By Abigail Ang (18S06B) and Soh Ying Qi (18A01C), with guest writer Lim Tian Jiao (18A01C)
This article is the ninth and last part in Raffles Press’ series, Please Mind the Platform Gap: The Road Less Taken, about non-traditional A-level subjects offered in RI. For our previous feature on H2 TLL, please click here. For our last feature on H2 ELL, click here.
This article does not necessarily reflect the views of RI’s academic management and should not be used as a substitute for formal academic counselling.
Ah, ELL. Variously misconstrued as “English Language and Literature”, “Applied Linguistics”, or “an easier version of Lit”, English Language and Linguistics remains an obscure subject, though it has increased in popularity in recent years. Once only large enough to fill a single tutorial room, the ELL cohort has swelled in numbers and now averages 30 to 40 (or more) candidates per year, enough to occupy an LT.
For Year 4 students or newly inducted J1s, however, the rarity of this subject may leave many unsure of what it is about, and whether to offer it in junior college. So what is ELL, and how do you know if it is the right subject for you?
The Nuts and Bolts
English Language and Linguistics is a H2 subject that investigates the nature of the English language and contemporary issues surrounding it. Students will learn to analyse different varieties of English, over different times, and at different levels.
The subject is broken into two areas of study: Analysing Language Use (Paper 1) and Investigating Language Use in Society (Paper 2). Samples of content taught in class are shared below (click to enlarge):
Does this look like Literature? (Literally, no.)
Paper 1 examines how language changes according to its use and user. For example, while it may seem perfectly normal for a classmate to send you this:
i think by monday cannot la, can ask cher for ext til wed? 😅
most people would not text a teacher the same thing. It would simply be inappropriate for the purpose, audience, and context of the message. Students will look at different text types such as transcripts of speech, pamphlets, blogs, and emails, and analyse them at different levels such as:
- Phonetics and phonology (sounds)
- Morphology (word formation)
- Syntax (sentence structure)
- Semantics (literal meaning)
- Pragmatics (intended meaning)
- Discourse analysis (texts)
- Multi-modality (use of various textual modes)
But while the more grammatically conscious may condemn the above example as “incorrect” usage, one of the core tenets of ELL is that there is no wrong way to use language. The terms “standard” and “nonstandard” take centre stage in the ELL student’s technical vocabulary, and proficiency in English does not guarantee one’s grasp of linguistic concepts (and therefore, one’s grade).
Paper 2 involves sociolinguistics, a branch of linguistics. In Year 5, students will examine language variation (how language varies with users’ age, gender, social class, ethnicity, region, social network, among other factors), language change (the rise of English as an international language and the creation of new “blends” of English such as Singlish), and the attitudes towards these evolving forms. Meanwhile in Year 6, students will look at how language is used to construct and reinforce identities, attitudes & values.
At the A-Levels, both areas of study are tested separately, with each paper lasting 3 hours. In Paper 1, students are required to compare two texts of different types (usually spoken and written), and discuss how and why they differ. In what many students see as the most interesting section of the exam, students must adapt three stimulus texts into a different text type (such as a brochure into a blog post) and comment on the changes they have made.
For Paper 2, students are required to complete 3 essays, chosen from 2 sections consisting of 2 questions each. One section is on the reasons and attitudes towards language change and variation, and the other concerns how language, culture and identity influence one another. Similar to source-based questions in History, candidates must discuss sociolinguistic issues with reference to the texts provided as well as their own contextual knowledge.
“Students always find it hard to answer the question,” remarks Ms Janissa Soh, this year’s Paper 2 tutor for Year 5. “Why? Because they often come with their own expectations and don’t appreciate the question for what it is.” She advises candidates to “Embrace the question. Pick out the salient issues or features and make a convincing case from there.” Since ELL essay structures may differ greatly from those of other subjects like Economics, it may help to read sample essays from seniors to learn how to organise content in a coherent, effective way.
However, both papers should not be treated as separate entities—analytical skills and linguistic tools from Paper 1 can be applied to Paper 2, and knowledge of situational context from Paper 2 can be applied to analysis in Paper 1. Ultimately, ELL is about piecing together the content from both segments to gain an informed understanding and appreciation for language.
