Monday, September 20, 2010

Learning to Labour

Some of you might recognize that this is the title of a 'classic' by Paul Willis.

It tells how working class boys learn to become working class and take on working class jobs.

We recently had a downstairs toilet refitted to make it easier for our aged visitors. It was put in single-handedly by a young man of 30 (30 is young to me now!) who originally came from Bosnia.

Us here in the UK are very familiar with the tea-drinking antics of workmen. A point not lost on the author of the The Yellow Tractor, for example.

But I was quite taken aback by how hard this young man worked. He was always on time. He never asked for tea or coffee unless I offered. I didn't even see him taking lunch (although I'd seen him drinking Red Bull twice). He cleaned up every day after he had finished.

He was meticulous. If something didn't go as planned (like finding a loose floorboard) he would check with me, suggested solutions, waited for approval and then acted on it.

He did not even turn his radio on until I went out to shop. I told him he was welcome to keep his radio on.

Then he told me how his father used to work for the same company. The company took him on as a much younger man. He knew nothing and did some labouring for them. Then he learned to do painting work (and he was meticulous with painting our walls).

I don't know how many years intervened but he is now able to fit bathrooms all by himself, from start to finish. If I owned a bathroom fitting company I will be very happy to employ him. If he had his own business I will not hesitate to recommend him.

This came amidst all the doom and gloom talk about cuts in government spending. And as I had pointed elsewhere (here and here) while millions are on benefits employers have to recruit from overseas to do the jobs that ARE available.

Two things stick out in his story. First he worked with his father. There was a father figure.

There had been many occasions when we needed work done in the house and contractors have brought their sons along, and/or later sent their sons back to do the work, and one electrician (who has a Masters degree) usually has an apprentice with him.

Again these young men are incredily well-mannered and did a magnificent job each time. They were trained by their fathers or mentors and their fathers/mentors can be very proud of them.

The second is he was willing to learn. It did not matter that he knew nothing, but there was a determination to earn his own wages. Conversely the company was willing to train him.

As we read of millions stuck in what is often termed (erroneously I think) as the "benefits trap" I can also imagine how a younger generation is learning NOT to labour because they have never seen their fathers and mothers labouring.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Don't mix Singlish with identity

Recently I sent this letter to the Straits Times:

To be or to be – what is the question hah?

“Should Singaporeans speak a standard English or Singlish?” is the wrong question.

We need to “go stun” (back up a little) to ask whether Singaporeans need, or wish, to speak and write a language – any language – fluently enough to hold a sustained, logical and sometimes protracted discussion. Then only do we know how/which to choose.

Many have observed that code-switching within a sentence (English, Mandarin, Singlish) is a common phenomenon in Singapore.

My Sociology professor reasoned, “But you can’t translate the concept ‘pek-chek’, can you?” No, I can’t. I cannot even spell it.

This difficulty in writing down the language is an intrinsic part of the problem.

We borrow words like “anomie” and “Weltanschauung” in Sociology because there are no accurate English equivalents. Similarly, when discussing localisms the use of a Singlish term may be appropriate.

However a lot of conversations I overheard seem to suggest that speakers simply do not have the vocabulary to complete a sentence in the language with which they started.

A superficial grasp of any language means we can only cope with the most superficial of thought processes. So:

(1) Do we want (our children) to learn a language that would give them access to the rich cultural heritage that that language has to offer?

(2) Do we wish to speak a language sufficiently well to discuss more profound issues relating to scientific theory, theology and philosophy, for example?

Singlish, like Cantonese, is difficult to write down. Would it ever evolve to such a level to give us the equivalent of a Shakespeare, Voltaire or Li Bai?

Admittedly most of us read foreign literature in (a good) English translation. What are the chances that Hegel, for example, would be translated into Singlish in my lifetime?

Of course, Singlish has its place amongst our family and friends. It made me feel “at home” even with my Tiong Bahru Primary School classmates after a staggering 37 years.

However because Singapore is that little red dot that trades (in goods and knowledge) with the rest of the world, we have to choose to learn a language that is able to serve this purpose.

For as long as we conflate the issues of speaking a language well (be it English, Mandarin, French) with that of our national identity (that there is nothing wrong with Singaporeans speaking Singlish) we will never arrive at the logical conclusion to either of these.

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What was published was this rather bland version:

Sep 18, 2010
Don't mix Singlish with identity

THE question of whether Singaporeans speak standard English or Singlish is the wrong one ('Getting it right - from the start'; Sept 1).

We need to back up a little to ask whether Singaporeans need, or wish, to speak and write a language - any language - fluently enough to hold a sustained, logical and sometimes protracted discussion.

Only then would we know how or what to choose.

Code-switching within a sentence (English, Mandarin, Singlish) is common. We borrow non-English words like 'anomie' and 'Weltanschauung' in sociology because there are no accurate English equivalents.

Similarly, when discussing a local custom or peculiarity, a Singlish term may be more appropriate.

But the truth is, many speakers simply do not have the vocabulary to complete a sentence in the language with which they started.

A superficial grasp of any language means we can cope with only the most superficial of thought processes.

So, do we want children to learn a language that will give them access to the rich cultural heritage that it has to offer?

And do we wish to speak a language sufficiently well to discuss more profound issues relating to, for example, scientific theory, theology and philosophy?

Singlish, like Cantonese, is difficult to write down.

Would it ever evolve to a level that would give us the equivalent of a Shakespeare, Voltaire or Li Bai?

Of course, Singlish has its place among family and friends.

It made me feel at home with my Tiong Bahru Primary School classmates after a separation of some 37 years.

However, because Singapore is that little red dot that trades (in goods and knowledge) with the rest of the world, we must choose to learn a language that is able to serve this purpose.

For as long as we conflate the issues of speaking a language well (be it English, Mandarin or French) with that of our national identity (that there is nothing wrong with Singaporeans speaking Singlish) we will never arrive at the logical conclusion to either of these.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The Story of Tommy the Cat

This is a brag post. My son gave me permission to post his poem written some time in the last academic year. The teacher had gone over the structure of a poem and the pupils were asked to write another based on that structure.

He wrote the first three stanzas in class and I saw him sitting at our dining table hacking out the last. As usual he refused to let me read any of his homework before submitting.

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The Story of Tommy the Cat

The milkman was driving in his multicoloured truck,
When something jumped in front of him – a cat covered in muck!
The milkman swerved, the milk truck tipped, and threw him out the door.
The milk was flying everywhere and all across the floor.

The cat now grabbed a milk can, and knocked the man half dead.
Then dragged him to a building, and left him in a bed.
He grabbed the milk, then ran away, and gave himself a drink.
For the cat’s name was Tommy, and he needed milk to think.

The milkman woke up in his bed, and thought it was all a dream,
But Tommy appeared at the window and the milkman gave a scream!
The milkman fell, and his eyes rolled right back in his head,
And after he had fainted, fell right out of his bed!

Then Tommy ran off down the street to make his getaway,
The milkman also lived enough to drive another day.
Though after this short incident the milkman made a vow,
That any cat he ever sees, he’ll run them down right now!

L. T. (aged 10)

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