21 June 2006

An appalling standard of English

There is a need to recruit teachers from abroad. In Singapore, we're surrounded by bad English; many teachers do not themselves speak the language well. The problem is compounded by how we teach English in schools as if it were the children's first language, when for most, the language needs to be taught as a second language. But how many teachers from abroad know how to teach English as a second language? Full essay.


Anonymous said...

well the standard of English among Americans and British is probably not much better; they have immigrants, and they have apathetic kids, just like anywhere else; their society also requires less writing and speaking of complete sentences than before; people there also read much less than they used to

it is always nice to find something to "improve", but if one is not really clear about the ultimate goal then it is just bureaucratic makework;

Ray said...

The central assumption in your augments is the existence of a definitive standard of English. This idea I believe is fundamentally flawed.

Your analysis fails to take into consideration both temporal as well as spatial variations in English usage, i.e. English has evolved and will continue to evolve in different ways in different parts of the world.

Historically, modern English evolved from Anglo-Saxon with bits and pieces of French and Latin added along the way, much like our beloved Singlish is a mixture of English, Malay and Chinese dialects. On the grammatical front, declensions and genders got lost along the way unlike many European languages which still maintain one of both of these constructions. Similarly in Singlish, articles tend to disappear under the influence of Chinese grammar. Rather than seeing Singlish a degeneration, I think of it as just the next evolutionary state.

Speaking of grammar, in linguistics, grammar is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Grammars are developed to understand the rules underlying a language in practise not as a straight jacket to enforce a particular practise on a language. It isn't really the fault of the language speakers if they don't conform to the grammar, rather it is the onus of the grammar to conform the the speakers.

Finally, even among "native English" speakers, e.g. America, Britain and Australia, there are occasional difficulties in communication. Pronunciations differences can be very er pronounced, although grammatically they are more or less similar. Even in the relatively short time span that America and Australia has existed, we already see a divergence of English.

In summary, the English language, like all other languages is a moving target. Rather than asking whether Singaporeans have a good "standard" of English, we should be asking whether Singaporeans are comprehensible to other English speakers and not just the "native" ones, when we want to.

My two cents on this would be the reintroduction of grammar back into the curriculum which would help a lot when studying other languages including alternative forms of English like Singlish.

teck soon said...

The government is responsible for creating an atmosphere where Singaporeans tend to reject anything coming from "white" countries, starting with Western democracy. Since Singapore has created a "better" Asian-style government, society can reject the English language as well. In a previous Yawningbread article ("The deadly embrace of politics") an anonymous writer stated that he would rather live under a "less than democratic gahmen than let some racist white stuff" tell him what to do. No wonder he writes in Singlish. Teaching Singaporeans to reject ideas from the West because they are from "white people" has naturally created an environment where proper English is looked down upon. I am not surprised that children are made fun of for speaking properly. The term "angmoh" is no longer used only to describe a white person, but has now become a term of mockery used to chide Singaporean children who actually speak correctly. Racist, indeed.

Yawning Bread Sampler said...

To ray -

I agree English is not, and has never been, a fixed target. But, as you pointed out, there is a cluster of Englishes which operate on very similar rules of grammar and are therefore mutually comprehensible - that is what I mean by good English. My article suggests that Singapore English may well belong within that cluster.

But Singlish does not. Its grammar is different.

Indeed, there are variants of the language even in pockets of the "white" countries which could be as bad as Singlish, but just because there are other bad drivers on the road doesn't mean our terrible driving habits are excuseable.

As for what constitutes grammar, we need to accept that it won't be determined by us. By sheer numbers alone, the US, UK, Canada and Australia dominate. We play by their rules. The different things we do are not new rules for the language but infractions of theirs. It's a fact of life for being such a tiny place. Proponents of Singlish don't seem to recognise this reality.

Anonymous said...

>Singaporeans tend to reject anything coming from "white" countries

dont think so; MTV, McDonald, Hollywood, American Idol... SPG...

in fact, because of all these, people read less than before and with email, SMS, etc people dont need to write complete sentences, so standards drop; you cant reverse that just by hiring a few English/American teachers

ying said...

"One parent who made a point to speak good English to his children wrote of his despair when they picked up Singlish from their school friends. To make things worse, his kids also learnt that speaking "uppity" English would result in their being excluded socially."

I couldn't agree more.

I joined an American MNC upon graduation 2 years ago, only to find myself excluded socially. I had lunch alone, or with friends who worked close by. The occasional lunch with my colleagues or at office events resulted in stilted interactions. I wasn't aware it was because my colleagues were uncomfortable conversing in standard English until my boss had a "conversation" with me. (They disliked me because I wasn't like them. They believed I thought I was too good for them.)

In order to survive office politics, I tried to copy their inflections and intonation, and worked on speaking a mish-mash of English, Mandarin and dialect. While office relations are significantly better now, I find myself so used to speaking Singlish that I scare my friends and family.

witness said...

