19 June 2006

Julia Gabriel Writes

The teaching of English in Singapore has recently been a hot topic in the media, with the Education Ministry expressing concerns about deteriorating standards in our schools and announcing its plan to hire en masse native English-speaking teachers from abroad.

Public response to the Education Ministry's plan has generally been negative. Many Singaporeans have pointed out that there are other, more effective ways to improve English standards in Singapore (not that the Education Ministry really cares about your feedback).

Anyway, today we have someone, Julia Gabriel, writing to the ST Forum to share her two cents worth. Julia Gabriel's two cents are actually worth a lot more than two cents, because she is a very experienced specialist in the area of teaching language:

ST June 19, 2006
Start from preschool with parents chipping in

MS SHERI Kristen Goh Kwee Hwa's letter, 'Reconsider move to hire native English speakers' (ST, June 14), highlights the value of reading and prompts further discussion about nurturing children's language development.

Ms Goh's voracious reading and love of writing have undoubtedly contributed to her high standard of spoken and written English. Credit for this must go to her parents who provided the conditions for her language to reach its full potential: a home where empathic family members made time to talk together in Standard English, listen responsively, and share an interest in books and reading.

There is a wide body of research on language development showing that reading alone is not enough. Neither is exposure to good models of language. To engage with language fully, children need opportunities to talk, practise and use it, making mistakes and approximations, especially in the preschool years when they are most able to hear and 'catch' the language around them.

The fixed roles of teacher and student, in the more controlled environment of school, can encourage passive learning, in contrast to the active learning styles children are used to at home.

Ms Rosemary Sage's research, in Britain, shows that three-year-old children utter around 40,000 words a day, diminishing to roughly 20,000 a day, the number expected of a two-year-old, when they enter school and 'teacher talk' takes over.

Ms Goh's suggestion that Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and the Ministry of Education reconsider importing 'native-speaking' teachers and learn from the experience of those who are able English speakers here is surely worth considering, but emphasis on the nationality of teachers alone is not enough.

Our teaching service is already well supplied with highly educated, accomplished speakers, and writers, of Standard English. They need to ensure they engage students in rich whole language, creating Standard English-only environments in our schools, and reach out to parents to do the same at home. Compulsory English literature in secondary schools would be laudable, but too late to create a reading culture for most.

The time to nurture this is in preschool, with parents and teachers working in a supportive partnership, continuing throughout primary and secondary education. Parents are an important part of an active school community that involves, and helps, families to foster children's potential.

In the early 1980s, a large cohort of native English speakers was hired from Britain to teach English in schools here. Some of their students must now be teaching and better equipped than their foreign counterparts to understand the particular needs of the children they mentor. Many of these teachers will also be 'native' speakers, having grown up in homes where English is a first language.

There is a popular belief that foreign Caucasians speak Standard English by virtue of their birth. The fact is that many of these so-called 'native speakers' have strong regional accents, acquired in the homes they grew up in, where they learnt non-standard regional phonemes, idioms and grammar.

Everyone speaks with an accent of some sort. More important by far is children's need to express themselves fully and individually, using clear diction and pronunciation, accurate speech rhythm, Standard English construction and a wide range of vocabulary. These are fostered in homes and schools that, together, provide a foundation for global language.

Julia Gabriel (Mrs)
I'm amused. Julia Gabriel says that "emphasis on the nationality of teachers alone is not enough" and that hiring foreign Caucasians is probably not the answer, because many of them will have "strong regional accents, acquired in the homes they grew up in, where they learnt non-standard regional phonemes, idioms and grammar." Julia Gabriel also points out that many local teachers are also 'native' speakers, having grown up in homes where English is a first language.

So an angmo teacher is herself telling us, very honestly, that angmo teachers are not the solution. But our good friend, Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, can't seem to see that. Very sad.

"'Allo me old china - wot say we pop round the Jack.
I'll stand you a pig and you can rabbit on about your teapots.
We can 'ave some loop and tommy and be off
before the dickory hits twelve."

- What is this native speaker of English saying?
here for the translation.

Technorati: ; .


Dr Oz bloke said...

I think I know what's going to happen.

