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     FrontPage Edition: Mon 13 October 2003

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Monday with the Editor: Is our English that bad?

Hi everyone

Recently, The Straits Times has been abuzz with letters to its forum, as well as column articles commenting on the standard of English here. In yesterday's edition of The Sunday Times on page L18, I was amused to read columnist Colin Goh's views on the standard of the English Language in Singapore.

I wondered why his views were such. Then, at the end of his article, I saw his credentials - editor of Singapore's most popular satirical humour website, Why, he's just plain exercising his right to using his trademark humour - satire - in his comments on the use of the English Language in Singapore.

But, I would politely request him to stop referring to those of us who are in pain over the lowering standard of English here as belonging to the "English Language Taliban" group.

Colin said that "since our espoused aim in maintaining English standards is to enable us to do business with the US, why should we be enraged about sentences such as 'Isn't schools suppose to help us in educating people?' ".

By George, it's one thing to speak Singlish with friends, acquaintances and tourists. It's quite another to espouse non-standard English in our writings at school, particularly in tests and exams.

At school, students know they are being schooled in attaining proficiency in English. Their school work is tuned towards making sure they pass internationally recognised benchmarks on English. That's why they cannot allow themselves to be beguiled by Colin's argument that "our crisis is less about declining grammar than fuzzy logic, inadequate research, insufficient space for expression and questioning, and cultural chauvinism".

Students should steer clear of being hoodwinked by such commentary lest the students become lulled into thinking their standard of English is up to par and, therefore, they need not take heed of the need to improve their command of English.

Though Colin points at the evidence suggesting the lowering standard of English Language here as "circumstantial" and "pure speculation", I think most of us, including you readers out there, will agree that the truth is out there - that compared to the standard of English in the 70's and earlier, the local English Language standard has been moving southwards.

I levy much of the blame on the increasing use of the Mother Tongue, particularly Chinese, among our students. As Chinese students account for more than 70% of the student population, any drop in their standard proportionately affects the overall standard.

I do not know whether Colin has taught at schools, but I have and still do. Chinese students at primary and secondary schools speak Mandarin with their fellow Chinese schoolmates, whether in class, during recess or at play. Outside school hours, they also communicate with others - family, relatives, hawkers, salespeople - using Mandarin. Without adequate use of English in their daily lives, these students are certainly not going to better their standard of English. And certainly, they aren't going to pick up Literature as an option in upper secondary - if they can help it - as they have already found their proficiency in English to be below par.


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