Monday, February 11, 2008

The South Koreans see that proficiency in English is essential for staying competitive in this world. We've known that all along, making English one of our official languages. South Korea wants to start teaching English classes in English -- a bit late in the game, since we have already implemented this revolutionary innovation since granddad's time. And yet so many of the essays and assignments I've received for marking only just approach the quality of perhaps the harder working students in ESL class. Grammar, syntax, paragraph construction, vocabulary, convey some basic sense of the subject in question, but because of frequent poor expression it all sounds like I'm being reached out to by some rudimentary intelligence rather than the erudite seekers of answers that the students are supposed to be.

Making English an "official language" may actually have the drawback of allowing our people to settle into complacency about it. It's an official language, therefore whatever vernacular we use must therefore be good enough, collect or not? When it comes to spoken English, we have the attitude that when in S'pore speak as the S'poreans do. As long as can unnerstan', can awreddy, w'at!

It's also a pride thing. S'poreans speak Singlish. It's our identity, our heritage and our proudest export to the rest of the Commonwealth. C'mon, lah! We not kentang or banana; wanna be so Ang Mor for what? Speak "proper" English in school and be labeled a Western wannabe, a freakshow, an object of ridicule and contempt. This probably happens in most neighbourhoods and families as well, so there's little encouragement to learn more than what passes for basic comprehension.

It's little surprise then that our students find difficulty expressing themselves in public. The brand of English they use is obviously inappropriate for formal discourse, and naturally, it's easy to develop an inferiority complex coming face-to-face with others who have a stronger command of the language. This lack of confidence is more pronounced in the colleges ranked below our mythical "top 5" JCs. They are "top 5" because their students use a higher level of English that allows them to access, digest and discuss higher level reading material. Those kids thrive on, and are stimulated by stuff that would put their lesser peers to sleep. They get to be the future brains, bureaucrats and insensitive policy-makers, while the majority of their cohort get by with their daily grind and complain how unfair life is.

I daresay the English teachers we have on campus are among the world's best. We have an oyster for every student who passes through our classes, but few of them actually reach out and take what is rightfully theirs. The rest rather slog away at more concrete subjects like the sciences and math, but they forget what language medium they receive such instruction in. That's like sweating it out making bricks, but without the cement of English to bind all the brick fragments together, they'll never be able to build a house. And they wonder why their lives are so hard.

"The private English education market is estimated to be worth about US$15.8 billion (S$22 billion) a year, fuelled by families who spend an average of 700,000 won a month on their children, according to the Samsung Economic Research Institute." That's a lot of moolah to be shared by those of us who can teach English. Perhaps we should put some thought into getting a piece of that action and be paid by people who can appreciate what we have to offer.

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