Tharman will hire Mrs Julia Gabriel as English Educational Advisor and very soon we will still be seeing "native English speakers" in our schools teaching English. But without letters in the press from Mrs Gabriel.

That's how it usually works in Singapore isn't it?

If you can't beat em', then give them an offer that they cannot refuse and make them join you.

After that.....you can't sing jailhouse rock when we are playing classical music


PS : Interestingly, isn't it a coincidence that such an expert in teaching English so happens to be ang mor too? In some ways Tharman may be right!

Brazil Churrascaria anyone?

Anonymous said...

It has always been that case, isn't it? Citizens are always not trusted in giving the best to Singapore, and the best talent always has to come from overseas.

We are doomed, as a nation of people.

Anonymous said...

NexT Election,

Please vote opposition. If we have more opposition members, we can block these bills. If opposition wins 1/3 of seats in parliament, they can block constitutional changes that do not benefit the people.

Stop voting PAP! Singaporeans have no voice in policies' debate! Give us a break!

Better still, join the opposition parties today. Sign up for SDP, SDA or WP! Stop being threatened by upgrading, stop being forced to smile, stop being forced to speak Lee Kuan Yew's english. Stop being helpless! Join the Opposition! Let our people go!

Anonymous said...

The saddest part is that the Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam (same Indian chap Lee Hsien Loong assigned to improve the teaching of Mandarin), despite his million dollar paycheck, failed to see that the fault with the current state of English lies in the Ministry's original directive to our capable local teachers NOT to teach English grammar. I had to hunt down a reprint of the "bible" we used in the good old days, "First Aid In English" after discovering my kids were simply asked to read books without any guidance to separate the correct and the erroneous English found in modern texts. Sumiko's own erroneous usage of "took" and "brought" is a case in point. My personal quest was to find out whether "Neither Jane nor her friends GOES to ballet class" or "Neither Jane nor her friends GO to ballet class" is grammatically correct. The school teachers were clueless, fortunately a lecturer (local NUS grad) at NUS had the answer.
What the MIW did is so typical, simply spend taxpayers' money to bring in foreigners to do the job when he and his team are at a loss for solutions. Hopefully it won't be as expensive as the $400,000 Mah Bow Tan paid to rename Marina Bay to Marina Bay.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Dr Oz Bloke:

Julia makes more money running her own school. I'm contemplating sending my older kid for classes there.

They don't teach "English" - ouch, that sounds so boring - instead they do activities that require & cultivate the skilful use of English - storytelling, creative writing, drama, acting etc.


Actually I don't believe in teaching grammar either, except for very weal students. I tend towards the more-osmotic school of thought.

The real question is - how would you teach English in schools, if you did not focus on grammar? If your alternatives are poor, then of course you're better off teaching grammar.


"Neither Jane nor her friends go to ballet class"

sounds right to me, although I wouldn't be able to explain why, using the rules of grammar. I just trust my ear.

(Ooops, hope I'm right and did not just embarrass myself there.)

Dr Oz bloke said...

Mr Wang,

Julia Gabriel's school is way too expensive for me!

At the end of the day, whether or not people are successful or not has little to do with grades.

Anonymous said...

Interesting topic here :) Your blog really keeps me update with Singapore news.

I had Ang Moh teacher since I was 6 and I think, Gabriel is right. The home plays a much more important role and also friends from school. If they plan to hire native English speakers then those natives should also have good English qualifications and not just some tom dick and harry on the street who come from England.

I think we're doom.. haha.. bad in chinese and horrible in english. lol..

Anonymous said...

and the word is *comes* lol.. see how bad the English is.. hahaha

Anonymous said...

I have 3 brothers who left school after 'o' levels. Age 60,55 and 46, they write very well indeed. I am aware of a generation of kids (my 2 neices.... age 20+) who went through 10 years of education without good grounding in grammar. They are now school teachers in MOE. Do we need external help in this area? I think so. But it is up to the MOE to ensure that such Ang Moh teachers are grounded in good skills and are able to impart them to our kids.....not just that their Moh is Ang in colour. Do we need help in Singapore ? I think so. Can we find the right people? We can always hope.... Did the MOE make a mistake and lose a generation of kids without good strong grammatical skills? I don't know.....we have Gayle Goh from i-speak....(whew)....Let us give MOE a chance... I think I understand the need initially for our kids to abandon the rules of Grammar to make them speak widely, speak freely, but I think we are now facing the costs of this exercise.....pardon my poor Engrish...but I hope I make some sense...

