Students will be roped in to help highlight the importance of communicating in good English. Ashraff Abdul Samad, Student, Ang Mo Kio Secondary School, said: "Now I would say "How are you doing? Is everything great?" instead of "What's up la? Relax la" that kind of stuff. It's not difficult. When you speak standard English, you need to watch your grammar, there will be no Singlish 'la'."

And that is exactly what the movement hopes to encourage in all Singaporeans, especially the students. Organisers say a recent poll might have indicated that many are still comfortable in Singlish. But Good English is the way to go to give Singapore a more competitive edge, especially in the service industry.

Professor Koh Tai Ann, Chairman, Speak Good English Movement, said: "We would need workers who can communicate with not only the non-Singaporeans among us but all the visitors we are attracting to Singapore - tourists, those who come for conventions, meetings and so on. It would so ironic if we find many Singaporeans' English not suitable and we have to bring in foreign workers to work in these industries who can speak better English than we do."

The straw poll of students also showed that more students speak better English only in formal settings like a class presentation. So this year's movement hopes to encourage them to speak standard English even casually like during recess with their friends. This year's Speak Good English Movement will be officially launched on July 25.

I did a double-take when I first read this.

Yes, the government is all-pervasive. But, I had not thought that they would also want to have a say in how we talk to our friends.

No wonder foreigners have the impression that Singapore is a police state.We cannot tell the Government we are unhappy without providing the solutions to our unhappiness. We cannot laugh.We have to smile when the government says so.

And now, we can't even speak to our friends the way we had always been!
What will they think of next?

I can see a few coming in my crystal ball:
(1) All SMSes must be in proper English
(2) You must speak proper English to your parents and children
(3) Eating establishments will have a Proper English section and a non-proper English section. Patrons at the Proper English section will be given headphones. These headphones will play recorded speeches by Queen Elizabeth II to prevent the "2nd-class" language wafting around them from 'contaminating' them. Patrons sitting at the non-proper English section will have to pay more for their food to help defray the costs of these headphones (and for the royalties of the speeches).

I do not know what seems to be the problem here.

I assume that the standard of our English is poor.
If so, should we not be looking at the way English is taught in schools?Unless we are saying that yes, we are already looking at that issue, employing native speakers is one strategy. But, we think that alone is not enough.

But, if the standard of English in a formal setting (in the classroom) is already poor, how will the students know what is proper English during their recess?Wouldn't you be much better off tackling the problem at its source (in the classroom)?

Unless we are saying that "No, the students already know what is good English. We score well in literacy tests compared to some OECD countries. But our students are 'lazy' to practice them during informal occasions".

This is where it escapes me altogether.
If the students already know how to speak proper English, then, what is the problem here?

Is it the case that the frequent use of Singlish had been causing problems for our standard of English?
If so, this is no different from 40 years ago when most students spoke dialects at home and with friends.
And I think our standard of English seemed to be ok, without the Speak Good English campaign.

Having said that, I do sense a slip in the standard of English amongst the young these days.My view is that it could be due to several reasons:
(1) More are graduating from the universities these days. It used to be the top 15%. Now, it could be closer to the top 40%. The 'average' of each cohort is now lower than the 'average' of the past, compared to their peers
(2) A generation of students did not do grammar in their English studies
(3) The standard of English amongst teachers is now more variable. I think teachers of 40-50 years ago seemed to speak better English than the current average. This is probably a result of (1) and (2).

As an educator, I would have opted to pay more attention to what is taught in the classroom. Have teachers model good English speech. Actively point out the right speech or grammar whenever you hear students speaking improper English. Show students how to distinguish between informal settings and formal settings where proper English should be used.Have some fun activities 'translating' proper English and improper English to reinforce that each has a different platform and audience, etc. But if it is the standard of written English we are concerned about, then, it is another story altogether.Perhaps more about this on another occasion.

For now, I feel sad for students.
Even that little space where they can be themselves has to be governed by the norms set by the government.

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Blogger le radical galoisien said...

It is stupid because they ignore the fact that Singlish has its own grammar and is an integral part of the identity. They don't see a problem with its extermination - the head of the SGEM gleefully imagines a Singapore where all the dialects have been eliminated and Singlish reintegrated into standard English.

Koh Tai Ann is an utter bigot. And what kind of trash are they teaching? Singlish is not just about the "lah"'s - in fact a lot of it is about the tone, just like Chinese, although changing the tone just makes it sound awkward, rather than changing the meaning (hence Singlish is a semi-tonal language).

In fact, "lah" is an expletive (a particle) and is as ungrammatical as crying "ouch!" at the end of a sentence.

Singlish allows subjects to be dropped because it is a pro-drop language, just like Latin. But apparently our authorities are quite linguistically ignorant. I don't think anyone in the SGEM has ever taken linguistics. If so, they would realise that incomplete sentences in Singlish are not grammar mistakes, just like Latin "dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori" is not any more ungrammatical. (The famous phrase literally means, "is sweet and decorous, dying for one's country")

2:45 am  

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