The Construction and Reproduction of English Proficiency in Singapore

This essay aims to explore the extent to which English proficiency is cultivated, identified, and differentiated at the secondary and junior college levels. After interpreting informal conversations with four of my peers, I apply Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic violence to elucidate how schools reproduce inequalities in English proficiency in Singapore.

Bourdieu’s conceptualization of symbolic violence is multi-faceted and I will break it down into its constituent features. Overall, it refers to a mode of domination, where the dominant groups impose their ways of (i) perceiving reality as well as (ii) classifying and valuing actions, dispositions, and feelings (henceforth “practices”) on the dominated groups (Bourdieu, 1990a; 2010; Emirbayer & Desmond, 2015). These practices are the inclinations of the dominant groups (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990), which are largely ingrained from birth (Bourdieu, 1990b). 

Key Features of Symbolic Violence

1. Legitimation of these practices

They are officially recognized and legally established (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990; Bourdieu, 2010), in the form of “absolute” credentials that have a permanent and “fixed value” (Bourdieu, 1990b, p. 132). In other words, they become sanctioned as an institutionalized form of cultural capital, which becomes separated from the individual attributes of the bearer (Bourdieu, 1986; 1990b). Cultural capital in the form of academic accomplishment can be converted to other forms of socioeconomic advantages that justify the bearer’s advancement in the labor market (Bourdieu, 1986; Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990).

2. Misrecognition of the legitimacy of these practices 

This occurs when the dominated misconstrue these practices as universal and normal (Bourdieu, 1990a), neutral (Emirbayer & Desmond, 2015), “self-evident” (Bourdieu, 1990a, p. 135), and even moral (Bourdieu, 1990a). In other words, the dominated groups take these practices for granted without challenging them and internalize them as something natural (Emirbayer & Desmond, 2015). The dominated groups are not conscious of how they are disadvantaged by these practices. Instead, they misperceive them as fair and thus, subscribe to them. In effect, misrecognition renders the unequal power relations between the dominant and dominated groups invisible (Bourdieu, 1990a; 1990b; Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990), as these relations are concealed under the veneer of universality and normality.

3. Reproduction of the power relations between the dominant and dominated groups

The dominated groups are complicit in their own subordination (Emirbayer & Desmond, pp. 235, 250), by unquestioningly submitting themselves to accept and endorse these practices that perpetuate the power relations due to misrecognition. 

The dominant groups, on the other hand, have “large symbolic capital”, which grants them a “monopoly over institutions which […] officially establish and guarantee” their superior status (Bourdieu, 1990a, p. 135). The dominant groups have the capacity “to produce […] subordinate actors predisposed to think, perceive, feel, and act in ways that consolidate the relations of domination” (Emirbayer & Desmond, 2015, p. 255). In other words, the dominant groups command the mechanisms to sustain their domination, resulting in the “reproduction of the established order” (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990, p. 167), that is, the power relations between the dominant and the dominated (Bourdieu, 1990a).


In summary, symbolic violence can be understood as a process in which the practices of the dominant groups are recognized as universal and become legitimate standards and norms that people from all social groups aspire towards. 

By analyzing what transpired from the conversations with my peers, I discuss how symbolic violence manifests through the ways in which the English language is taught and assessed in schools under the Integrated Program from the secondary level and above. My four peers are former Chinese students, and their demographic profiles are shown in the following table:

JackDominicSteveEddie
Grade for A-Level General PaperDABA
Average Grades for General PaperD-EB-CC-DA
Housing TypePrivate Private HDB Private 
Parent’s Highest EducationDegreeDiplomaDiplomaDegree
Table 1

I also explore the limitations of applying symbolic violence to English language teaching and assessment. As this discussion about how English was taught in the early 2010s is situated in a very specific context, my peers’ experiences are neither representative of all students, nor do they reflect current practices. In all, I argue that symbolic violence provides a useful conceptual lens for understanding how educational inequalities are reproduced; in perpetuating a particular standard of English language proficiency that is construed as universal and class-neutral. This adds to the local discourse on inequality and sheds light on how education reinforces inequalities, even within schools that are deemed elite.

