Thursday, October 23, 2014

What's wrong with Singapore's educators? Part 2

In the first part of this article, I gave by way of an example the language blunders of Ludwig Tan, the Vice-Dean of the School of Arts and Social Sciences in the Singapore Institute of Management University (SIM). I want to make it very clear that I do not know Ludwig personally and I'm not in the education business and I'm not writing for my own personal profit. The only time I've ever known of a "Ludwig" was when I did my ABRSM exams a long time ago but that Ludwig lived a couple of centuries ago. I only homed in on Ludwig van Tan's language errors because

1.  he's an educator and a consultant to the Speak Good English Movement and he has no excuse to be so flawed in his knowledge of the English language.

2.  he's telling others they are wrong in grammar and usage when in fact they are not. He is the one who is wrong.

I hope my readers can see the huge difference. I'm not picking on Ludwig Tan's errors made in the course of his speech or writing. I'm highlighting the errors he makes when he attempts to correct others when they are perfectly right and only he is wrong.

After I wrote the first part of this article, I stumbled upon more mistakes by Ludwig Tan and I now understand the reason for his errors. As my readers ought to know by now, I like to go into, if I may borrow the words of Hercule Poirot, the psychology behind the error. What is the cause for Ludwig Tan's errors? It's important to identify the cause of his errors because I think I'm not incorrect if I say that this may very well be the root of all the problems we see in many of our English language teachers in Singapore.

What I have discovered is in fact the Holy Grail that educators have been looking for - why Singapore's English language teachers are generally not so competent as their counterparts in the other disciplines such as Mathematics and the Sciences.  I will first list the reasons, after which I will give the example of Ludwig Tan's blog post which will beautifully illustrate each item on my list.

Here are the basic problems faced by many of Singapore's English language educators:

1.  A lack of knowledge of English grammar and usage.
2.  A tendency to brand as "non-standard Singapore English" a usage that they are not so familiar with.
3.  A strange desire to depend on unreliable books or teachers and a tendency to ignore renowned grammarians and lexicographers.
4.  A failure to understand fully an entry in a dictionary or a grammar book. You may find this hard to believe but I will show you a shocking example further in this article.
5.  A reluctance to accept that they are wrong even when they are clearly shown to be wrong.

I will now pick an example of Ludwig Tan's erroneous blog post which has recently come to my attention. If you read carefully, you will see all the above 5 elements in just this one example. But please understand that this is not just Tan's failing. From my careful observation, I'm inclined to say that this is the problem of many of Singapore's English language educators.

In this blog post, Ludwig Tan first posts a newspaper article about the banning of a boyband by a girls' school. The newspaper reports that the principal of the school took the decision to "disallow" a visit by the boyband.  

Ludwig Tan then posts an article from the Singapore Sunday Times that talks about pets being "disallowed" in food outlets.  

He then explains why he thinks "disallow" used in such a context is non-standard Singapore English. This is what he says:

For authority, he again cites this Adam Brown who, as we have seen in the earlier part of this article, is a teacher in Singapore's National Institute of Education.

Let's take a look at what Adam Brown says in his book that Ludwig Tan seems to find so authoritative.

There we have it. Ludwig Tan almost repeated verbatim what Adam Brown said in his book. As I have pointed out in part 1 of this article, when Ludwig Tan refers his readers to a "discussion" and cites Adam Brown's book, a reference to the book reveals that there is no discussion. It's simply what this mere teacher in Singapore's National Institute of Education has to say.

That Ludwig Tan is simply gushing with admiration for this unknown Adam Brown is clear from what he says in the comments section.  Here we see one of his poor blog readers striking out a perfectly good English word from her vocabulary simply because she made the mistake of reading Ludwig Tan's blog and believing everything he says. It makes me upset whenever I see an educator making pronouncements when he really should keep his trap shut over something he has no knowledge of. It annoys me to see students lapping up (and why shouldn't they?) everything these clueless educators say.

It's interesting to note that Ludwig Tan aptly calls himself "the Grammar Terrorist" on his blog. When I consider the way he treats English grammar, I can't think of a better name for him.

After reading the fulsome praises from Ludwig's devoted admirers, I was delighted to see a comment made by an anonymous reader of his blog that shows the first glimmer of good sense.

Anonymous is absolutely right. Like most English words, "disallow" has many meanings, some of which are obsolete today but broadly speaking there are three common meanings which are currently in use. One of them, and by far, the most commonly used, is the OED definition Anonymous gives in his comment.

Ludwig Tan's comment in reply to Anonymous is totally unacceptable. If I ran a language school and one of my teachers were to give me such a reply, I would summarily dismiss him from my school without so much as a farewell party.

