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Why is English So Difficult to Learn in Singapore & Top Tips to Learn English Effectively

by | Sep 15, 2022 | 1 comment

Learn English in Singapore – Introduction

Struggling in English can be worrying, especially when English is a language that has a global capital. Furthermore, struggling in English can be worrying when it is a core subject for PSLE and GCE O Levels. However, do not get frustrated if you are not getting the grade that you want. In fact, struggling with learning English or any language is very natural. English has its own rules and conventions that are difficult to get accustomed to. In this article, we introduce the most common reasons why English is tough. We then present the best tips on how to be more proficient in English so that you can ace your national exams.


Learn English in Singapore – Why is it so Difficult to Learn?

Spelling can be deceiving

There are many words that sound almost the same, but are spelt differently. Words that seem to be minutely different in spelling can be so vastly different in their grammatical use. A classic example is the word pair, ‘relief’ and ‘relieve’. Although they sound almost identical, crucially, they are grammatically very different. The former is used as a noun while the latter is used as a verb. For example, when we say “It is a relief that the exam went well.”,  ‘relief’ is a noun that represents a feeling of comfort. The fact that the determiner ‘a’ precedes ‘relief’, evidences its noun-hood. For ‘relieved’ however, when we say “The medicine helped to relieve my cough.”, ‘relieve’ is a verb that signals the effect the subject, ‘the medicine’, has on the ‘cough’.

Formal writing conventions

Part of the difficulty in learning English is to adjust your style of writing to suit the formal academic register. This takes time to train and learn. When it comes to writing English for academic purposes, there are many rules to follow for the purposes of convention. These conventions may come into conflict with how to speak in your daily life. For example, your teachers have probably told you many times not to start a sentence with ‘because’. But in spoken English, it is not uncommon to hear “Because I failed my exam.”

Similarly, your teachers have probably told you many times to write in the active voice rather than the passive voice as it sounds stronger. But once again it is not uncommon for us to use passive voice when we construct sentences in our daily conversations. These conventions in formal writing are reasonable. Not only do they help to make your writing stronger and fluent, but they also make it easier for your reader to read your writing. So, your teachers have a point. Thus, to write in a style that is suitable for academic writing, one needs to adapt and learn.

Grammatical rules

English uses an explicit strategy to codify grammatical relations but this is made ambiguous in more complex sentences. Grammatical relations refer to the dependencies of the verb in a sentence. For instance, what is the object, what is the subject and who is doing what to whom. English makes a distinction between subjective and objective pronouns. Subjective pronouns like I, you, he, she and it are used as subjects of a verb, while objective pronouns like me, you, her, him and it are used as objects of a verb.  It is ungrammatical to say “My brother scolded I”. It should be “my brother scolded me” as “me” is in object position. However, choosing which pronoun to use can be ambiguous in a more complex sentence like “My brother bought my sister and me a cake.” It can be tempting to say “My brother bought my sister and I a cake.” However, if we apply the objective-rule, it makes more sense to accept the former as the correct version, since “me” is not a subject. It is an indirect object. These pattern-theoretic nuances are what makes English tricky!

Interference from Singlish?

English may be tricky due to interference from Singlish, which is a native variety of English spoken only by Singaporeans. Singaporeans speak Singlish all the time, in multiple domains. It is easy to confuse the patterns used in Singlish with the patterns used in standard English. Singlish has a common feature, where helping words like “is” and “has” can be omitted. It is grammatical to say “He hungry” in Singlish which would be otherwise ungrammatical in English. In addition, Singlish permits question words to remain in object position; “He hit who?” (intended meaning: Whom did he hit?). Students may be confused if they are told that Singlish is wrong if they have been speaking it in the household. Singlish does not ‘pollute’ the standard of English. Crucially, students in Singapore need to be more conscious of these differences between Singlish and standard English. They need to be able to code-switch, i.e. know when to use each variety of English. In formal writing and speaking, it is mandatory to use Standard English.


Top Tips to Improve Your English in Singapore

Next, we will introduce some tips for your PSLE and O Level preparation. Some of these tips are meant to help you to improve your overall proficiency in English speaking and writing. Being more proficient can only help in your exam preparation. Other tips target specific components of PSLE or O Level English.


