Kobe Days

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About Englishes

Recently I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learnt since coming on JET (during the spare moments not spent Cumberbatch-ed…). Mostly inspired by the new group of JETs, I thought about what I’d learnt over my years here, and this little thought came to me one day during English class. So in typical narcissistic fashion, here it is.

Dear newbie Singaporean JETs,

If there’s one tip I can give you now, specifically for you, this is it: be aware of the way you speak English. Throughout the CELTA course I did, the 2 years I’ve spent teaching in Japan, I’ve learnt so much about the way I speak English that I had never known while living in Singapore.

Now, I want to point out that there is nothing wrong with the way we speak English. (And I mean English, NOT Singlish, all right?) Many Singaporeans can express themselves in grammatically correct English, albeit with a Singaporean accent, and that’s perfectly fine. And Singaporean English, like British English or American English, has its own set of lexicon which is unique to the region.

But unlike British/American/Australian accents, which most of the non-English-speaking world usually have some access to thanks to their great TV shows, singers, etc, Singaporean English is not as often heard. As a result, many people, even native speakers of English, can’t understand what we say.

And it’s not their fault, neither is it ours. It’s just a lack of exposure. So how do you deal with it?

When you come here, you’ll find native speakers begging your pardon over and over again. You may get Japanese teachers questioning your pronunciation. You’ll be asked to slow down (we really do speak fast), or you may find yourself needing to change your accents or stresses or slur your ‘t’s to be understood (twenty versus twenny). You may find your identity as a native speaker questioned in rare cases (just shrug it off).

In the classroom, you’ll need to think about pronunciation (and spelling, of course). Some of our pronuncation is influenced by our more British background. Vase (Br) versus vase (Am), for example. Can’t (Br) versus can’t (Am). Our pronunciation is shaped by our heritage and the English our teachers had used, as well as the English we hear in the media (not always accurate, as you may well know). To relate a story, I still pronounce ‘academic’ as sounding similar to ‘academy’, thanks to years of listening to teachers talking about ‘the aCAREdemic year’. It’s one of the few words that I really need to think about before saying.

Other things I’ve noticed I occasionally lapse into include forgetting my ‘th’ (teeth/without), shortening my vowels (book), dropping verbs and replying to my teacher’s question of ‘Can you…’ with ‘Can!’ >< None of this would be a problem in normal life, but when you're teaching and hoping that students will follow your pronunciation/use of English, you need to note what you say to them.

If you're teaching higher levels, you'll need to revise grammar rules, because as likely as not, you'll have teachers or keen students asking you to explain why a certain form isn't right. I don't know how grammar education in Singapore has changed while you were a student, but I was well-drilled in grammar, so I found it a fascinating experience answering such questions. If you aren't a grammar aficionado, though, you probably won't enjoy it as much.

So as you plan for your year(s) ahead, worrying about packing all the Prima Taste mixes in your luggage without going overweight or what omiyage you need to buy, a note to remember: in our unique position as the only "non-native" native English teachers on the JET programme, it is as much a learning experience for us as it is for them. So try to learn about teaching and learning English as a Foreign Language, teach them about our experiences learning English as both a first and second language, and help your students avoid making the same mistakes we learnt studying English growing up.

It's an experience to be savored. (See what I did there? ;p)