Legitimation

The variety of English that has been legitimated in Singapore’s formal education is British and, to some extent, American English (Wee, 2018). The clearest manifestation of legitimation is the government’s Speak Good English Movement, which aimed to encourage “standard” English and discourages its “creolized” (Goh, 2016, p. 750), “contaminated” “aberration” — Singlish (Wee, 2018, pp. 33, 42). Without delving too deep into the debate on the use of Singlish, this description of Singlish suggests that a particular version of English is privileged over other renditions. In essence, what my peers conceived of as proficient English is neither a ubiquitous nor permanent form of English. Instead, it is a version that has been officialized by formal systems, which do not just include the local government’s set of state apparatus. 

Jack: [For] overseas [universities] right, no matter what the nature of the course or module you would be taking, I believe they still think that English is still fundamentally very important, ’cause it’s a very, very important skill […] Internationally, they believe it’s important [as much as the other subjects’ grades] ’cause when you go out to work, you require these skills.

Steve: I think in terms of progression [in university] actually, ya, [English proficiency] does affect […] because a lot of the work, especially [for] my faculty, produced is either through presentations or reports. And in terms of the report, you have to make it clear and easy for people to read; for readers to read and digest information. […] I guess you have to have a certain level of proficiency in the English language to break down all your content and structure them into coherent and concise paragraphs.

Indeed, what constitutes “good acceptable English” is often defined by educational institutions like universities (Wee, 2018, p. 42). By differentiating what are the desirable “sayings, accents, intonations [and] words” and “bestow[ing]” such a particular version of the language, educational institutions are “boundary enforcer[s]” that grant legitimate and exclusive access to cultural capital in the form of formal achievements and grades (Emirbayer & Desmond, 2015, p. 108). Nonetheless, this legitimated form of “standard” or “proper” English favors the dominant group, referring to white Americans in Emirbayer and Desmond’s context (2015, p. 108). 

In Singapore, “standard” English is constructed as an “ethnically neutral” language in its instrumental function of fostering “economic prosperity” (Wee, 2018, pp. 24-25). Indeed, Jack implied that English is essential when one “go[es] out to work,” especially “overseas” where it is “fundamentally very important”. Additionally, Steve’s comment on the importance of good English, characterized by reports that are “clear and easy […] to read,” highlights its communicative function that is seemingly universal and objective. However, even if proficient English does bear an economic function, it is not stripped of its non-neutrality. Wee (2018) wrote that the “standard” English promoted in Singapore is “ideologically laden” (p. 32), while Chua (2017) argued that “English was not an Asian race-neutral language in Singapore” (p. 135). Although I do not discuss how English bears differential advantages along ethnic lines, I elaborate on how the ways it is taught and assessed are perceived and distinctively experienced by my peers in the next section.

(Mis)Recognition 

I divided this section into two components. First, I will show how my peers who self-rated their English as “average” or less proficient relative to their peers expressed a mismatch between their own proficiency (at the time when they were in school) and the expected standards of the assessments, which they misconstrue as indicative of desirable, ideal English proficiency. Second, I will examine the limits of misrecognition, where the effectiveness of writing standards taught in English lessons is questioned, partially challenging the assumption that students passively accept what had been taught.

My peers exhibited misrecognition by labeling their own written language proficiency as subpar compared to their peers, according to assessment rubrics set by their schools, which teachers used to form the basis of their students’ English grades. This connotes my peers’ acceptance and internalization of these standards as the legitimate benchmarks to judge their own English proficiency.

Jack: [My English proficiency is] average […] I had difficulties reading long articles and probably [with] writing. My flow was always very bad and my clarity was just not there […] I have a poor result in [General Paper (GP)…] you may get [it] correct one time then get wrong another time, so that frustrated me a lot and I didn’t know what was the issue. So, at first, I did try, […] but I don’t see results […] if I try so hard and I don’t get results, then I would just give up on it.

