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Language and Communication: An interview with Kingsley Bolton

Constellations Issue 2


Nov 28, 2018 | Articles

Many local students who enter University from Junior College or Polytechnic generally have good basic proficiency in the English language. More often than not, however, this is vernacular English – Singapore English, or ‘Singlish’. The mistake of using colloquial English in academic essays or reports is prevalent not just in Singaporean students but also in many around the world. This reveals a skills gap in the vast majority of students who by and large are fluent in English, but may not be equipped in academic communication. In response to this, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has set up the Language and Communication Centre (LCC), a teaching centre which aims at improving the academic literacy of students throughout NTU.

Students entering University for the first time may not be used to the expectations of writing at a higher level of expression and proficiency. At Junior College level, mandatory General Paper classes instruct students on argumentative and expository writing; while, depending on the course, Polytechnic graduates are trained in academic report writing. Notwithstanding these prior practices, many students still find themselves struggling to meet the standards required at University. This results in work that is effectively a mix of academic and colloquial English. The LCC’s main goal is to bridge the gap between communicating colloquially and academically.
A 2016 EdeX-funded study on the communication needs of students at NTU reported that the ones in greatest need of assistance are Engineering and Science students. Of the 10,000 students currently under the LCC’s purview, roughly 60% are from the College of Engineering and 20% are from the College of Sciences. The LCC has produced specially-written course materials for these students (which have since been published by Routledge). Almost every student in these colleges undertakes communication or writing courses throughout their university career. For instance, as core subjects under the General Education Requirement, Physics students from the School of Physics and Mathematical Sciences attend Scientific Communication classes, while Engineering students have multiple mandatory Engineering Communication classes spread over the course of their degree.

This is not to say that the other schools at NTU are not eligible for communication courses in the LCC. Students in the English program take a course entitled ‘Introduction to Critical Writing’ in their first semester of undergraduate studies. Plans are underway to tailor classes to the needs of Humanities students who specialise in different genres of writing – whether analytical, persuasive or expository.

The EdeX study conducted by the LCC showed that undergraduates in fact face far fewer difficulties in English communication than postgraduate students. There have been more requests from the various colleges to run courses related to academic research writing for Masters and PhD students.

The LCC’s research interests lie in English-medium education in the Asian region. Projects on Hong Kong, Korea, Cambodia, and other Asian societies are now ongoing. There has been a great deal of research into the impact of English as an academic language across the whole of Asia – including India, Japan and Korea – as well as in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

“It is significant that ASEAN has chosen English as its official language,” says Professor Kingsley Bolton, Head of the LCC and Professor of English Linguistics in the Linguistics and Multilingual Studies department. “The ten ASEAN countries are all attempting to move towards introducing English as a medium for teaching. The future for the LCC as a communication centre is to give some sort of leadership in that area.”

The LCC believes that Singapore’s English-medium education system positions it as a leader in the study of English as the official language of education. “Even though they’re often scolded for their English, Singaporeans actually speak the best English in the region,” laughs Prof. Bolton, referring to Singaporeans’ preferential use of colloquial Singlish.

One strong area of research is in World Englishes, with particular attention dedicated to Asian Englishes and the study of English-medium education. Google Scholar indicates that ‘World Englishes’, a journal co-produced by NTU and the University of Michigan, is presently one of the leading journals that deals with the English Language and Literature.

The LCC believes that good research produces good teaching, and so its strong research arm has allowed it to enhance its teaching platforms. This includes working with the Teaching, Learning, Pedagogy Division (TLPD) to implement Technology-Enhanced Learning (TEL) and Outcomes Based Teaching and Learning (OBTL). While these elements have strengthened the LCC’s approach to teaching, it has not, however, become its sole focus.

Engineering students have access to a micro-site that streams videos of lectures and provides helpful tips for their writing assignments. Prof. Bolton stresses that these are ‘enhancements’ and not replacements. In the School of Humanities, the traditional student-teacher interaction is key to a substantial classroom learning experience. In his opinion, it would be hasty to do away with what is tried and true. “We have introduced TEL elements into our courses in the LCC, but we don’t see these as a magic bullet to replace traditional classroom teaching,” explains Prof. Bolton. Most classes are conducted in a way that encourages experiential learning. Consequentially, the LCC is careful not to rely too heavily on online elements that might detract from these interactive classroom sessions.

As for OBTL, the LCC acknowledges its usefulness in making clear the aims and intentions of teaching and to help standardise the quality of education. Many of the LCC’s courses have already completed OBTL, and the faculty has continued working closely with the TLPD. The Science team in the LCC is currently working with TLPD on a TEL course to be introduced in AY18/19.

Interview with Student Coaches

After speaking with Prof. Bolton, we decided to talk to some of the student coaches at the Communication Cube who provide the undergraduate and postgraduate peer coaching. Huda and Sher Li completed their Masters degrees in English in 2018.

Both coaches agreed that the most rewarding part of their jobs is the collaborative aspect. In an environment like the CommCube, coaches are exposed to the work of their peers in different schools and get to collaborate with them in the creation and presentation of their projects.

The Cube trains all its peer coaches and believes it should not be giving out fishes, but teaching to fish. Working together, the coach and the student hone in on key issues and the coach provides strategies that may be applied to address those issues. The coaches emphasise that it is not content they engage with, but communication.

Students from all over NTU utilise the Cube’s service. Since the coaches do not provide content, not possessing subject-specific knowledge does not hamper their abilities. For example, according to Sher Li, they regularly get appointments with Engineering students who want help with their technical proposals. The students are tasked with identifying and solving a problem and want to ensure that the way they have organised their papers properly addresses the question. If the coaches do not understand certain jargon, they ask. Working with their fellow students is a bidirectional effort and often the very act of articulating their ideas in a simplified manner helps both parties to better understand the thought processes that went into the crafting of the argument. As Sher Li says, there is a marked difference between describing one’s thoughts and ideas spontaneously as opposed to writing them down.

Anyone can benefit from the coaching service offered by the CommCube. Dissertations, journal submissions, essays, presentations—the coaches are glad to provide advice on how to communicate more lucidly and efficiently, whether in writing or speech. To book an appointment, log on to NTU’s Facilities Reservation System via Student Link and briefly describe what you would like to work on.

The Cube is open throughout the year from Mondays to Fridays and occasionally on Saturdays. For full opening hours, please visit the LCC CommCube website.

If you are interested in becoming a coach, do keep an eye out for the recruitment announcement blasts that are sent out regularly.

This article was first published in the print edition of Constellations issue 2.