Your example of the comprehension passage supposedly showed a number of mistakes. But most of these mistakes you circled or underlined looked fine to me.

Are you being overly picky and in the process see mistakes which aren't there? (For example "actually covered by sand" is underlined. Presumably you think it should be "actually covered in sand" or perhaps "actually covered with sand". But all three would, I suspect, be judged as perfectly permissible constructions by most educated speakers.)

The main goal of a language must be effective communication. Bad grammar is undesirable because it impedes this goal. So long as a piece of writing does not obviously break the rules of the language, it should pass muster.

Of course no piece of writing is ever perfect. But the piece of writing you cited does a fair job of describing deserts albeit in a manner which is fairly bland. But bad English in the sense of atrocious grammar it certainly isn't.

Anonymous said...

I don't have enough time to write a thorough piece of commentary but here are some thoughts:

1) I get a feeling that in certain parts of the article, you are aiming too high in your expectations on the usage of English.

In my opinion, the hurdle should be set at a minimum standard of English that allows native English speakers from other countries to comprehend what we Singaporeans mean. On that note, I do agree that the first two examples (and especially the latter) are probably unacceptable.

However, when you start picking upon the pronunciation of 'loathe' and spelling of 'alot', I think that is going into 'fussy' territory. =)

But I do admit (I know I keep contradicting myself somehow... hahah) that if we are to aim for an average proficiency of 80%, we should still try to teach the language at a 100% standard just to ensure a majority of the people can even reach the target.

2) Another problem with the use of English is that a number of people think that the use of big or 'bombastic' words make them appear to be good at the language. The problem with this is that it only makes them
(a) appear snobbish/pretentious and
(b) make more mistakes as they don't realize that they are using the wrong words.

Example: Why use 'loathe' when 'hate' is just as good, especially when the former is harder to pronounce, spell and understand for an average person?

Simple English can be good English! Using simple English will also make you appear less pretentious and perhaps make the average person accept the use of proper English more easily.

3) I studied abroad for 4 years and I can tell you that Singlish DOES actually create a sense of identity for Singaporeans (and even many Southeast Asians). Somehow, I can use Singlish with my Singaporean/Southeast Asian friends but find it impossible with the non-Southeast Asian ones. It does generate a sense of comfort, in my experience, especially with people who you meet for the first time abroad. I don't think there is anything wrong with using Singlish as long as one can communicate effectively with people from non-Singlish but English-speaking countries!

piper said...

1. Pidgins are new languages that come about as a result of contact between different language. Perhaps in its infancy, Singapore Colloquial English (SCE) was a pidgin but it is no longer so. Once people start picking up the language from young and it becomes more stable, the pidgin will have developed into a creole. Whether or not SCE is a creole is a different matter.

2. SCE has a complex grammatical structure which many linguists have described. It is not simply English vocabulary being placed on Mandarin grammar. That is not to say Mandarin grammar has not influenced the development of SCE. The view that Singlish is a "corrupted" form of StdE is wrong. I shall quote from the Centre of Applied Linguistics: Speaking a vernacular dialect is not the result of poor or incomplete language learning and its use does not impede cognitive development. Correctness in language is a matter of social acceptability. In schools, students should be encouraged to build competence in speaking and writing a standard variety but their vernacular dialects must be respected as evidence of social identity and linguistic expertise.

3. By saying that Singlish has "inelegant sentence construction and awkward intonation", a value judgement has been passed on Singlish - the judgement being that Singlish is inferior linguistically to StdE. However, there is really no evidence for that. I do agree that power-wise, SCE is inferior to StdB by virtue of the fact that the States and Britain etc wield more economic and political power in the world.

4. Training EL teachers to skills of teaching EL as a second language would be, I believe, very useful. You asked how many teachers from abroad have such skills. I venture to guess more than those in Singapore, simply because qualifications such as TESOL and CELTA are widely available overseas. In Singapore, as far as I know, only 2 organisations offer them.

5. If you do a quick search on Wikipedia, you will find that the grammar and pronunciation (and not just the vocabulary) of American English, British English and all the various English dialects from those countries to be quite different. Yet all the dialects, such as Tyke and Geordie, are allowed to co-exist with StdE and are in fact taken as a sign of their identity. So why is it so wrong for us to view SCE as part of our identity too? Because we are a small nation?

What we need to do is recognise that SCE is here to stay and work with that. Teach students the differences, teach them when it is acceptable to use either, teach them to codeswitch. Nothing we can do will erase SCE and talking about how "bad" it is does not help either.

tw said...

Did anyone else notice that one of the makers of the Singlish video called "Indian" a language? I thought that was so totally ironic and appalling.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said (16:28): "Why use 'loathe' when 'hate' is just as good..."

I have time only for a short comment (watching World Cup). Loathe and hate are different. I hate it when people write pidgin English. "I loathe it when people write pidgin English" is plainly wrong.