Anonymous said...

Continuing from above.... I think it is people in the 40's and above who cringe at the standard of English written by people in the 20's. For the people in the 20's they are probably not even aware of the cringeworthiness...... I do think we need help.

Anonymous said...

The angmoh tells singaporeans not to self-demoralise amd look down on themselves. If singapore continues to commit suicide, then there is really no more hope for singapore. Quick head to escape pods and abandon ship!

The english teachers I all had really are unqualified, many of them are pulled into teaching english from other subjects. Of course except from those already teaching literature, those are really pro in their english.

The rest of the sub-standard bo standard english teachers are just trying to act high class and fake angmoh accent, really cannot make it. So it is quite right that some singaporeans must wake up to their own low class standards.

I support getting foreign teachers and create an international school environment for students. Because many singaporeans teachers have really no class at all, just refinely-rude and crude asians born and brought up with disgusting habits and have absolutely no civil awareness at all.

That teacher who tore up that PRC's assignment at RJC is a very good example. No class at all, worse than some uneducated uncivilised people.

Still got principal use book to hit girls some more.

What kind of role models is MOE trying to show?

Yes, such asians are brought up with no class, and ang mohs have much better class, I agree.

MOE, please employ more ang moh teachers and clear away the unqualified, vulgar and uncivilised asian sub-standard teachers. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

haha, i heard that sometimes MOE does consult NUS lecturers regarding education issues.. i heard they consulted the English Language and Literature department once on the issue of Singlish in Singapore.. (i also heard MOE did not get what it wants to hear). Obviously, they did not consult professionals abt it..(but local ones not good enough anyway right?) what do these people know abt linguistic issues man.. i agree with Mrs Julia Gabriel.. They have a problem defining "native speakers", and have the stereotypical concept that Caucasian speakers speak pure, grammatical, correct English. -shrug- keep flopping!

Anonymous said...

MOE, we students really can't learn english when so many of the asian teachers are so disgusting.

How to learn properly in school when we are all so put off by their uncivilised no-class behaviour? And have to always put up with their unreasonable demands? We are more busy quarelling with them than to actually learn anything from them, if they actually have anything to teach in the first place.

So please get more ang mohs ah, we really want to learn, not from no-class people but from civilised people!!! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

to that anonymous fellow who thinks that asian teachers are substandard and vulgar.. i pity you for the misfortune of being the 1 in 4 million people to always having to meet such people, and not having met their similar Caucasian counterparts.

Anonymous said...

ah yah, anybody home anot? of course I got meet caucasian teachers before lah if not how come I know the difference right? how come I got know got substandard vulgar teachers and also got civilised good ones?

MOE!!!!! Please get more caucasians teachers!!! thank you!!

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Heheh. Those of you who had clicked on the hyperlink in my article will know that the MOE is seeking to hire newly-qualified teachers from overseas.

That is to say, in MOE's opinion, zero or almost zero experience and zero or almost zero track record is fine, as long as you have an angmo accent.

Good luck to our students.

PanzerGrenadier said...

Pinkerton Syndrome still at work?

After 40 years of independence, and MOE still is of the view that ang-moh is 10 up to locals?

Singapore is a small country. Yes, we have made significant leaps in economic progress by adopting the "western" kapitalistic models and courting MNCs to invest and develop here so that jobs and economic activity could be developed on our fair shores.

Yes, when we were starting out as a newly independent country, learning from the Israelis, British, Americans were they way to develop a modern defence force capable of deterring aggressors and allowing our diplomatic efforts to carry the force of military action should our sovereignty be threatened.

But fast forward to 40 years. Singapore has achieved much progress but we need to learn from the world (i.e. Both western and north and south and west) in order to stay relevant in the global economy.

If we want to recruit the very best English teachers, we should cast our net far and wide, i.e. include commonwealth countries that goes beyond England/UK. Just look at the Booker/Whitbread prize winners and commonwealth writers are starting to receive recognition for the quality of writing in their "native" English.

