Saturday September 8, 2012
Improving English in schools
INSIGHT: DOWN SOUTH By SEAH CHIANG NEE
Many of our youths simply lack the confidence, or capability, to articulate an issue at a meeting which puts them at a huge disadvantage in this global world.
WHEN I read of the Education Ministry’s long overdue plan to improve the standard of English in schools, I recall an incident that lies close to the subject.
It touches on a shortcoming of the education system in producing too many youths who lack proper language grounding, but also suffer from an inferiority complex about using it.
It may involve making a brief public comment or just standing up to ask a question in front of a gathering, or merely expressing a viewpoint among a small group of people.
Many of our youths simply lack the confidence, or capability, to articulate an issue at a meeting, which puts them at a huge disadvantage in this global world.
Unlike in the old industrial era, the demand for communication skill has become as important as knowledge of date.
As a result of our reticence, we’re actually losing out to the competition to people who can explain or sell a concept better than us. They may apply to most people, engineers, doctors or CEOs.
I realised how bad the situation had become when I was once invited by a secondary school to talk to a gathering of Secondary Three and Four students about the 1964 race riots here.
It was a SAP (Special Assistance School), which caters to academically strong students who excel in English and Mandarin, a top of the range institution. It was observing Racial Harmony Day and my talk was on my reporting experience of the violence.
The teacher in-charge of the project explained the format: A half-hour talk followed by questions-and-answers, which was fine with me.
“But, do not expect a lively exchange,” she warned me. In fact, if the past would be an indication, she added, I could expect not a single question.
I was surprised. This was one of Singapore’s 11 SAP schools renowned for bright students and the subject was nothing complicating, merely a reporter’s account of race violence.
It went according to plan with the MC announcing at the end that the speaker was ready to take questions. You could hear a pin drop! Not a single one of the estimated 700 students stood up to ask anything.
Apparently ready for it, the MC said after several minutes: “We’ll now go to the next room for some tea and cookies, and anybody who wants to, can approach the speaker there.”
There we were approached by two boys, one of whom began asking me some pretty sharp questions and we had a nice chat. The other kept quiet.
After they left I said to the teacher: “Well, I’m glad you were wrong. Someone did ask questions. “Yes,” she replied, “the boy who did so was from Taiwan”. The Singaporean kept quiet.
I found in my working life this applied to well-groomed adults, too. In 50 years of attending press conferences and forums as a journalist, I have encountered numerous cases of shyness among well-heeled Singaporeans, including CEOs and professionals.
The more prominent the speaker was from abroad, the less chance of a Singaporean asking the first question. Keeping quiet was the culture. No one wanted to make a public faux pas. Better keep quiet; let the others risk it. Usually it is a foreigner who was the first to break the ice.
Recently a reader wrote to The Straits Times that the habit of not speaking up starts from school. “The majority of Singapore students are not articulate partly because of the education system.”
Students are discouraged from asking questions from a young age, she said, and those who ask for clarification are reprimanded for not paying attention.
“We do not have a culture of tolerating alternative viewpoints and this is a hindrance to getting students to speak up,” the reader said.
Blogger Mr Wang says the lack of a “show and tell” culture is resulting in the under-valuing of Singaporeans contribution in the workplace.
There could be situations when the Singaporean has done most of the hard work which is technically sound, but “some foreign talent waltzes in and takes the limelight”.
The reason, according to him, is that the foreigner is “more articulate and outspoken (basically, a better show-&-teller)”.
Some years back Lee Kuan Yew (then Minister Mentor) received the silent treatment from Singaporeans when he invited questions from undergraduates.
Only one had a question for him; the other six were foreign students – three from China, two from India and one from Vietnam.
In exasperation, Lee asked: “Is there no Singaporean who wants to ask a question?”
In his presence, the reluctance was understandable. He had an intimidating approach to a question he didn’t like. As a result, foreign students often dominated the questioning.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is also trying to resolve problems of numbers. He announced turning the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and private institution UniSIM into Singapore’s fifth and sixth universities.
This will increase the number of university places by 2020 from 13,000 admissions to 16,000 a year. This will mean that 40% of each cohort will make it to university.
More relevant, the Education Ministry recently announced a new syllabus for teaching English at Primary Four from next year to “enable students to communicate effectively and confidently in the globalised world.”
It is a tough act for any one ministry to achieve.
“First, the country needs to open up the press and be more tolerant to alternate views,” said one critic, an unlikely move any time soon.