In almost any other case, you'll find that two different words have different meanings even though they look almost equivalent at first. Sometimes, the difference makes it wrong to use one in place of the other.

Robert L

diana said...

Ying - completely agree!

The way one speaks in Singapore tends to be interpreted (consciously or not) as a sign of socio-economic status. I remember my first few weeks in public school (Junior College) when I was questioned endlessly by new schoolmates. Had I grown up elsewhere? Was I half-white? Why do I have a funny accent? Am I sure that I really truly grew up in Singapore? A little later, we discovered that there were other students who spoke like me. We were given the derogatory appellate "ming xiao kia" (ie. to be from a "name-brand" or socio-economically advanced school), as a marker of our otherness.

I experienced similar discrimination from Singaporeans, within and without the office, when I got home from America The odd thing is, foreigners (including Europeans, Japanese or mainland Chinese, not just Anglo-Saxons) think nothing of a Singaporean who speaks English well or with a Western accent. The hostile reactions come from Singaporeans who taunt you as being a "banana" (yellow/ Asian on the outside, white on the inside) or "jiak kan dang" (to eat potatoes i.e. to be like a foreigner).

Whether or not hiring more foreign teachers of English will solve our language problems, I can't say. But I have to agree with YB that until the non-academic, social environment changes, it seems an uphill battle for Singapore's children to achieve good English, not to mention the risk of children feeling alienated (as I did) from their country and peers as a result of being ridiculed for speaking "proper" English. How can you feel "Singaporean" if Singaporeans constantly question your allegiance and right to belong based on the way you speak?

Anonymous said...

I identify with ying. I worked at a temporary job while waiting for university. Once I asked the mailroom lady if I could have the correct envelope to put an item to be mailed in, using standard English. She replied, "You must use the proper envelope to put your item in," and paused to stare at me. She did not even understand my request!

My other colleagues cast me as an outsider after hearing me speak standard English and knowing that I use standard English without abbreviations on online instant messaging. I could not understand the instructions that my boss fired at me in a rapid mishmash of broken English and Chinese either...this led to me being fired after 4 days of work.
I was quite happy to leave because there was no way in which I would have a harmonious working relationship with those people. Till now, I still am made to feel that I am socially lacking as I am slow in understanding Singlish.

Anonymous said...

As incredible as it sounds, that Comprehension MCQ is even more apalling than could already be inferred by Alex's red marks.

The very first line is already plainly dumb - the use of the word "yet" is clearly wrong.

In the second sentence, although Alex had already red-marked the word "actually", the bigger problem is that the word should have been used to reinforce the "less than 20%", instead of tagged to "covered by sand".

The sentence construction of the daytime and nightime temperature is also wrong. You cannot start the subject with "daytime temperature" and then say "although the (daytime) temperature" at night is freezing. It makes nonsense of the statement.

More mistakes in the last paragraph: "constant" supply of water and "one of the" few areas. Finally, it's wrong to choose "adapted" when it really should be "evolved". I should think 12-yr-olds would be equally comfortable with either of these words.

Did Alex say this came from an English language comprehension passage? It looks more like a butchering of the English language. Heads should roll!

Robert L

KiWeTO said...

A lot of discussion for something posted so short a time. Guess there are a lot of loyal readers of Alex's work.

I do have to agree that the standard aspired to by YawningBread may be too high. And having spent 3 months in Europe, I find that the use of Singlish with people who can understand it very comforting for it feels 'natural'. It is a sense of identity with Malaysians and Indonesians, and in that sense, an identity of one's roots. (weak as they may be)

While I have been complimented on my extensive variance in the use of the English language, I must, however, confess to be unable to understand the concept of a past participle, and still get confused over the concept of a verb or adverb.

I learnt my English through reading. Lots of reading. A lost art today, even though sales of books seem to be rising all over the world?

The question unraised in the discussion here and elsewhere is:

How is English learnt? How then can we attempt to teach it so that it is best learnt?

We all commit the sin of believing we can walk in the shoes of others. In this case, thinking for the kids, and presuming we understand all the various 'influences' on their learning of English. As YawningBread pointed out, osmosis is a very relevant method of learning a language. But it is not the only way which we learn a language. Exposure to good examples are an equally important aspect.

I have tried learning Deutsch through the Goethe Institut. (note, it is the Deustsch spelling, not English!) Until I arrived in Germany, I didn't understand the 'local differences' within Germany. Dialects, creoles or pidgins, exist in all languages. Is there a then a proper form of high 'Deutsch' or at the end of the day, it is just accepted as variances around the norm?

Do we have speaking competitions that encourage students to learn to speak well? What are short-term rewards for speaking a language well? If speaking proper english is perceived as uppity at the playground level, is it because there are no counter-examples that it is good? During childhood, its rather difficult to comprehend the concept that it will be good for one for the rest of their life. We cannot see that far!