We should have a global mindset i.e. not be overly influenced by our old cultural "Angmo is always good" colonial mentality. Angmoh were good when we first started out as a nation, in some areas they are still good but not for everything.

Anonymous said...

I am currently living in Australia.

The australians are also having problems with their grasp of the English language. Grammar is also not taught particularly in their curriculum, giving rise to a generation of australians who are weak in writing and literacy too.

I don't know about the situations in UK and US. However, it is really not the colour when it comes to speaking and writing good english.

My son, educated by the Singapore system, has been considered the best english speaker in his class, beating all the "native" speakers!

I am sad that Mr Tharman has yet to overcome his colonial hangover after 40 years of independence.

Anonymous said...

Ahh the perenial debate! Well, personally I'm a little offended that I'm considered a worse teacher than someone "native". And what does "native speaker" mean anyway? Because if I'm not a "native speaker" of English, I'm not a native speaker of anything. :(

That said, I do not agree with the rote-learning / drilling of grammar in schools which many seem to think we should return to. It's boring, it makes students hate EL and research has shown that it is not all that effective. However, this does not mean we totally ignore grammar. We just need to find a better way to teach it.

And maybe MOE would like to look into hiring people to specialise in teaching EL in primary school. I think it's odd that primary school teachers have to teach English, Maths and Science. So in NIE, these teachers have to learn how to teach all three subjects within one year.

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang,

Actually, the best solution to the problem is to infect the ang moh speakers to use singlish. That will reduce the load of us adhering to their standard. :)

Best regards,

Anonymous said...

The whole thing really began with the MM meet reporters session just before GE. MM was clearly dismayed that his Cambridge engrish and affectations failed to win the hearts and minds of the authentic but distinctly un-british sounding younger generations. How come lidat?! Must be those young punks couldn't understand and appreciate Queen's engrish lah! So time to fix the ginnas'england! Must order one of the sycophants to carry out this urgent task!

Anonymous said...

Mr. Wang,

The argument that some native speakers don't know grammar and/or speak with thick accents is a straw man argument. Of course foreign teachers should speak standard English in order to be eligible to teach in Singapore. The important question then is: Will casting a wider net improve the quality of English teaching? Having more candidates to choose from will always be better.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Gabriel cites a study that 3-year-olds will utter 40,000 words a day. That seems almost physically impossible. Assuming the three year old is awake for 14 hours a day, that works out to 2,857 words per hour, or 48 words a minute. Nonsense.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...


Heheh. Going by that measure, why do we not recruit Asian standard english speakers? After all, there are plenty in India, Malaysia and the Philippines.

I could be wrong, but I doubt if Singaporean teachers teaching English in our schools in fact cannot speak standard English. That seems as unlikely as Singaporean teachers teaching Maths in our schools not knowing how to do algebra, or Singaporean teachers teaching Science without actually knowing very much Science.

Consider the feedback from the ground - no one seems to be saying that the problem is that Singaporean teachers themselves are weak in the language; or that there aren't enough English teachers in Singapore.

On the other hand, the feedback points to other factors such as students not reading enough; the curriculum not focusing on the rules of grammar; the system (wrongly) assuming that Primary One children already know some language basics (phonics, ABCs); children lacking proper language models in their home environment etc.

None of the above problems will actually be solved by hiring angmo teachers en masse.



Heheh. Have you ever considered how many words you would utter in conversation in five seconds? Significantly more than five, unless you sound like one of those recorded voice messages on the SAF Hotline: "Please .... enter ... your ... N ... R ... I ... C ... number ... followed ...by the ... hex ... key."

Anonymous said...

Mr. Wang,

I will take as true your comments regarding the quality of English teachers in Singapore as I have no way of refuting this (I was not educated in Singapore). However, your comments do not address why the language abilities of certain non-Singaporean native English speakers matter. Pointing out that there are native speakers that do not speak standard English clouds the debate unnecessarily and is disingenuous. Let's call a spade a spade and debate the relevant issues.

As for recruiting Asian standard English speakers: I am not at all against this. On this topic, I have no particular loyalty to ethnicity. Quality is quality regardless of the package it comes in.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Actually it wasn't my point - it was Julia Gabriel's point. And I do think it is a good point.

