Wondering what to do with students who punctuate every other sentence with a lah or a loh whenever they speak out in class? SingTeach interviews NIE’s Associate Professor Low Ee Ling, a researcher on English in Singapore and a member of the Speak Good English Movement (SGEM) committee. Find out what she knows about English usage in society and in the classroom, and how teachers can convince students that speaking standard English can be shiok (enjoyable) too.
Q: What is Standard Singapore English (SSE), and how is it different from Colloquial Singapore English (CSE), and prevalent versions of standard English, such as US and UK English?
A: SSE is defined as the variety of English (spoken and written) of proficient English users in Singapore for formal purposes, such as in education, law and the media.
SSE grammar and vocabulary does not differ markedly from standard English as spoken in the US or UK but in terms of accent (pronunciation), it is distinctively Singaporean.
CSE is sometimes equated with Singlish, or the informal, colloquial variety of Singapore English with its own unique linguistic features in terms of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. It is used either by those with a limited proficiency in English or by proficient users who choose to use it for informal communicative situations such as conversing with close friends and family members.
Q: There have been many anecdotes about foreigners not understanding Singlish. Is there any research on intelligibility of SSE and CSE as perceived by non-Singaporeans?
A: NIE has a project investigating the intelligibility of Singapore English worldwide. First, we collected a corpus of spoken English comprising the conversational speech of student teachers at NIE from different ethnic groups. This variety is somewhere in between SSE and CSE since the speech situation is not very formal.
Samples from the corpus were played to students in Britain, while we played samples of Estuary English (a modern variety of British English which is increasingly popular amongst younger Britons) to their Singaporean counterparts. It was found that British listeners were better able to comprehend Singaporean speakers than vice versa.
The NIE corpus was also played to students in Australia and foreign students studying there, namely from Bhutan, China, Iraq, Japan and Taiwan. The Australians had little difficulty understanding Singapore English but not so for the others.
This shows that English spoken by NIE student teachers is understood by native speakers of English in Britain and Australia but less so by people from other Asian countries. Singapore English compares favourably with the speech of many young people from Britain.
As we position ourselves as the regional hub for trade, education, health care and research, it is crucial for us to achieve language intelligibility with our Asian neighbours and not just with native speakers of English. We can be proud of a largely English-speaking population but also strive for higher standards so that the variety we speak is understood both regionally and globally.
Q: Has any research been done that can inform us about the use of SSE and CSE in Singapore, particularly in the classroom context?
A: In general, current research supports our intuition that students use Singlish as a solidarity marker, when they feel comfortable with their teacher and amongst themselves and when clarifying doubts with each other about the teacher’s instructions during lessons.
Anne Pakir from the National University of Singapore has investigated code-switching in the classroom and other conversational domains. Over at NIE, I am aware of research done by Lubna Alsagoff with Melody Kwek on the use of CSE by Singapore teachers. It is used by teachers who want to reach out to their students and also by those who want to ensure that their students understand what is being taught. Phyllis Chew found, very interestingly, that undergraduates generally supported SGEM and even though they use CSE, they want their own children and students to speak SSE. Vanitha Saravanan’s research with Susan Gwee explores the sociolinguistic and language behaviours of 38 Primary 3 pupils when they’re participating in interactive activities in class.
Q: How should teachers deal with the usage of CSE in the classrooms? Can teachers harness students’ knowledge and use of CSE to enhance their learning of SSE?
A: I think the teacher must first of all ascertain the level of English proficiency of their students by observing their conversations and writing. Then, they can decide whether the students are:
- generally proficient users of English, who are able to code-switch effortlessly between SSE and CSE;
- unable to code-switch, speak only CSE and are most comfortable speaking in their mother tongue language; or
- only use one variety of English in and out of the classroom and it’s always SSE.
In the first scenario, teachers could talk to their students about the appropriate use of CSE and SSE every time students use CSE in the classroom. The teacher can also design a survey comprising different conversational situations – some formal, some informal – and ask students which variety of English they would use in each one. Classroom debates about the use of Singlish will also encourage students to think about the topic for themselves.
The second situation is also very real in many classrooms. It is therefore important for teachers not to tell their students off when they use CSE. Instead, gently coax the students to use only English in the classroom. If all they speak is CSE, remember that you have a duty to encourage them to use English, and build their confidence and proficiency. Many motivational methods have been used by expert teachers for this type of students, such as getting them to perform in a play for a school function or at the national level so that they are motivated to speak the best English they possibly can. Getting students to write a journal or blog during English classes can also help them to slowly get used to writing in standard English.
If the third situation best describes the classroom, the teacher can stimulate debate and discussion about why it may be necessary to code-switch to CSE, if at all.
Q: How can teachers help and encourage students to learn and use SSE in classroom and in daily life?
A: Teachers need to impress upon their students that the use of CSE is important for building solidarity and binding the society together. It also has a lot of comic value which lets Singaporeans enjoy a light moment together. However, there are many situations where the use of CSE is inappropriate and as such, it is extremely important to master SSE. For example, when communicating with foreigners in both informal settings and important formal occasions, the use of SSE is essential, not just to be understood but also to be respected by the international community.
Finally, teachers should emphasise to students that SSE offers them more opportunities and will help them to function in an increasingly globalised world. Teachers can also encourage students to discuss openly why they resist the use of SSE so that they can have an avenue to express their innermost feelings about the topic.
Q: Teachers have been identified by the SGEM as an important group of people who can help to improve the standard of English in Singapore. What role do you see teachers playing?
A: Apart from encouraging the use of SSE in the classroom, teachers also serve as role models for their students, whether they like it or not. Therefore, at the most basic level, teachers must make sure that they themselves are capable of using SSE and of telling the difference between CSE and SSE. To do so, they need to be highly proficient users of the English language in both its written and spoken forms. They should therefore first reflect about their own level of proficiency and be very honest about it. If they discover that it is less than desirable or that they still have room for improvement, they should quickly enrol in the many in-service courses that target these areas of need, be it in grammar or pronunciation. Teachers can enquire about such courses at NIE, the British Council and the Regional English Language Centre (RELC).
English departments within each school should also have a support group in which teachers can share resources or advice. There should not be a climate of fear as the end goal is for them to provide the exemplars of standard English for their students by being role models of highly proficient users of English themselves.