The end objective of any language is to be able to communicate without massive errors in comprehension. Anything else, is best left to the purists to fight over "proper form".

And we are not the only country facing issues over how "ENGLISH" is to be used. HongKong also worries endlessly, and I think they have a more serious problem than we do.

Anonymous said...

I read the passage and I ask myself - is it comprehensible? Can I let it pass? As a kid who grew up with non-English speaking parents (like many others) I find that comprehension passage passable. If my teachers were to correct all the details of that passage, I will find the learning of English unbearable and tedious and would hate the subject immediately. I think Alex and Robert L may come from a different family background that I have. But I agree, if we let the poor quality pass, it is the beginning of a slide towards worse English, but the teachers would have to make a considered stand.

Again consider this, if all the office workers have trouble 'integrating' into the workplace, would the local teachers sound more 'cool' and 'acceptable' if they use Singlish in class to 'get their message across'. Sigh...I wonder. Pardon my standard of English, but I hope you can get me message....


Eric said...

Anonymous of 21 June 6:59,

To say that the standard of English among Americans and the British is not much better is laugh-out-loud funny. This line of argument is false and does nothing but distract from the essential question of how to increase Singapore's ability to communicate with the world.

YCK said...

To piper,

I noted the clinical tone of your comments. This may be a good thing as many people seem to confound the matter of good langauge education with national identity and social propriety. There has also been an unhealthy egerness seen in self-proclaimed protectors of English or MTL to point fingers at other languages as the sources of language pollution.

As you wrote "What we need to do is recognise that SCE is here to stay and work with that", but is this possible when the MOE does not seem to be clear with what it is doing?

Faced with students from varied language learning environments, little has been done to tailor the one-size-fits-all curriculum to them, while English appears to be taught as a first language as are the MTL.

The end product of this misguided process is a generation, which code-switches so frequently and inappropriately, that it cannot hold a conversation smoothly in English or MTL.

Thus, it is not just the teaching of English but the whole language education system that needs revamping.

Eric said...


You are right to say that occasionally there are communication difficulties between native English speakers. Not very often, particularly among folks with univeristy degrees, but it does happen. I also agree that whether Singaporeans are understood by these same speakers is an important question. Sadly, IMHO, the answer is no. But I think it is important to qualify this question a bit. I am not sure if it is necessary for even the majority of Singaporeans to speak standard English. Is it sufficent for there to exist a relatively small minority of the population that communicates clearly in business, science, etc.?

aliene said...

I read this entry with mixed feelings. As someone who's done fairly well in English throughout my school years in Singapore and Australia, I honestly found nothing wrong with that comprehension passage. To see so many "mistakes" pointed out was a shocker.

But truth being told, I really don't think it's realistic or fair to expect every Singaporean to attain such a high standard. What's more important, is how comprehensible we are to other people (Singaporean or otherwise) when we speak English. A language serves to aid communication; it's not about perfection!

Having said that, I suppose there should really be 2 kinds of "English" which we should be conversant in. 1) So-called standard English: We should be able to speak, read and write well enough to understand other standard English speakers or have them understand us. 2) Singlish: This, I think, is an important point. So many comments here, have been about people getting ostracised because they spoke good English. In a social context, you just don't fit in and didn't take the effort to learn and assimilate. True enough they didn't bother to learn about you, and that's why those who don't have a passable command of the language need to improve. But the reverse is true for people who have a "good" command of the language. You need to learn about them too. Language is also part of culture, you know? I don't think a person's English would go bad just because they started to learn Singlish. Why should it have an effect if their foundation in the language is good?

Oh well, just my 2 cents in my less sub-standard English.

Anonymous said...

I left singapore right after my O levels.. I dont live there anymore but visit every year. I come from a family of teachers and principals and they are really old school, from 1950s-60s. I remember being reprimanded for using the word "lah", getting my ears tweaked for using the wrong tenses. I couldnt watch PCK if my father was around. I still get compliments on my written and spoken english in this new place but I have to say, I get seriously annoyed when people do that. I have given bitchy replies and I complain about how narrow minded people here can be.
I cringed when I was in the mrt couple years back. (They had an annoying singlish ad)I had to correct my niece several times and its only going to get worse when she starts primary school. I met some singaporeans in my faculty and I was mortified when I read their essays. All of a sudden I felt foolish for being so defensive. I discovered that there is a divide among singaporeans who speak good english and the ones who dont, and one of the markers being their socio-economic background. I can relate to some of my friends who struggled with english in school because their parents didnt speak the language. I had to learn a "2nd language" that wasnt mine. I did horribly in Malay and learning it gave me nightmares.

Yawning Bread Sampler said...

This response is partly triggered by the comment from Witness (21 June 15:30), but not a direct response to it.

