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Should we change the way we teach languages?

I recently wrote about the disjuncture between the mother tongue policy in Singapore and the lived experiences of many Singaporeans today. Related to this issue is the peculiar way in which languages have been and continue to be taught in our multilingual/cultural environment.

I recently wrote about the disjuncture between the mother tongue policy in Singapore and the lived experiences of many Singaporeans today. Related to this issue is the peculiar way in which languages have been and continue to be taught in our multilingual/cultural environment.

Given the huge public and state support for bilingual education, it seems pertinent to raise a question that I, as a language teacher and academic, have always wanted to ask: Should we teach languages as parallel monolingualisms? That is, should English/mother tongue language teachers only allow English/the respective mother tongues to be used in class?

For starters, it is useful to revisit how Singaporeans speak in everyday contexts. Besides official discourse in public domains (such as drafting a corporate letter or writing in TODAY’s commentary section), most people actually use a variety of linguistic codes at their disposal. These codes are not limited to one particular language, and actually occur in most interactions.

A Chinese individual might use his limited Malay to order his favourite food from the Indian-Muslim stall: “I want dua kosong prata.” Grandparents might use a mix of Hokkien and Mandarin when communicating with their grandchildren, and vice versa.

Or, teenage friends inviting one another for a day out: “Eh dei, let’s go Orchard jalan jalan leh, bu yao zheng tian do homework lah!”

More than simply Singlish, academics like the late Normann Jorgensen have termed such phenomena “languaging”. This is seen as wholly normal and prevalent in multilingual societies.

However, these linguistic practices and cultural behaviour are largely ignored in our language classrooms.

The irony is that bilingual education in Singapore is more a teaching of separate monolingualisms, rather than a reflection of actual bilingual practices.

Singapore schools still teach English, for example, by enforcing an English-only rule in the classroom. The Ministry of Education’s curriculum does not provide definitive guidelines on the English-only rule, though my own experience as a student and language teacher suggests that this is very much the norm.

I remember when my primary school teachers would fine us 10 cents for speaking the “wrong” language in class. As a teacher, I was chided by a more senior member of staff for using Singlish while teaching English. “Language teachers have to model the taught language at all times,” I was told.

Of course, some teachers apply this more strictly than others, but the predominant view among teachers is that the use of Singlish and mixing linguistic codes in the classroom will only hinder the child from learning the target language. This monolingual rule applies to the teaching of other languages as well.

One might ask: So what? Isn’t this the right way to teach language?

As it turns out, research has often suggested that the monolingual rule prevents students who are less proficient in the taught language from participating. It only advantages students who already use it as a principal home language, while the majority of students who are more used to mixing linguistic codes tend to be excluded.

Somewhat strangely, this fact is recognised only in Chinese Syllabus B, where some English is explicitly condoned in the teaching of Chinese to weaker learners. It begs the question of why these allowances are not applied more consistently across all language classrooms.

Even in Britain, concerns were highlighted as far back as 1985 in a government review. The Swann report recommended that teachers do away with methods that treated the myriad linguistic resources students brought to the classroom as either a deficit to be banned and totally removed from the child’s practices, or as an impediment that prevented the child from learning the “right” form of language.

It proposed that teachers engage in a “repertoire” approach that “values all languages and dialects as an important part of the child’s linguistic repertoire … focuses on what the child can do and builds constructively on the considerable linguistic strengths the child brings to the classroom”.

More recent studies in Europe have shown how bilingual classroom practices can account for diverse linguistic and cultural identities, and yet lead to successful education outcomes.

While the devil is in the details of what a “repertoire” approach might look like in a Singaporean language classroom, it is still relevant to ask why our pedagogy persists in a monolingual framework. Instead of frowning on the non-standard linguistic practices that our students bring to school, can we utilise these practices as resources to teach standard forms of language?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Luke Lu is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Language, Discourse and Communication, King’s College London. He used to teach English and General Paper.

To read his previous commentary, ‘Can English be a Singaporean mother tongue?’, go to tdy.sg/englanguage.

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