Eddie: [I think my English proficiency is] good as compared to others […] I mean stuff like getting [an] A* for PSLE […] even in my JC class I was consistently top for GP. I was able to handle most of the things that other people couldn’t handle.

Jack’s unfavorable judgment of his own reading and writing proficiencies, with his emphasis on how he had “a poor result in GP” and resultantly “[gave] up on it,” points to a sense of resignation — to not seeing “results” despite trying to improve, which stems from a poignant acknowledgment that his grades are accurate indicators of his English proficiency. In short, he defined his own proficiency based on the grades he was labeled with. Likewise, Eddie, who consistently performed well and better than his peers in terms of grades, suggested that these are legitimate benchmarks in recognition of what he and the education system deemed proficient. 

While it is expected for my peers to rate their proficiency based on standardized indicators like grades from national examinations, misrecognition is further evident from how my peers who self-identified as having “average” proficiency characterized the mismatch between their own caliber and the ideal standards demanded by their teachers and examinations.

Dominic: I’ll take a lot of time to put things down together in a paragraph, so I have to break them down first, then write down everything, then slowly put them together […] I think I spend too much time on [planning what to write] and trying to put things together [before writing the essay], and I don’t think it’s very productive […] I think if my English is better, and my thought processes are better, I’d be able to weave them together in a better form […] those who are good will have the points in their head and write [them] out immediately […] I know of peers who can just sit down and write, and […] just keep writing and writing, then no correction tape, so that means everything is already in the person’s mind when writing.

Steve: I tend to do better in Science subjects, because [for] the Humanities, it is more free-flow and abstract, and writing is something that is very fluid. So […] it’s something that I found myself to struggle with, and not do as well.

Dominic disparaged his own English caliber by suggesting that he was too slow. This self-deprecation is evident from his repeated references to taking up an excessive amount of time — in phrases such as “spend too much time” and “don’t think it’s very productive” — for writing essays in English. These responses reflect that smooth, uninterrupted writing that is “weave[d]” in “a better form” — his definition of desirable writing — did not come naturally to him and were not inherent predispositions. Therefore, it involved more time and preparation effort for him to write like “those who are good.” 

His responses like “if my English [was] better” and if his “thought processes [were] better” already imply that Dominic has downplayed his English proficiency in relation to that of his peers and the demands of the school. Again, this illustrates a mismatch, irrespective of how effective my peers thought their English lessons were in bridging this disjuncture between their standards and the demands of the English language examinations. The desire to strive towards this “better” standard is itself an internalization and acceptance of the superiority of a version of English in favor of dominant groups. While Steve did not compare his English proficiency with his peers, and instead with other subjects, his description of writing as “free-flow”, “fluid” and “abstract” speaks to Dominic’s need to “weave” thoughts into a “better form”, quite like Steve’s coherent “structure”. Again, these phrases pinpoint an underlying, hegemonic standard — an expectation of a particular writing structure that all my peers implicitly agree upon — underscoring the apparent universality of what writing “well” entails.

Moreover, misrecognition is evident from how Dominic subscribed to his English curriculum, respectively attributing his written proficiency to what was taught and practiced in lessons.

[Do you think how English is taught in secondary school and JC has helped you reach your current standard?]

Dominic: Yes, I think definitely, because if I had no secondary education, I don’t think I would have learned how to write in any sense, because those […] frame your mind or at least teach you how to think or how to put things together, […] I think very basic in sec. 1 sec. 2 […] I remember this thing called PEEL. I think P is Point, E is Example, another E is Explanation and L is link […] it provides a framework for you to work on.

Dominic credited the writing framework and mnemonic PEEL for improving his written proficiency in English. It is a methodical approach, where he was taught how to write a paragraph of an argumentative essay in a particular sequence. Each paragraph began with a single argument, followed by an elaboration of the argument supported by empirical evidence. He then had to address the implications and significance of this line of argument by linking it back to the issue stated in the question. As Jack also pointed out below, the ability to apply this framework is premised on competency with elements of sentence structure, such as subject-verb agreement, using the active or passive voice, providing relevant content or “current affairs”, and having an adequate range of vocabulary. In other words, students must have met a prerequisite level of proficiency for their lessons to benefit them and further develop their skills.