It's about the Comprehension passage that I had scanned into the essay, in particular these 2 sentences:

"Contrary to popular belief, less than 20 per cent of deserts are actually covered by sand. Deserts are also made up of rocky and gravel-covered areas, and dry stream channels and lake beds."

Am I (and Robert L) being too picky if I say this is less than acceptable? While it doesn't explicitly break any grammatical rule, the usage is so far from standard that it sounds wrong to the ear. It is thus not a good example for teaching children.

First, let me re-write it to the way it should be (and you'll note, it's more concise too):

"Contrary to popular belief, less than a fifth of desert areas are sandy. The rest are rocky or gravelly, with dry stream channels and lake beds."

More specifically, let me drill into the question of "covered".

The use of the word "covered" is not appropriate in the context in which it was used. In English, that which covers is generally considered separate from, and not integral to, that which is covered. For example, we would say,

- After the eruption, the houses and trees in my village were covered with ash.
- The restaurant was so unhygienic, the food was almost covered by flies.

We would not say,

- The ocean was covered by waves.
- She made a beautiful cake covered with icing.

Anonymous said...

Alex, I am a bit of a Kaypoh here, but could you tell us a bit more about your background vis-a-vis your learning of English. eg Parents and family background, Law student or Arts/ Lit - Pri / Sec School etc. Thanks. I have to say your English is damn solid - that is why your blogs are so well received, but I am curious to know what factors you think are crucial that helped bring you to your current standard. Thanks. My personal guess is your home environment and a solid brand name Secondary and Primary school.


Anonymous said...

I am an English-speaking foreigner. When I first met a Singaporean student in college, I had no idea that Singaporeans were native English speakers. Upon hearing his accent and his grammatical errors, I assumed he was another student from mainland China struggling to learn English. You may find this funny: When we became friends, I once suggested that he stop saying "I don't like it too" and replace the word "too" with the word "either". He argued with me, informing me that he was a native English speaker! I was astonished! To me, "I don't like it too" sounds horrible -- a mistake that only a student in the first stages of learning English would make. He did make the change, to avoid sounding uneducated. I now realize that most Singaporeans are not really native English speakers. They are native Singlish speakers. How unforunate, to have as a native language a dialect spoken only in a small island and understood by only a tiny percentage (around 0.06%) of the world's people. And Singaporeans are proud of it. Why not find something more meaningful to be proud of? I guess individual freedom and liberty are out. How about gum-free streets? What, actually, can Singaporeans be proud of? When Singaporeans study abroad, people don't even believe they are native speakers. When they're at home, people make fun of them if they speak correctly. One thing is undeniable though -- when Singaporeans participate in scientific meetings, publish books, produce films, study abroad, or indeed, interact with the rest of the English world, they will suffer because of Singlish. And the Singapore government wants to make Singapore a GLOBAL media hub. Now that's funny.

Piper said...

A quick check of the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (6th ed.)defines desert like this:

A large area of land that has very little water and very few plants growing on it. Many deserts are covered by sand.

And we would say:

"A beautiful cake covered with icing."

So I would respectfully say that your understanding of the word "cover" is incorrect.

The problem is many people see grammar as being prescriptive - a situation where there is a grammar rule book somewhere and grammar is then taught. Languages, however, as Ray has mentioned, are forever evolving. What was unacceptable before may well be acceptable today.

Take split infinitives. In the past, it was widely seen to be ungrammatical to split an infinitive. In the New Oxford Dictionary of English states that "in standard English the principle of allowing split infinitives is broadly accepted as both normal and useful" (August, 1998).

What is the purpose of language? To communicate. We have a standard language in order to communicate across borders efficiently not because it is better than another language.

To yck,

You are right. MOE needs to realise that not all students come from similar linguistic backgrounds and as much as we like to pretend English is a first language in Singapore, it is not for many. Teachers should thus be trained in how to make learning for such diverse students more effective.

Eric said...

Yawning Bread,

I applaud your high standards.

I think it is important to distinguish between writing standard English and good English writing. For example, one can write grammatically proper and comprehensible English that feels clumsy. This is how I would describe the passage you cited (save for a few grammatical errors). But since this passage is teaching material it is clearly inadequate. My point is that I don't think we can expect a typical Singaporean to ever write a passage as elegant as your revision. If we could get to the point where most Singaporeans could write at the level of the original passage, it would be a great achievement.

Anders said...

The discussion seems a little confused to me. Most people seem to assume that there is a conflict between Singlish and standard English, but I don't see why. Dialects are common elsewhere (and in other languages than English), but dialect speakers are usually able to communicate well also in the standard language, and use the dialect only when speaking to other locals. Hence, I don't think Singlish itself is the problem. What's problematic is the inability of many to express themselves in a standard English comprehensible to non Singaporeans.

Anonymous said...

I've just watched the Singlish video on Utube. Here's a gem.

"... and Singlish is what makes us as Singaporean, rather than what we stand for."

