Matters most

Of all school disciplines English language matters most. Clarity, confidence, communication are the bedrock of every other endeavour in education and in life: from physics to marketing, from engineering to law. Neglecting, downgrading and generally dumbing standards is a greater cruelty to children than anything visited on them by a clumsy exam board…It is wicked not to emphasise the difference between chatty street slang and formal, universally understood, clarity and correctness.

Libby Purves



Spoken language is important as well as written. I keep trying to remember diction. One of the reasons we love a good British accent is that words are actually pronounced correctly.

– anonymous from the US

It is not the British who have the accents – it is the US, Canada, and other English speaking countries. It is always the country of origin which has the purest form of a language. All others are changed and influence through the integration of other nationalities and original languages.

– anonymous from the US

First, I assume that you are refering to Received Pronunciation (RP) by your using the phrase ‘good British accent’ because there are numerous English accents in Great Britain and the majority of them exist in England alone, excluding Scotland and Wales.

Second, by what standard can one judge whether a particular pronunciation is ‘correct’ or not? The ‘standard’ English accent of Shakespeare’s time sounds far removed from RP.

General American (AmE), however, has retained elements of an older British standard, such as rhoticity and the short vowels, which the English had discarded between the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Third, I have noticed how people in the US tend to pronounce English words by their every syllable whereas RP Speakers or those who have inherited the British system, during the days of Empire, do not.

E.g. Americans pronounce every syllable of words like ‘contemporary’ and ‘library’ whereas RP speakers tend to gloss over some bits.

Fourth, Standard US English in some sense is more phonetic — words are spelt the way they are pronounced — than Standard British English (BrE).

E.g. A word such as ‘route’ is more logically read as ‘r-out’ than ‘root’, which is precisely what Americans do compared with RP speakers. Why ‘centre’ in BrE when the word is pronounced ‘center’ in the US?

There is no such thing as a ‘gold standard’ of English but many standard Englishes in terms of oral and written: standard British English, General American, standard Australian English, standard Canadian English, standard Indian English, etc.

English as a language may have originated from the United Kingdom but across the world where English took root, it evolved. British English also evolved, and in some respects more so than US English.

So which is ‘purer’?

Having said that, I am still a stickler for BrE because it is the linguistic norm in which I was brought up and educated.

Fewer models

I am worried for my children because there are fewer models of well-spoken and well-written English among the educated public in this country for them to emulate.

What can I do when their English language teachers in school do not pronounce words accurately in the classroom?

I can only do my part as a parent by communicating with them in English that is grammatically and phonetically sound.

Linguistic superiority of primary-school pupils

It is amusing how adults whose grasp of the English language seem appallingly poor are not able to accept that a primary-five pupil could be intellectually superior, language-wise.

Yes, a well taught primary-five pupil with high verbal intelligence, i.e. an aptitude for language or the literary arts, can write this letter about the Direct Schools Admission scheme. During my upper-primary school days, teachers often wondered if I had plagiarised portions of my compositions until the written examinations demonstrated otherwise.

Old school

When I attended primary school in the late 1980s, school teachers recommended pupils to buy, in addition to the standard curriculum, an English language guidebook in softcover called ‘Primary English’.

I thought it was one of the best to have come out of our English education system.

I remember reading it every other day for leisure, along with an old English dictionary belonging to Mama, and had learnt by heart the numerous proverbs, idioms and phrases contained in it.

It helped that I was an English nerd but really, when it comes to learning the myriad ‘exceptions to the rule’ in our language, there is no other way except Old-School rote-learning.

England since the 1960s, to their detriment, has all but ditched its traditional teaching of English grammar in its schools. The empirical data from England speak for themselves. It is now a cliche that a person who speaks and writes English as a foreign or secondary language tends to have a higher proficiency in it than the average native user.

Singapore appears to be heading the way of England when MOE dumped grammar drills for ‘functional literacy’. Should it be a cause for concern? I don’t know. It seems that I have to trust the ‘experts’ on this one.

Profanities and verbal intelligence

A recent study conducted on only 40-odd participants in the US, age 18-22, concluded that ‘people who are well-versed in curse words are more likely to have greater overall language fluency’.


First, the sample size is too small to make this certain a conclusion.

Second, the number of profanities with which one is able to come up does not mean one uses them habitually in everyday conversation. Mere knowledge does not equal practice, it just means that people who KNOW more curse words tend to have larger vocabularies.

Third, let us assume the conclusion is accurate. This still does not account for the rest of the native and non-native anglophone world. Results may differ.

Fourth, I have yet to meet someone whose every other word is R-rated use a variety of such expressions: it seems to be the same few words. How is that a reflection of a rich vocabulary?