Tip #1 to learn English: Immerse yourself in documentaries and news

Documentaries and news are exemplary sources of profound standard English. You can try to read a wide range of newspapers and educational magazines. They are well-edited and they introduce diverse vocabulary for you to pick up. Note down any new vocabulary and ask your teacher why they are used this way. Occasionally, you can also read a news article out loud to practise your spoken English. This is crucial for the oral examinations. By hearing yourself, your brain registers the content and grammar much faster. Furthermore, you can work on your tone of voice as you speak.

Watching documentaries is also beneficial because the language used is clear and concise. Being clear and concise is precisely how you should communicate regularly.

Lastly, news and documentaries are excellent sources of general knowledge which you will need for your essay writing component of the O Levels. Reflect on the content, and try to generate your own opinions. Doing this can help you to craft content-rich essays within a timed setting, enabling you to surpass your peers.


Tip #2 to learn English: Practice makes perfect

There are two huge components in an English exam: essay writing and comprehension. Being good at essay writing requires practice. You need to train your brain to think of precise and appropriate descriptive words or vocabulary to enrich your essay. You also need to train yourself to comprehend information quickly in the exam so that you can craft correct answers.

One way to train is to do more practice questions. As for essay writing, try to write a paragraph for an essay each day, beginning with the intro. Do not rush into it as your aim is to write error-free paragraphs that are well developed. Sit down and think about how your sentences are connected and whether the descriptive words that you have in mind truly convey your point.

As for comprehension, regardless of the types of comprehension, listening comprehension or reading comprehension, you need to do more. Comprehension is about thinking sharply with words. Naturally, the first step is to train your ability to understand information and apply that information. Before you start reading or listening to a passage, skim through the questions to get a sense of the crucial information that you need to take note of. As you read the passage, annotate the passage and underline key phrases that answer the questions.


Tip #3 to learn English: Approach your school teacher or a qualified tutor who can provide quality feedback

Learning to write and speak good English is not like learning Mathematics where there is a fixed answer. For example, if you develop a habit of writing to impress by overusing bombastic vocabulary, you will not know that this is poor writing unless someone qualified intervenes to tell you. Once a bad habit is developed, it will take a long time to unlearn. So, feedback from an experienced teacher or tutor is extremely important. An experienced tutor has a keen eye for detail, and can provide nuanced comments on the fluency of your writing, and the clarity of your thinking. Consistent feedback on your writing can help you to form healthy writing habits.


Tip #4 to learn English: Learn to make the distinction between Singlish and English

As you are preparing for your exams, remind yourself to switch off Singlish. More often than written assessments, Singlish will creep in during oral examinations. This is because we use Singlish when we speak in informal contexts. Bear in mind that an oral examination is a formal context where standard English is the only appropriate variety. In your free time, as a fun activity, you can create a list of differences between Singlish and English. The aforementioned omission of linking verbs like ‘is’ or ‘has’ is one difference. Think of more! There are plenty. You can also look online to read up on these differences. This is a sure way to make learning English fun and educational at the same time.


Learn English in Singapore – Conclusion

Crucially, improving your English is a life-long process. We can always be sharper and clearer and more precise in our communication. We can think more sharply in English. Take the steps to improve your English and you will definitely achieve great results, slowly but surely. Learning English is not just about memorising descriptive words, or sounding ‘posh’. As suggested by the components in O Levels, it is about communicating your thoughts clearly. This is a life-skill that tends to be undermined by the pressure to get good grades. Focus on building this life-skill, and naturally your English will improve as you are learning for the right reason!

Learning Gems is a premium tuition centre that provides quality online English tuition classes to PSLE and G3 / GCE ‘O’ Level students in Singapore. Our teachers are well-versed with the latest MOE syllabus and have taught at various schools in Singapore. Be it the primary or secondary level, we possess the relevant experience and are fully qualified to help your child.

1 Comment
  1. Kel

    Very informative article! Writing has always been my son’s flaw. Reading has to be inculcated from young indeed. Noting down of new words is tedious on most children but agree that habits must be trained too. 😰

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