Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Teachers from Hell

We've earlier seen how a student who got his grammar right was marked wrong by a teacher who told him to re-arrange his sentence in a way which in fact made it incorrect. And when the student asked Singapore's language "experts" if he was really wrong, the "experts" agreed with his teacher and they even went so far as to make up their own grammar rule. Click here if you want to read that post.

Now, the language experts are getting even nastier. Not only do they agree one more time with a school teacher who's got it all wrong, they tell off the student in the most arrogant way.

Here's an excerpt from English As It Is Broken (Book 2), a grammar book which, together with Book 1, is published by the Ministry of Education, the Speak Good English Movement and the Straits Times.

Do you see how arrogant the language "experts" are in their reply to the student's question? What's wrong with "high morality"? This is something the Ministry of Education should drum into their teachers. Never suggest that a student is wrong unless you can back it up with a grammar book or a dictionary. Don't depend on your own feelings because like most teachers in Singapore that we have seen, you are probably ignorant of basic grammar and you don't read much to begin with and so it's not prudent for you to rely on your own judgement and sense of what is grammatical and what isn't. And even if you are right (which is rare and can only happen by some stroke of stupendous good fortune), there is no justification for such an obnoxious answer.

The teacher and the language "experts" are both badly mistaken. There is nothing wrong with "high morality". It's very difficult to deal with grammar terrorists (ill-qualified pedants who correct others when they themselves are wrong) when they pick on something like this because I have to scour countless books to show a similar usage. That is why I have always said that the onus must be on the person who claims someone else is wrong to show that he really is wrong. I have quotations from various newspapers and I don't mean the Straits Times which is infamous for making grammatical mistakes which will show that "high morality" isn't a concoction of the student in Singapore. The New York Times and the New Statesman have both used "high morality" and so have about a million other proficient English users.

In the New York Times, we have "high morality" from the lips of the then President Ronald Reagan.

In the New Statesman, we see "high morality" in Sir David Attenborough's speech.

You may very well argue that Ronald Reagan and Sir David Attenborough can hardly shed much light on correct English usage. But we all know it's very easy to make a bare allegation that a phrase is incorrect and it's very difficult for the hapless student to show he is correct. Even if he is able to search the internet for newspaper articles, as I have done, the unreasonable teacher can always insist that the newspaper articles and the student are both equally wrong.  If you google "high morality", you will probably get references to other people's blogs (which don't count for much) and if you search further, you may unearth newspaper articles as I have done. But an obstinate and ignorant teacher may still not be satisfied.

Here is when you have to turn to your own extensive reading of the works of the literary giants and poetry is particularly helpful. What I just did to look for a literary work that has "high morality" in it was to blank my mind and think of the novels and poems I have read. I was pretty certain that "high morality" featured in one of these works. Don't spend too much time on this. It's not worth your time. But there is a period in a day which I devote solely to poetry reading. I decided that for that day, I would spend my time looking through the many books of poetry in my library. I could roughly tell which poets were the ones who would talk about morality. I must confess it's easier with poetry than novels because with poetry, one tends to remember the lines more easily than the text of a novel. And I hope I won't be accused of sexism if I said that I felt it was more likely that I would find the phrase in the work of a female poet. But I can hardly be called sexist if I say that women are more likely to speak of the virtues of high morality. That's to their credit.

Within ten minutes of searching through my trusty volume by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch which, incidentally, happens to be the only book Rumpole reads, I found what I was looking for. It's in the poem of Emily Brontë who, as most of you should be familiar, is the author of that great novel Wuthering Heights. Like most people in her day, she wrote poems too, and very good ones they are.

In "Stanza", Emily Brontë writes:
I'll walk, but not in old heroic traces,
And not in paths of high morality.
There we have it. The student's use of "high morality" has the support of a renowned novelist and poet who ranks among the best in the canon of good literature, even if you think a former US President and Sir David Attenborough aren't good enough.

There is nothing wrong with "high morality".  What the student's teacher and the language "experts" are doing is pernicious. These people stifle a student's creativity. The beauty of the English language lies in the myriad of ways any thought can be expressed. To tell a student he can't use a phrase when it's perfectly all right is extremely harmful in that it effectively puts the student's mind in a straitjacket and he's conditioned to limit himself only to specific stock phrases. I have written before in a previous blog post about this strange idea some Singaporeans have that there is only one way to say something and any variation is ungrammatical and should be strongly discouraged.

I really hope the Ministry of Education would do something about our English teachers. Many of them have the car park attendant mentality. They have to book offenders in order to justify their salaries. They think they are paid to tell students they are wrong. No, English teachers are paid to teach English. If the teachers themselves do not know English grammar and usage, they ought not to teach English at all. I may be wrong but I'm inclined to think after seeing so many outrageous errors made by English teachers in Singapore that perhaps some schools treat the English language as an unimportant subject and teachers who haven't got any qualification or expertise in anything at all are made to teach English.

Let's forget the teachers for the moment. There is nothing anyone can do if some English teachers in Singapore are not qualified to teach English and they choose to remain in the profession. What should the student do? Here is where parents must do their part. Since we have looked at Brontë's poem, I'll filch her words. Parents should leave the "busy chase of wealth" and have some time for their kids. Parents should make it a point to look up grammar books and dictionaries and try to think of the poems they have read. If you can't do this, ask a friend who's truly knowledgeable about language and literature. Don't depend on the English teacher, especially if you know he isn't suited to the job. I'm usually very quick and accurate in sizing up my kids' English teachers. And don't write to the Speak Good English Movement's "English As It Is Broken" panel of experts. As their name suggests quite honestly, they can only give you English as it is broken by them.

For a full list of grammar errors made by MOE, the Speak Good English Movement and other language teachers, please click here.

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