However, not all my peers fully internalized the practices associated with “standard” English, as there was evidence of criticism by my peers whose grades were consistently stellar or poor.

Jack: With a teacher telling me about current affairs, learn about what […] sentence structure, I’m not going to memorize it or cultivate a habit to use them. So, I believe that [the lessons] didn’t help me […] it probably only helps those people who already have a strong command of English. 

Eddie: I remember my friend telling me [I needed] to memorize essays and stuff like that. […There] were a lot of vocabulary, good phrases […] it got quite back to the very basic kind of stuff, and trying to explain like how they should have arguments […] stuff like the PEEL started to come out again, how to structure an essay […] it ended up being that kind of rote learning again in JC. For me personally, it felt like a necessary evil for the school.

Jack suggested that his English lessons in school were pitched above his level of proficiency, as they only helped “those people who already [had] a strong command [in] English.” In this instance, Jack displayed a rejection of or at least disengagement with, the practices deemed helpful for meeting the desired written English standard in examinations. While Jack did not outrightly reject this desired standard as one that is biased in favor of the dominant groups, who have cultivated habits to meet this standard, he was skeptical of these methods in helping him to attain the standard. This resistance primarily stems from a perceived disparity between his written proficiency at the time he was schooling and the minimal level of proficiency presumed in his lessons, which were unable to tailor to his needs.

Nonetheless, Jack’s disengagement from the teaching methods does not negate the manifestation of misrecognition, as he did not raise any objection to the desired written standard itself, which both he and his school still deemed legitimate. He was only dissatisfied with how the English lessons were ineffective in helping him attain this standard. In other words, he resisted the means, but not the ends; the ideal “standard” English is still perceived as the universal goal.

Likewise, Eddie eschewed the formulaic ways in which English writing was taught in his junior college lessons as a “necessary evil”. Unlike Dominic, such writing frameworks were regressive for Eddie as he perceived it as a mold taught to his classmates that encouraged them to conform to a structure that would meet the minimal standard of writing and expressing their ideas for the examinations. Like Jack, Eddie questioned the means of developing written proficiency, albeit for a different reason. 

It is also notable that Jack and Eddie were at the extreme end in terms of their General Paper grades among my peers. They were also the ones who raised doubts about the effectiveness of the teaching methods. While it is unsurprising that the lessons in school are tailored to an average level of proficiency (which Dominic and Steve were more appreciative of), it is important to note that the element of appropriating an imposed written standard has become apparent, rather than invisible, to Jack and Eddie, who clearly identified the disparities between their own proficiency level and that taught in school. Thus, my peers did not demonstrate misrecognition identically. Misrecognition is most apparent for my peers who were slightly below the hegemonic standard (Dominic and Steve), but this standard is not as enticing for those further below and above it (Jack and Eddie). The next section, therefore, discusses the third aspect of symbolic violence — reproduction — with emphasis on both its prevalence and limitations. 

Reproduction

This section first illustrates the workings of reproduction in symbolic violence, where the assessment benchmarks indeed favor better-endowed students by matching examinations with these students’ familial backgrounds and inherited practices. It then illustrates how reproduction becomes visible to my peers who benefitted from this match between their familial dispositions and the practices demanded by the English assessments in school. Finally, it acknowledges the limitations of symbolic violence in accounting for social inequalities, as my peers displayed some degree of mobility despite not attaining the graded markers of English writing proficiency. 

Reproduction is evident from how different familial environments provided varying contexts in which my peers’ English proficiency was first developed, leading to their correspondingly different results.

