Our English is broken. Accept it, Hri Kumar

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PAP Member of Parliament Hri Kumar may have set the cat among the pigeons. He said in his Facebook post: “It costs much less money to get our children to speak up and speak well than to learn to play tennis or the piano.”

 He’s right, of course. But if he’s been to a neighbourhood school, or taken public transport when the bus or train is full of students, he’ll hear English as she’s spoken: broken.

Singaporeans generally speak broken English. Singlish-speaking parents may be able to afford English enrichment classes for their children but to expect their offspring to sound like fluent English newsreaders from one 90-minute class a week is unreal.

Chances of a child learning to speak good English is when he grows up understanding that, in his family, it is a foreign language and approaches learning it as such. (Unfortunately, English is also not taught as a foreign language in Singapore.) Values, ideas and arguments can be discussed at home in whatever language best expresses such thoughts and is truly “native” to the adults.

So it may well be Singlish — such is the product of a PAP-inspired education system that forced so-called “mother tongue” down the throats of today’s parents. Already, a majority of ethnic Chinese teachers in our schools chat away in Mandarin outside of the classroom — no wonder our young are learning hodge-podge English: many of their teachers have no confidence themselves in the language!

If students hail from Singlish-speaking homes, what chance have they got to learn to speak up and speak out in good English when teachers themselves speak Singlish?

Hri Kumar may not be aware that the fear of public speaking — in any language — is the biggest fear among most people in the world. American comedian Jerry Seinfeld once made a joke about this: He said that most people (the often cited statistic is 75 per cent) at a funeral would rather be in the casket than be giving a eulogy!

I enjoy watching the Singapore National Science Challenge on Channel 5. Part of the score requires teams to explain an experiment proving a scientific point to a panel of judges. The finalists are always students from the top schools (Raffles Girls won the last competition). It is clear from their presentations that they have the knowledge (as the Programme for International Student Assssment, Pisa, in which Singapore topped, showed), but frankly, each of the finalist teams could have done with some training in public speaking.

Hri Kumar wants our students to learn a skill that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. The most basic of this is to speak up and make sense. As a debate coach, one of the skills I found hardest to teach was to get the debaters to speak from notes, not speeches written-up. A debate, I said, is not a reading competition, but one in which speakers try and persuade the judges and audience of their point of view. More Members of Parliament should try doing that.