(1) The MOE is concerned about falling standards of students in the English language. To address this problem, MOE intends to hire "English native speakers", from overseas.

(2) Julia's warning is that "English native speakers" from overseas do not necessarily speak English which is any more "Standard" than "English native speakers" in Singapore.

(3) Next, Julia points out that in any event, there probably isn't any lack of "English native speakers" who are already teaching English in Singapore.

Therefore, hiring more foreign "English native speakers" is simply not the solution.

For that matter, hiring more local "English native speakers" will also not be the solution.

And by logical extension, hiring more Asian, non-Singaporean "English native speakers" (from the Philippines, Malaysia, India etc) will similarly not be the solution.

In other words, returning to your "wider net" analogy, we would say that casting a wider net is irrelevant, because there's already plenty of the right kinds of fish swimming all around your feet in the water.

Therefore, the argument goes, Tharman's approach to the problem is just plain wrong, from step one. He sees the problem as a lack of fish, and will use taxpayers' money to cast his nets further and wider - but in the end, he will catch no better fish than the fish already swimming around his toes.

You see, Eric, if Tharman had said something like:

"After doing extensive research, my ministry has discovered that in __[country]___, the English teachers are particularly well-trained because _______, ______ and _____, and that's something we don't have here in Singapore. Therefore we wish to hire those kinds of foreign English teachers in large numbers, so that they can bring their special teaching experience here."

... then that would be a more convincing kind of argument. Right now, however, it doesn't sound like that at all.

By the way, Eric, just wondering:

(1) are you Singaporean?
(2) what language do you consider yourself most fluent in?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Wang,

I know that the point was made by Gabriel. I take the posting of the picture and caption as your tacit approval of that line of reasoning.

I think we will have to agree to disagree on this relatively less important issue and to agree (I hope!) that the decision to import English teachers from overseas should be based on objective research of the issue.

In answer to your question, I am Singaporean by marriage only. I read your blog to keep up on current events and debates.

Anonymous said...


I think the problem lies exactly as it is - that we are afraid that MOE's solution is not arrived after objective research.

Most educated Singaporeans, if by reading the blogs and through discussions, would know the root problems are more complex than just having inadequate native speakers as teachers. In my opinion, MOE is just taking a short-cut conclusion to fixing a problem. Their urgency is perhaps compounded by the fact that MOE had not been able to make any headway in educating our average young, despite many policy flip-flops.

The last I hear, would be to use Singlish to teach English! Since PM Lee thinks hip-hop or rap can do as well. And if they also think using English to teach Chinese is workable, nothing is impossible.

Which goes to show, they are entirely clueless as to why our youths resort to Singlish in the first place! They blame it on the media, the bloggers and what-have-yous.

Crazy country led by a bunch of crazy monkeys, I dare say.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

IMHO, each of the following is a more significant cause of poor English among our young students, than our language teachers' own competency in the English language:

1. Many Singaporean families simply do not use English at home, as their main language.

2. Not enough time in school for English Language (British kids take on average five or six O-level subjects; in Singapore we take six, seven, eight, nine or ten subjects).

3. Prescribed curriculum materials are boring and do not encourage the student's interest in English (I'm not just saying this - this afternoon I was at Popular and decided to go to the students' section to see what kind of stuff they're using in schools today).

4. Poor grammar among students is often attributable to the influence of their compulsory 2nd language (eg Mandarin) on their English language.

As you can see, none of these problems can really be solved by hiring more foreign native English speakers as teachers. All that would happen is that our students start speaking Singlish with a British or American twang.

Anonymous said...

I have to wonder also if the standard of English of Singaporeans is indeed declining/poor/inadequate. All I've seen thus far is anecdotal evidence. I've also seen anecdotal evidence to the contrary. And, either way, the plural of anecdote is not data and it is certainly not good enough to bring about drastic changes in policy.

I'm all for importing teachers if they address real [in my opinion] problems like the teacher-student ratio. I understand that the ratio in some secondary schools is still 42 to 1! The ratio in primary schools is probably higher as compared to other countries too.