Well, I hope the experts on Singlish know what that speaker meant, because I certainly don't.

I understand half of what he said, I won't pretend otherwise. He said Singlish makes (identifies) him Singaporean. What I have no clue on is what is he comparing against? What is that about "standing for"? If the supporters of Singlish feel that it's all about communication, then it only does half the job. Why can't we face up to the problem and learn a language that does the whole job?

But wait! I've just noticed what "anders" said and realise that I may have been wrong to blame Singlish. What's wrong above is not really a problem with Singlish, rather it's simply an inadequacy in English. Perhaps this could serve to illustrate how some of us are going off in the wrong direction in debating about Singlish, when it's really about inadequate competence in basic English. Well said, anders!

Robert L

diana said...

Matthew: "... tell us a bit more about your background vis-a-vis your learning of English. eg Parents and family background, Law student or Arts/ Lit - Pri / Sec School etc."

Re: comment by Matthew vis-a-vis YB's article - perhaps we need these new English teachers in more schools, rather than the same 10 or so at the top.

And even if we aren't going to "expect too much" of our kids, I don't believe it's wrong to expect much higher standards of the teachers who instruct them.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised to see that so many readers here feel that the corrections we made on the Comprehension MCQ passage is an unduly high expectation on the standard of English language.

Nothing is further from the truth.

First of all, the standard of the passage is not the expected standard of the school children who are required to read that passage. The children are only expected to understand that passage, not to write to the standard of the passage. Indeed, I would even extend this to the rest of the population - we are all mostly not expected to attain a high standard of English. However, that passage is prepared by our educators in the English language (as pointed out by Di), we pay them professional salaries to deliver of their expertise. Not all of us are English experts, not all of us are educators, so it is unnecessary to complain that we are expecting an unduly high standard for the Singapore population - we are not. The criticism is that our educators, those who have to be highly proficient in the English language, have been revealed to be not proficient in that passage.

Secondly, we are not jumping to a hasty conclusion just based on one or two mistakes in the passage. We are talking about a passage occupying only less than a fifth of the computer screen, and yet there are already so many mistakes marked by Yawning Bread, and more if you read my earlier post. Can you imagine, if this particular professional were tasked to write a whole full-length essay, or even an entire short story, how many mistakes will there be?

Thirdly, our education sector is expected to distinguish itself so as to draw students from other countries to come to Singapore and make this country a learning centre. It is only right that we put some pressure on our professionals in this sector not to shame us with such a poor standard.

Robert L

witness said...


Take a closer look at the opening sentence of your latest post. It contains a gross grammatical error: "...the corrections...is..." More than that, the word "is" is also inappropriately used. I would think that a word such as "reflect" would be more suitable. The rest of the sentence also badly needs editing.

I have looked at the "errors" originally pointed out by the blog author more than once. Many are perfectly fine as they stand. There was an earlier comment by someone too that a desert "covered in sand" has even appeared in a reputable dictionary.

In our anxiousness to improve the standard of English in Singapore, let us not indulge in imaginary fault-finding.

Anonymous said...

To the contributer of 16:44 - first off, thank you for spotting that grammatical error in my post. Being neither an English expert nor an educator, I'm always delighted to have my own English corrected.

I'ld thank you once again if I can assume that you have also already checked through the rest of that post and my earlier ones in this thread.

Nevertheless, we are not here to do battle to see which of us can write better, that would be petty and irrelevant. The fact that any of us are lacking in proficiency does not make it any less valid that we feel the standard of English is poor in Singapore. Nor should it become a barrrier to stop us from pointing out bad English whenever we see them. I would dearly love to point out bad English in our official or public media, even if in doing so, I could be writing in poor English myself. It would be cowardly otherwise. I'll encourage everyone to do so even if they meet responses such as yours.

Perhaps it is attitude like yours which dissuades more people from speaking up. That would be such a pity. While we are busy battling the authorities to give us our freedom of speech, here we are with a bit of carelessness not realising that we had influenced people to shut up.

Robert L

witness said...


My intention is not, of course, to dissuade you from offering your opinion about anything. It's just a reminder about how easy it is for any one of us to make grammatical slips when we are not careful.

I re-read your first post and am still baffled as to why you found problems with the use of "yet" in the opening sentence. It is certainly not innovative, but to call it "dumb"??

Just to clarify, I am in no way related to the person who composed the desert passage. But I do think it only fair that when we criticise any text, the criticisms should at least be on good grounds. This is especially so in the context of Singapore when genuine samples of bad English are so commonly heard and read (Just read the composition of any typical teenager in a neighbourhood school.)

As said, in our haste to improve the standard of English in Singapore, let us not go overboard and become overly critical and see mistakes where there aren't any.