Eddie: I communicate at home in English only […] I speak to my friends in English, and I also end up interacting with peers from similar family backgrounds, whose parents are most likely educated and insist on speaking in English with you also, so everyone speaks English to each other […] I can remember when I was younger, my mom used to read English books to me. I remember I was quite an avid reader when I was younger, like [when I was in] primary school and before primary school. 

Steve: In terms of all the environments I’ve been in, such as my family environment, my school environment, [they have] been very encouraging […] like people are encouraged to voice out their opinions and […] there’s a lot of opportunities for presentations […in my lessons, students] are encouraged to […] voice out their opinions […] and it’s also integrated [into] the curriculum and assessment […] in sec. 1 there was already a [criterion] amongst all the subjects, which is known as oral participation, which would take up about 10 percent of every subject’s score […for] speaking up during class, asking questions, answering questions, clarifying your doubts. 

Jack: [My] parents didn’t have any thought about pushing me [to read,] I believe that [my family background] affected [my English proficiency] quite a lot [as my parents] were very relaxed about me not doing well or me not reading. 

Eddie developed a comfortable, subconscious predisposition that met the writing requirements of the English examinations, manifested in how he “started to top the class consistently for GP.” Steve added that his familial environment — which encouraged him to converse freely with adults — made it easier for him to “speak up in a crowd and voice out [his] own opinions.” For Steve, oral participation boosted his scores by rewarding his inclinations to speak up, which were habitualized from his familial upbringing. In contrast, Jack, who did not cultivate reading habits from a young age, found it difficult to “analyze the passage” and “approach the question” for the reading comprehension component of English language assessments.

Such facility in writing and speaking is an embodied form of cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1986); it is an aptitude that has been socially conditioned since a young age, which is put into practice through a durable system of dispositions and repertoires primarily formed by such early childhood experiences (Bourdieu, 1990b). These dispositions and repertoires are then adapted as practices aligned with the demands of the English language assessments (Bourdieu, 1990b), which become recognized and converted into institutionalized, “objective” capital in the form of grades (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 19). Thus, what the examinations reward are practices that have been largely shaped by and accumulated from the familial context, which are learned before and beyond the school’s English lessons and other curricular hours. 

How is this alignment between familial practices and school assessments manifested? The key indicator is my peers’ feelings of spontaneity and smoothness during the examinations, when they did not have to consciously exert effort to meet the demands of the assessment, quite unlike Dominic, who had to invest time to organize his thoughts in a separate essay plan before writing (see above).

Eddie: For me, it’s always naturally going into the exam and then writing whatever I thought […] I just felt more confident, [and] when I was more confident I was more willing to write and engage and be less of like thinking of GP or English as like an essay I have to memorize and then spew out on, and more of framing my own thoughts and take on an issue with; that confidence in being able to express myself using words that previously, maybe I was just fifty percent sure about. 

For Eddie, his upbringing and prior education rendered his written proficiency a natural, desirable fit with the expectations of the examiners. That is, Eddie’s writing practices and dispositions — demonstrated in his cogent arguments and usage of apt vocabulary in his written essays — fit the desired English standards and were thus recognized and rewarded as legitimate competencies in the written examinations, which the education system deemed neutral and fair (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990). Moreover, the fact that he did not abide by frameworks like PEEL and memorize essays — techniques that students were recommended to use — and yet earned better grades reinforces the point that English language assessments identify and legitimize these writing practices and dispositions acquired from prior education and inherited from his familial background more than what other students “learned” in lessons at the pre-tertiary level. 

In other words, Eddie’s competencies served as manifestations of “elite dispositions” (Lim, 2016, p. 168), which indicated a congruence between Eddie’s inclinations and practices acquired from his social background and the demands of the examinations. Through such a signaling mechanism, the cultural capital that formal grades represent reproduces social positions via the legitimation of acquired upper-class practices that surpassed the demands of English standards in their level of education. Notably, Eddie himself recognized that the English examinations, as well as the education system as a whole, contribute to social reproduction.