Any grammarian will tell you that the OED is the final authority on the English language.  It's the only truly comprehensive dictionary in the entire English-speaking world. Grammarians and good teachers always refer to the OED when there is a dispute on English usage. And when someone quotes the OED, nobody who has any knowledge of the English language would dare to pit a Longman or a Macmillan or a Cobuild or the Cambridge Dictionary to counter the OED definition. This is because none of the lexicographers of all these dictionaries would dare to dispute the final authority of the OED. None of them would dream of saying that their dictionary is superior to the 20-volume OED.

When I saw Ludwig Tan's comment above, I asked myself repeatedly why the Vice-Dean of the School of Arts and Social Sciences in the Singapore Institute of Management University (SIM) could be so terribly wrong. It is clear from his answer that he does not even know how to use the OED. I really hope he is reading this and will gain some basic knowledge on how to use a dictionary.

The OED gives 6 definitions for the word "disallow".  Two of the definitions are obsolete. In the OED, obsolete words are marked with a cross before the definition or "obs" is placed at the end of the definition. Apart from the two obsolete definitions, a third definition is obsolete when used intransitively.  I don't want to bore my readers with the details but let's just ignore these three definitions from the OED that are clearly stated to be obsolete. That leaves us with three remaining definitions for "disallow" which are currently in use.

The OED is famous for giving quotations from famous writers and others on how a particular word is used which gives it its particular meaning. To Ludwig Tan, if the most recent quotation in the OED dates back to 1854, that meaning must now be obsolete. You can't get more wrong than that. I cannot believe that any English teacher, far less the Vice-Dean of the School of Arts and Social Sciences of a university, can make such a ridiculously erroneous statement.

Let's look at the three definitions of "disallow" that the OED gives which are currently in use. Since the most recent quotation given in the OED is of importance to Ludwig Tan, I will give the most recent quotation for each definition.

1.   To refuse to accept as reasonable, true, or valid; to refuse to admit (intellectually).

Most recent quotation given in OED: 1841-8: "By disallowing any human element..we are deprived at once of much feeling of sympathy with the writers of the Bible."

2.   To refuse to acknowledge or grant (some claim, right, or privilege), or to accede to (some request or suggestion); to reject.

Most recent quotation given in OED: 1841: "Your claim upon her hand is already disallowed."

3.   To refuse to allow or permit; to forbid the use of, to prohibit. [Note: this is the definition that Ludwig Tan claims is obsolete.]

Most recent quotation given in OED: 1887: "A law of the trade which disallowed an employer to take more than one apprentice at a time."
As you can see, if we are to use Ludwig Tan's test of what makes a word obsolete, the definition which he claims is either obsolete or is non-standard Singapore English is in fact the only definition that has the most recent quotation. The other two definitions have quotations that predate 1887. But of course Ludwig is dead wrong. That's not the way to use a dictionary. A word is obsolete when it's marked by the lexicographers to be obsolete. You don't look at the examples given and the dates of these examples in order to determine which word is obsolete. This is the most ludicrous suggestion I have ever come across.

Once the OED decides on this, that's the end of the matter for any grammarian or competent teacher of the English language. "Disallow" does mean "prohibit or refuse to allow" and it's not the non-standard Singlish that Ludwig Tan and Adam Brown claim it is. But I know my readers will feel better if they can see instances of "disallow" being used to mean "prohibit" in respectable publications.

Yes, "disallow" is widely used all over the world to mean "prohibit". A good example is this report in the BBC.

Or if you are wondering if it's similarly used in America, I hope this article from the Houston Chronicle will set your mind at rest that such usage is not Singlish.

I really hope Gillian will read this blog post of mine and will continue to use "disallow" liberally. What Ludwig Tan does in his ignorance is very pernicious. It stifles creativity and it makes the student of English unsure of himself and reluctant to use words freely. The beauty of English lies in its huge vocabulary and much of that beauty is lost if Singaporeans avoid using some of these words simply because they are wrongly taught that they should not use them. What Ludwig Tan is doing in his blog is not uncommon. A lot of Singapore's educators do this. They are uncertain of what standard English is and they depend on other equally clueless teachers. They use a learner's dictionary as if it's the most comprehensive dictionary and when a word or a definition is not in such a dictionary, they make a pronouncement that such a word is non-standard Singapore English.  This is what I've been opposing relentlessly in my blog. Anyone who has a heart for education and creativity in Singapore must oppose these people who are ruining the standard of English in Singapore. And they are paid by the Ministry of Education to do this?


  1. I see you wrote this post in October, when the NLB still provided access to the entire online version of the OED. They have since stopped providing access :(

    I'm ENJOYING your blog, btw!

    1. Thanks! I didn't think anyone but my kids read my blog articles on grammar. I was even toying with the idea of changing my blog settings to private. It's nice to know that I have at least one reader apart from my kids. :)