. said...

variations of languages occur all over the world, take a look at portugese and french in former colonies, look at barcelona too.Also look at the way african-american culture has taken English and transformed it and made it hip. You know the Mcdonalds catchphrase "I'm lovin' it"? You can thank african american culture for that hip slang. And they're proud of it.

the difference is that some of these countries actually take pride in their language variations, stand by them and stand up for them. Not that I am encouraging grammatically incorrect english, but Singlish is nothing to be disdainful of.

I think that Singlish and English can coexist. I don't think that Singlish or Mandarin should be blamed for the poor English standards.

Olly said...

'Blog' has almost become a term of derision these days, but your writing has helped me change my mind about all of them being trash.

I particularly enjoyed your comments on Lee Hsien Loong's visit to Australia and the quirkiness of Singlish.

But flawed English is, by no means, confined to Singapore's shores; I reckon I can find at least one grammatical error in just about every BBC news report. And some of them are only a few sentences long...

More power to your elbow. Cheers,


Anonymous said...

In a post above, someone asked me what objections did I have over the use of the word "yet".

I'm sorry, I can't answer that question very well. As I said, I'm not an expert in English, neither am I an educator. In fact I'm not even a graduate in the arts stream. I've spent my whole working life in the construction sector, dealing with construction drawings. So let's see how I can fumble along with my answer.

That first sentence contains two ideas: (i) almost one-fifth of the Earth's surface is covered by desert, and (ii) very few people live in these dry areas.

If these two ideas are given in two separate sentences, that would be fine.

If these two ideas are joined with the word "and", that would also be fine.

What I can't understand is why is the word "yet" used.

If I say, "the sun is shining, yet I'm bringing my umbrella along", that would make perfect sense for the use of "yet".

If I say, "the sky looks dark and there's forecast of rain, yet I'm bringing my umbrella along", that wouldn't look right. A simple "and" would do.

Robert L

witness said...

Deserts cover a vast area of the Earth's surface. According to the passage, the figure is about 20% of our planet's land.

One might therefore make the reasonable inference that such a vast area must conceivably contain quite a lot of humans.

But this inference would be mistaken.

Hence, "Almost one-fifth of the Earth's surface is covered by desert, yet very few people live in these dry areas."

Not the most exemplary use of "yet", but I would not say it is incorrect.

Anonymous said...

I've always thought I had a reasonable standard of English until I met my English colleague. I asked her once if she could "send" me home in her car. She said "no, but I can take you home. The only way I can send you anywhere is through the post box but you'd be too big to fit into one". LOL, since then I've been more careful with words like "bring" , "send" and "take" which I had previously used interchangeably. On the other hand, I've also met "native speakers"who spell and write atrociously ; but when it comes to speaking, there is no doubt they are more eloquent. Could the fact that English is their mother tongue have something to do with how much better they express themselves?

Xenos said...

Singaporean teachers should really start teaching proper syllable stress and sentence stress, two things that are sorely lacking when most Singaporeans speak English.

Like what Alex said, there is a group of Englishes, the native english engilshes, that share many similar characteristics. Two of these are word and sentence stress.

Colleague: Native Speaker English- COL-league. Singlish- kuh-LICK.
Americans pronounce the 'o' as an 'ah' while the brits pronounce it as a rounded o, as in the british 'pot'. But the stress is on the same syllable in the both varieties (in fact all varieties) of native speaker English.

Conversation: Native Speaker English -con-ver-SA-tion. Singlish - con-ver-sa-TION. Americans pronounce the 'r' while the brits (southern ones) drop it. But the stress is again on the same syllable in the different varieties of English. Singlish speakers sometimes just pronounce each syllable with equal stress.

There ARE of course differences in stress in some words, for e.g british "la-BOR-a-tory" vs american "LA-boratory" but the vast majority of common words have the same stresss (Neither Brits, australians, canadians nor americans stress the 'le' in television)

Also, in Singlish there's less use of sentence stress to convey different shades of meaning, due to the prolific use of helper particles like 'lah', 'ah', 'meh'.

Native Speaker English-'That RAdio is yours' vs 'THAT radio is yours' vs 'That radio IS yours' vs 'That radio is YOURS'.
Singlish- 'That radio your one' vs 'Your radio that one lah' vs 'That radio your one wat' vs 'That radio your one lah!/'That radio is for you'--all with equal stress on each syllable.

Proper syllable stress, setence stress and pronunciation are the basics of spoken English. English teachers should be teaching these instead of nitpicking grammatical mistakes that aren't mistakes at all, giving tons of written homework or teaching bombastic words.

Anonymous said...

To one of the contributors above:

Over two thirds of the earth's surface is covered with water, yet very few people live in these watery areas. May I say duh? Hah! Actually nobody lives in these areas, double duh! Human beings are not fish, right? What a delightful muddle when the word "yet" is used carelessly!

I'll go one step further, I promise you won't regret reading on.

