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Monday, December 12, 2016

What the Anglophone reaction to the PISA test results tells us

What the Anglophone reaction to the Pisa test results tells us

"The results of the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) test were released about a week ago, and the usual media hype has followed.

A litany of analyses has been written and the conventional narrative is about how the East Asian nations are top again in Maths and Science. The somewhat predictable discussion is often framed around the purpose of such testing, as well as whether the Western world ought to be emulating practices that have worked so well for students in Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

What is never mentioned is this: Singapore is ranked top in Reading, in English, the medium of instruction in all its schools. It outperformed Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and any other nation with “native speakers” of English. Nor is this the first time this has happened.

Singapore ranked fifth in 2009 and third in 2012 for Reading, the highest-placed country where English is the medium of instruction.

So why has the dominant narrative always been what the West might learn about teaching Maths and Science from East Asia? Why have commentators in the Anglo-world not written about looking to Singapore as a model for teaching English?

The answer, I believe, lies in how most people and nation states in the world today continue to link biological heritage and phenotype with cultural and linguistic practice.

That is, one’s proficiency in and supposed affiliation to a language is tied up with one’s race, ethnicity or nationality. This idea is translated into racialised (even racist) discourses in our daily interactions, the advertisements we see, government policies and even interpretations of Pisa test scores.

In 1998, sociolinguist Thiru Kandiah wrote a politically-charged piece regarding the hierarchical status amongst English-users in the world.

He gives the example of an advertisement published in The Straits Times. On July 12, the advertisement read: “Established private school urgently requires native speaking expatriate English teachers for foreign students.”

On July 14, the same advertisement had been altered: “Established private school urgently requires native speaking Caucasian English teachers for foreign students.”

To Prof Kandiah, such discourse immediately pointed to the marginalisation of “an upstart bunch of English users across the world, who had been taught the language so well by their ‘native speaking’ teachers that they now entertained the delusion that they were reliable and valid users, interpreters and judges of the language”.

Things have not changed much since 1998. A friend recently shared an advertisement in a Hong Kong university, where the same associations between “native speaker of English” and particular nationalities were made.

In the UK, its Border Agency stipulates that all international students applying for visas must provide academic proof of proficiency in English, unless one is a national of countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland.

These examples all show that racialised discourses regarding the status of so-called “native/non-native speakers of English” are very much alive and prevalent today.

In other words, even if Singapore is ranked best in the world for reading English, such discourses suggest that we will still not be considered “reliable and valid users” able to judge, evaluate or take ownership of how English ought to be spoken/written.

The Anglophone silence regarding Singapore’s proficiency in English might be attributed to plain ignorance (not knowing Singapore’s education system) or racism (unable to accept that Asians might have anything to offer about teaching the language).

Both stem from essentialist and ethnocentric attitudes. People from East Asia and who look Asian are assumed not to speak or write English well. Stranger still if they should claim English as their mother tongue.

I have lost count of the number of times I have been complimented on my “accentless” and good English while living in the UK and travelling in Europe.

As long as these attitudes persist, the global status of Singaporean or any “non-native” English-speakers will never change.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Luke Lu is a Singaporean PhD candidate at the Centre for Language, Discourse and Communication, King’s College London. He taught General Paper in a Singapore junior college for four years."


As an Anglophone Singaporean I know the standard of English in Singapore is poor, and that Singaporeans don't speak it very well (though their standard of written English is indeed better).

Also, most Singaporeans don't consider themselves native English speakers - if even Singaporeans don't consider themselves such, should foreigners?

I note too that these "essentialist and ethnocentric attitudes" are not unique to the Anglophone world. Indeed Singaporean Chinese fervently hold them too (e.g. "You are Chinese, so you must speak Chinese").

And I also note that in other contexts, many people who happily share this would be bashing the folly and uselessness of standardised tests. Yet in sharing and endorsing this they are implicitly endorsing them.

Best of all - this is quite funny considering that before today I had literally not seen anyone comment on PISA reading (in fact I didn't even know that it was a component). PISA is clearly seen as a science/mathematics test (though the OECD itself says it focuses "on science, with reading, mathematics and collaborative problem solving as minor areas of assessment"). So if people don't even know that PISA measures reading how can you slam them for ignoring Singapore's reading performance?

Comparison with international English indices is also telling.

Education First's EPI (billed as "the world's largest ranking of countries by English skills", ranks Singapore as 6th out of 72 countries in English proficiency. The countries above it? The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland.

Meanwhile in a review of TOEFL scores in 2010, the Netherlands and Denmark beat Singapore (which tied with Austria).

These two other test results complicate the picture; EPI includes both reading and listening (and is thus a somewhat more holistic measure of English proficiency than PISA's reading test). TOEFL meanwhile assesses all 4 linguistic domains - Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing.

[Addendum: Another perspective comes from IELTS scores.

For General Training (Academic results for Singapore are unavailable probably because Singaporeans would be exempted from the IELTS for university admission),

- Singapore is tied for second for listening (Ireland is better and just 0.1 ahead)
- ties with the US for top for reading
- is fourth for writing (6.8 - 0.3 behind third place South Africa and 0.5 behind joint top USA and Ireland)
- is distinctly behind for speaking ability (7.4 - 0.8 behind third place South Africa and 1.1 behind Ireland which comes on top)

We can see that Singaporeans are distinctly behind in their speaking ability, though fourth place isn't too shabby.

However IELTS exemptions also apply to some people from traditionally English speaking countries (e.g. for international doctors working in the UK you get IELTS exemption if you recently graduated and were taught in English), so there is some selection effect there too, i.e. we would expect traditionally English speaking countries to do better than the results reflect.]

It is thus notable that Singapore is not top on either test - instead ceding this position to countries which don't even have English as a first language.

Sure, supposed English-speaking countries may do worse on these same tests, but all these facts at least complicate the original Today article's message of "Anglophones are racist because they assume Singaporeans aren't good in English even though they rank top in PISA's reading test" (I'm sure no one would consider the Dutch native English speakers either).
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