Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

Singaporian perspectives: Implications for tertiary teaching and learning

Joyce Bell
School of Communication and Cultural Studies
Curtin University of Technology

This paper focuses on the second cycle of a two cycle piece of Action Research. The second cycle - a sociolinguistic study of Singapore English - designed as a response to a clear problem which had emerged from the first cycle - the continuing lack of access of some students of a non English speaking background to language/culture support at Curtin University. Singaporean students, in particular, had been denied access, partly because it was thought that, as they had been brought up in an English speaking country, their 'English' ability must be appropriate for study at an Australian university. The case studies revealed the difficulties faced by Singaporean students at an Australian university, including teaching/learning cultural differences and the revelations enabled the researcher to design and implement more equitable access mechanisms to language/culture support. Data from the study has also contributed to the development of a literacy policy for Curtin University.


There has been some recognition by universities that academic courses and support services need to respond to the needs of migrant and international students who now comprise a significant component of the student body. In studies done by Rao (1976) and by Burns (1990) it was shown that more than half of the overseas students surveyed, mentioned problems associated with the English language, Australian slang and accent, speed of lecturers' delivery and difficulty in engaging in conversation.

This paper focuses on the second cycle of a two cycle piece of Action Research (Bell 1994) examining Singapore English and the implications for Singaporean students studying at an Australian University. According to the 1990 Census of Population Singapore, 36,179 Singaporeans were identified as working or living or studying overseas between 1986 and 1990. Of these, 15,300 were students. Australian educational institutions received 22% of this number (Straits Times, May 1992). It is clearly important to gain an understanding of Singaporeans' educational, cultural and social background in order to provide culturally unbiased, high quality service.

A literature review revealed that the English of Singapore has evolved to reflect facts such as social class, ethnic and national identity, peer group, and economic and occupational level; these factors account for the differences between Singapore English and Standard English and for the variations that exist within Singapore English.

Attitudes to learning English

There is no doubt that attitudes to learning English influence language acquisition. An interesting study by Shaw (1981) revealed the attitudes of 170 Singaporeans to the learning of English. For example, 95% of the respondents said "I study English because I feel I will need it for work" and 90% of the respondents said "I study English because it is required in our system". Only 14% of the respondents said "I study English because it will help me to think and behave as native speakers do".

When asked what variety of English is spoken by educated speakers in Singapore, 42.3% said "a variety unique to my country". As one would expect, English is not learned in order to study overseas and there has been little exposure to Australian English.

Non native English linguistic differences

One of the main differences between Singapore English and Standard English is in pronunciation. Pronunciation has been neglected in Singaporean schools, according to Foley (1988), because teachers lack confidence in this area. Different English usage is another difference and is illustrated by the following examples found in the Straits Times of 5 and 8 July 1993.
"Man fined $1,500 for molest."
"A sales executive was fined $1,500 for using criminal force to outrage the modesty of a 27-year-old woman."
An Honours student talking about his lecturers in Singapore is quoted as saying:
"My friends and I used to gang up to see the lecturers about our problems as we were terrified of them. But now, we 'confront' them as friends."

Language and culture

Many people in Singapore grow up speaking both Singapore English and Singapore Hokkien. 'Although bilingual these people are often not bicultural because their two languages code essentially the same culture, that of Singapore Chinese culture. Kuiper and Lin (1989) argue that the speaker of Singapore English is really speaking Hokkien with English-like words and syntax. They point out that the use of Singapore English outside Singapore creates problems, pointing out that formulaic knowledge is not purely linguistic; it is cultural.

Cultural studies are taught separately in Singaporean schools from language studies. The approach is thus, teaching about the culture so as to alleviate problems of communication in the language when the learner visits the foreign country. This, suggests Byram (1989) leads to a tourists' view of the culture and a selection of teaching materials accordingly. He says language and culture learning should be 'an integral contribution to the whole process which is prior to, simultaneous with, and subsequent to other components.'

Case studies

Case studies were undertaken with eight Singaporean students to reveal further insights relevant to Singaporean students' study at an Australian university. Case study one was carried out with three Singaporean students who had attended Polytechnics in Singapore and had, therefore, been given advanced standing on their University course. Case study two involved four first year Singaporean students and Case study three was with a Singaporean primary teacher who was studying Honours part time. Some of the students had done National Service and had not had to use Standard English for two and a half years.

Education in Singapore

All students, apart from one, attended English-medium schooling. They mentioned, however, although all subjects were taught in English, that emphasis was on content, and in Science, they only listed points. All reported that there was little, if any, oral work or reading in the English class. The primary teacher mentioned that debates were a treat to be indulged in after examinations. The students were used to a teaching centred style with board work. Cloze exercises were often used for grammar/vocabulary work. Recordings were used infrequently. Therefore, there was little exposure to English native speaker accents, idiomatic usage and certainly not to Australian English. Examination questions were answered in point form or short essay form of approximately 500 words. No report writing had been experienced. They said they were afraid to volunteer answers in case they were wrong. All spoke English at school - in the case of the primary teacher who attended a good private school her name would have been recorded by a prefect if she had been caught speaking a dialect!