Imagine a science fiction situation - in the 28th century, human settlements have spread to the ocean floor as an alternative to the dense population on land. A child in the underwater settlement might be writing that very sentence in my first paragraph, and the use of "yet" would be perfectly proper in that distant future.

Robert L

witness said...


Great point.

So fault the logic, but not the language of the text.

joe said...

Why do you all give a damn?
My ex "ah - Beng" army mates are driving Subaru Legacy(s) and Merc.
Living in Condos too.

Though I have received tertiary edu, i'm making a fraction of their 'take-home'. Hence, get off your thrones and high hats. Nobody's gonna pay you big bucks for speaking "Powderful England"

Anonymous said...

It is nice to read the variety of views aired here. I enjoyed it. But the debates about our language education have been all mixed up with matters of accents, national identity, ethnic pride, social status, ancestry etc. These emotionally-loaded issues are unhelpful.

The really important questions are the really raelly boring ones related to pedagogy:

Has it to do with the languages or their dialects spoken at home during the pupils' impressionable years before the age of seven?

Has it got to do with the way that languages are taught languages in schools without content-centred learning, immersion etc.?

Can a language be taught divorced from use as a medium of instruction?

Has socio-economics status anything to do with it?

Is there really such a thing as interference from other langauges?

Should mother tongue/ native languages be prescibed by descent?

Are the language teachers being trained to teach the languages to weaker second language learners.

Are the other subject teachers really makingthing worse with improper language use?

If these and other really boring questions can be answered, I believe we are really onto something.

Employing native-speakers by the MOE is really just a red-herring for Singaporeans.

It will be really great is Yawning Bread dare to take up the issues from a fresh angle.

A good website for those academically inclined:


teck soon said...

I believe that the above writer (Joe) is mistaking his own experiences for larger social trends. Singaporeans who fare poorly on standard tests of written English, such as SATs or other college-admittance essays used at foreign universities, are less likely to gain admittance into top world universities. Hence, their ultimate career choices will be more limited. They are less likely to be hired into high-paying jobs in international companies after their grammatical-mistake-filled job interviews. They are less likely to have their publications accepted in academic journals. I would imagine that one could find a statistically significant relationship between English ability and income. Statistical significance does not mean that EACH person with better English ability will earn more (as Joe has found out). Nor does it mean that people with poor English never own condos or cars. The Education Ministry should sponsor a study to quantify the relationship between English ability and income among Singaporeans if it has not already done so. Such a study would show skeptical Singaporeans how serious the problem here actually is, and put this type of debate on more solid footing. Government ministries issuing proclamations such as Tharman's without adequate, rational, science-driven explanations is part of the problem.

dennis said...

There is a purpose to speaking a more standard English beyond merely being understood by native speakers. It isn't enough to be largely grammatical; you have to be idiomatically correct as well - else you risk being viewed as just a bit less educated, a bit less worthy of immediate respect. The fact of social prejudices simply can't be avoided, and so we might as well give our students the best shot we can at a thorough English education.

In fact, I'd argue that adopting idiomatic usage which might not be perfectly grammatical according to most standards is preferable to using odd-sounding expressions that native English speakers immediately recognise as ungrammatical. In other words, setting other factors aside, it would probably be better to learn English from a native speaker than from a local one without an ear for the language or a knowledge of idiom. (I'm not saying that local English teachers don't know their stuff, of course; I'm not in the know about that.)

Xenos raises a good point about intonation and stress, but I think it's less of a priority than pronunciation. You can stress words differently from your listeners and still be taken seriously, but when you pronounce certain words the Singaporean English way, it's very possible that you might not be understood at all. Stresses are also significantly harder than pronunciation to teach because they're very much picked up and moulded via immersion and speech accommodation.

My take on the comprehension passage:
"have not" - don't see any mistake

"actually" - justified by the fact that they "flourish" and don't just survive

"long" - while "in length" is correct, "long" here seems quite idiomatic

"tap water in the ground" - this is fine (as a shortened form of 'tap water [that is] in the ground" .

"and one of the" - should be "and are one of the"

Anonymous said...

I found your article and the comments very interesting. As a Scot living in Canada, I speak English with a Scottish accent using a mixture of British and Canadian idioms (much to the confusion of Canadian and British companions). In primary school, our teachers did their best to denature our language and speak good English, which appears to be the goal of campaigners in Singapore.
The issue, however, is not that Singaporeans speak Singlish. Speakers of any language will speak a particular dialect in their main communities. The issue is rather that we should be able to adopt a register that is readily understood across the English-speaking world. In other words, we should be able to switch as required from our local dialects to standard English, standard English being essentially the accepted standard of British or American English. Many people in Canada or Britain are often unable to do so. Consider, for example, a platform sign found in LRT stations in my city: "Stand back of yellow line". I wonder at the education of the author and even more at the education of all those who have propagated the sign since its inception. Perhaps Singapore should avoid recruiting native speakers from Canada.