Eddie: It becomes self-fulfilling, because the people who have such a good upbringing, they already have such a good level of language. Then, because of how the education system selects people to go to different areas, they end up going to an area which further develops their language proficiency […] so the people who think they are not good will continue to go into areas that [they] don’t utilize and don’t develop [their English proficiency] and they will continue thinking that they are not good [at it]”.

Perhaps because all their responses were retrospective, in that my peers were reflecting on their secondary and pre-tertiary level education while they were pursuing their degrees, some of them were able to deconstruct these mechanisms of social reproduction embedded in their English education. Unlike Bourdieu’s symbolic violence, which posits that the dominated groups are oblivious to the non-neutrality of the legitimized competencies and therefore complicit in their own subordination, my peers are not entirely unaware of these social mechanisms. As high school graduates (at the time of the conversations) who were no longer part of that system, they could afford to become “someone who withdraws from the game” (Bourdieu, 1990, p. 82), and thus comment on their English language education. In other words, they acted as an “observer” who could better make sense of “the action from outside” (Bourdieu, 1990, p. 91). Nonetheless, my peers could neither reject the social inequalities reproduced via the education system nor forsake their own positions in the field of education, given that they were still deeply embedded in it at that time. Although they are cognizant of the inherent unfairness and inequalities, the “game” is “a reality that [still] has meaning and consequences” on their social advancement (Emirbayer & Desmond, 2015, p. 142).

Limitations of Symbolic Violence in Explaining Social Reproduction

For my peers, their English language grades were not deterministic in that they limited or predicted their social advancement. There are two limitations to the concept of symbolic violence in English teaching and assessment with respect to the reproduction of social inequalities. First, social reproduction is incomplete, as there is evidence of mobility with respect to my peers’ parents’ highest qualification (see Table 1). Even within the scope of the English language, there is room for “social upgrading” (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990, p. 156), by “appropriating” and adopting the dominant group’s practices and standards demanded by the assessments (Emirbayer & Desmond, 2015, p. 254), evident from Dominic’s improvement. 

Second, there are diverse means to make advancements in the field of education, as English proficiency is neither the sole nor the main indicator that enabled my peers to gain an advantage in university admissions. Furthermore, one’s English proficiency is not static and it can still evolve (or deteriorate) over time, depending on the extent to which my peers’ careers depend on writing and speaking felicities. 

Nonetheless, these limitations do not denounce the main thesis that English language teaching and assessment reinforce and reproduce unequal social positions in the field. Moreover, while there are differences in my peers’ access to socioeconomic advantages, such as in terms of parents’ education and economic capital proxied by housing (see Table 1), they are all from middle- or upper-class families and a school that is considered prestigious in Singapore, which are forms of cultural capital.

References

Bourdieu, P. (1986). “The forms of capital.” In J. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 15–29). Greenwood Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1990a). In other words: Essays towards a reflexive sociology. Stanford University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1990b). The logic of practice. Polity Press. 

Bourdieu, P., & Passeron, J.-C. (1990). Reproduction in education, society and culture. Sage Publications.

Bourdieu, P. (2010 [1984]). “Conclusion: Classes and classifications.” In R. Nice (Trans.), Distinction (pp. 468–486). Routledge.

Chua, B. H. (2017). “Governing race.” In Neoliberalism disavowed: Communitarianism and state capitalism in Singapore (pp. 123–156). NUS Press.

Emirbayer, M., & Desmond, M. (2015). The racial order. University of Chicago Press.

Goh, R. B. H. (2016). The anatomy of Singlish: Globalisation, multiculturalism and the construction of the ‘local’ in Singapore. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 37(8), 748–758. https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2015.1133628 

Lim, L. (2016). Analysing meritocratic (in)equality in Singapore: Ideology, curriculum and reproduction. Critical Studies in Education, 57(2), 160–174. https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17508487.2015.1055777 Wee, L. (2018). The Singlish controversy: Language, culture and identity in a globalizing world. Cambridge University Press.

Cover collage by Sherryl Cheong

a contributor

One of many contributors sharing their stories under the cloak of anonymity.