Culture shock

All students felt they had not been prepared for the culture change. They found, for example, the casualness of students 'a little shocking' especially seeing students barefoot in the administration block. The culture shock experienced outside of university as well as on campus compounded their feeling of alienation. They felt self conscious and, whereas they were part of the majority culture in Singapore, they realised they had to get used to being a minority culture in Australia. They had also not been prepared for the number of assignments, nor the marking system which placed emphasis on tutorial participation. Feedback from assignments was often unhelpful as often they received grades without comments. Lecturers did not meet their expectations. This again may have been due to different cultural expectations. As Jean Brick stated in her research of 1993, Chinese teachers 'guided' students and 'built on solid foundations'. The students felt that many of our lecturers gave unstructured lectures and presumed background knowledge which they did not possess.

The students also found that their budget did not stretch to socialising. The budget and time restrictions prevented them from making Australian friends; they also found that Australian students tended to 'stick together'. One student commented "Aussies dislike Asians. They don't mix around with Asians even when Asians are willing to get to know them." The students mentioned that they would have been very interested in learning about Australian culture and in sharing their own culture with Australians.

Language difficulties

Handwriting of lecturers on boards was difficult to decipher and the students had expected handouts. They found the learning methods difficult - having to do substantial reading and research on their own adding that they had chosen courses where they felt they would not require a great knowledge of English. They had expected their English to be good enough for study in Australia and experienced quite a shock on finding they could not understand everything. In addition, they felt that Australian students made no allowances for the fact that English was not their native language. The Honours student, commenting on staff, said:
"I felt insulted when some tutors were not sensitive to my difficulties in spoken and written English. We may not be what they expected, but they have to understand that it took us lots of courage to make the decision to come here, especially when we're on our own."
The following writing sample also illustrates the concern with language.
"Language is the real problem. I'm actually worrying about. Especially in expressing my feeling, to describe a situation, or an occasion. Hopefully that, in Australia can provide me with an environment to learn, to improve my English."(sic)
It is interesting to note here that Rena Kelly's study (1993) showed that parents in Singapore did not consider that their children might have language difficulties when studying overseas.

The case studies revealed disappointment, frustration, even anger at the lack of prior knowledge about Australian language and culture (particularly Australian academic culture).


One can conclude that there is not, at present, enough dissemination of information regarding Australian language and culture, either on arrival, during first semester, or prior to students' departure. One would feel confident in hypothesising that other nationalities may be in as much need or even greater need of language/culture support given the non-English education system from which they come. It seems that institutions accepting overseas students need to address the problem of diversity in English and work out a policy which delineates what is and what is not acceptable English for academic study at an Australian university.

Various implementation steps were taken at Curtin University following recommendations from this study. Curtin's concern about the need for effective communication skills for all students (local and international) and the need to advise academic staff of the university's expectations in this area has now led to agreement for the adoption of a university-wide literacy policy.


Bell, J. (1994). Access and Equity: Language Implications for Students of a Non English Speaking Background Studying at Curtin University of Technology. Thesis. Curtin University.

Brick, Jean. (1993). The Construction of Student Role in Chinese Texts on Foreign Language Learning. Paper presented at conference: Cultural Diversity in Higher Education, 27-29 September, 1993 at The University of Technology, Sydney.

Burns, Robert. (1991). The Adjustment of Overseas Students: A study of Academic, Cultural, Social and Personal Problems of Overseas First Year Students at an Australian University. Paper presented at The Internationalisation of Industry, Government and Education in W.A. Conference, Perth.

Byram, Michael. (1989). Cultural Studies in Foreign Language Education. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Foley, J. (1988). The English Language Syllabus and the Pre-School Child. In Foley, J. (Ed.), The New Englishes: The Case of Singapore. Singapore: Singapore University Press.

Kelly, Rena. (1994). Expectations of the International Experience from an Asian Perspective. Paper presented at ISANA Annual Conference, Hobart.

Kuiper, Koenraad and Lin, Daphne Tan Gek. (1989). Cultural Congruence and Conflict in the Acquisition of formulae in a Second Language. In Garcia and Othegay, English Across Cultures, Cultures Across English: A Reader in Cross-Cultural Communication. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Rao, Lakshmana, G. (1976). Overseas Students in Australia. Canberra: Australian National University.

Shaw, Willard D. (1981). Asian Student Attitudes towards English. In Smith, Larry E. (Ed), English for Cross-Cultural Communication. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Please cite as: Bell, J. (1995). Singaporian perspectives: Implications for tertiary Teaching and learning. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p20-23. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/bell.html

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