And to improve teaching in primary schools, why not make a degree in early childhood education compulsory? I don't mean sack all current teachers who aren't qualified right away. We wouldn't have enough teachers then but start sending the teachers in batches for training. Get some overseas teachers to pick up the slack and bring down the teacher-student ratio.

Perhaps teachers in primary schools should specialise in just one or two subjects too.

Perhaps MOE can work on teacher retention too. Hey, integrate special kids into the classroom/school while you're at it. Perhaps NIE can start offering a degree in special ed too.

I could go on.


Anonymous said...

>I have to wonder also if the standard of English of Singaporeans is indeed declining/poor/inadequate.

I can't say if it's declining, but it is indeed -- inadequate. Just a quick look around my office, the quality of english both spoken and written leaves much to be desired. Poor grammar, egregious spelling mistakes, and very ineffective writing skills. And these are english educated university graduates I'm talking about.

I don't expect everyone to excel in the language, but the fundamentals are often not there. Which is not to say this problem is 'uniquely Singaporean' because as a teaching assistant in graduate school in the US, I had to grade some really craptacular papers by Americans as well.

I appreciate the government trying to 'fix' this problem, wrong headed as the approach seems to be. But perhaps we should not focus on how bad the level of english is, but that so many speak english at all to begin with. Which is, yes, patronising to the average Singaporean, but if you consider what's more commonly spoken at home and the high viewership of the chinese tv channels compared to english, it might be more accurate. Just look at discussion about the standards of chinese in schools and it's the same - kids from english-speaking families just aren't in the kind of environment that fosters chinese language proficiency.

Personally, I don't believe that this is something one 'fixes' with better English teachers. For starters, all teachers should have strong english skills, and parents, and service personnel etc. It's more, much more, that just sending someone off to a certificate course. To fix this requires a very fundamental change to the social fabric of Singapore. I'm not sure if that can happen so easily, if at all.

Anonymous said...

Dear diary,

Today , something exciting happened. we had a new english teacher. His name is Smith roberts and he is an Ang Mo. This is the first time i have an ang mo english teacher, tks to Mr Tharman. He is my previous english teacher`s very big boss.

(Mr Smith is very tall, he is easily the tallest in the school, even taller than xiaoming, our school champion basketball player.And Mr Smith really had blue eyes and a very long nose.Oh, His hair is blond too, like my favourite actor-Brat Pitt)

Mr Tharman felt that we should write and read proper english and so my poor ex.teacher, Miss Wong had to go because she cannot speak good english like my new teacher,Mr Smith.

I liked Miss Wong because I can understand what she is saying, most of the times, although i am confused sometimes. This is because my english textbooks teach me to say and write in a certain way, but Miss Wong sometimes does not "walk the talk"( i learned this new phrase from my auntie who is staying in Amercia)

Anyway, Mr Smith is quite interesting too. I can understand what he is saying, although Geradine, my best friend do not. Geradine said that Mr Smith speaks funnily and she cannot understand the accent.But I told Geradine that i can understand him perfectly well...maybe it is because i liked to watch hollywood movies and drama, but Geradine prefers our own singapore television drama .

Geradine and I are quite different, but i think that after a while , Geradine will be able to understand what Mr Smith is saying, it is the same for me , when i first watched the ang moh movies.I think Geradine needs to brush up her english, because i am her best friend but sometimes, her "lahs" and "wau lau" seem very crude and sometimes, she add a few vulgar words too, like "Lxxx Pxxx" , i wish she stop doing that..next time if we go to ang moh country to study( we promise to do that together) , i think the ang moh will not understand us.

Anyway, i am very tired and need to sleep. it is already half past nine and i have to go to school early because Mr Tharman is coming.I overheard from the teachers in the toilet that MR Tharman will be feeling stressed..because now, he had to speak good english too, and pronounces his word properly and clearly. i wonder if the other ministers are stressed as well...maybe they will hire an ang moh to teach wong kan seng, lim boon yang english as well...

Anonymous said...

Jamaicans are native English speakers, they don't speak any other language. Same goes for the rest of the Caribbean - should we hire some? ya mon!

Anonymous said...


hi all, an insightful piece from Yawning bread. Do take a look.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for providing the link. I found Yawning Bread's post to be quite thought provoking.