The two areas of study (under Paper 1 and Paper 2) are taught by different lecturers on alternate weeks. The upside to this is that tutorials and group projects typically have a two-week deadline (yay for procrastination!). However, the long intervals between lectures on the same paper can be slightly disorientating, especially when first starting out, making it useful to revisit the previous lecture notes before attending the next lecture.
Given the small cohort size, lectures are incredibly interactive and often feel more like mass tutorials. Unlike lectures for more popular subjects like Economics or Chemistry, students can readily clarify any doubts in the lecture itself. On the downside, ELL lectures are not recorded on Panopto, so paying close attention is required at all times (as is a quick hand to take notes). Lectures normally cover a main concept or linguistic tool, which is then expounded upon and practised in tutorials.
The lecturers for each paper also tutor the entire cohort, which is generally rarer in lecture-tutorial settings and builds greater teacher-student rapport. Another key feature of the ELL curriculum is its emphasis on both hands-on and self-directed learning—tutorials present ample opportunity for class participation, and class presentations are routine, encouraging students to think critically about concepts and take responsibility for their own learning.
All ELL students are invited to attend the annual English Language and Linguistics Symposium in April. The three MOE English Language Elective Programme (ELEP) centres—RI, Anglo-Chinese Junior College and Catholic Junior College—take turns to host the event. (To find out more, read our coverage of the 2016 RI symposium, 2017 ACJC symposium and 2018 CJC symposium.)
For prospective students interested in some self-study, we’ve got you covered. Making Sense of Grammar by David Crystal (the closest thing we have to a textbook) offers clear, simple explanations of linguistic concepts, and comes highly recommended by both teachers and students as a beginner’s guide. Alternatively, check out Lexicon Valley, a free podcast by Slate magazine hosted by linguist John McWhorter. It may also be advisable to familiarise yourself with some leading experts in the field (e.g. David Crystal, Steven Pinker, Noam Chomsky, Robin Lakoff) or read up on some of the most famous linguistic theories (e.g. the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) and case studies (e.g. Martha’s Vineyard).
To qualify for ELL, students from RI Y1–4 or RGS must attain an overall Grade Point of at least 3.6 for English Language in Year 4. However, those who do not meet this criterion by the end of Year 4 may take the ELL Qualifying Test in January. Do note that you will only be allowed to offer ELL if you pass this test (those who have met the English Language cutoff need not take it). The requirement is the same for JAE students, who must attain at least an A2 in their English Language O-Level.
For the ardent learner, while H3 ELL does not currently exist, all RI ELL students are eligible to apply for the MOE English Language Elective Scholarship (ELES). The scholarship covers school fees up to $2400 per annum and provides an additional allowance of $1000 per annum. Scholars are automatically enrolled in the ELEP, and under the programme, will also be attached to various organisations during their Year 5 November/December holidays—the list includes media companies like Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), commercial firms like L’Oréal and government bodies like the Land Transport Authority (LTA).
When all is said and done, what can one really do with ELL? In truth, not all of us continue studying linguistics at undergraduate level, and there is no single career that all of us enter. For those interested, however, the National University of Singapore offers a degree programme in English Language, while Nanyang Technological University has one in Linguistics and Multilingual Studies.
But rest assured that ELL in no way restricts your future options, despite being a so-called “exotic” subject. As Ms Soh points out, “sharpened appreciation of language use is relevant wherever there is communication involved.” There are many sectors in which one will find language skills useful: journalism, teaching, advertising, public relations—the list goes on and on.
As with most exotic subjects, ELL is taken out of interest, or even passion, for the English language. As such, interested students are expected to be proficient in English and possess a good grasp of grammar. Do not assume that a flair for writing will be enough to guarantee lasting interest—to get the most out of ELL, one must be willing to learn about the mechanics of language as well.
Who should take ELL, then? As passion is paramount to one’s enjoyment of the subject, current students agree: if you are interested in the technical aspects of language or the relationships between societal dynamics and language change, ELL is the subject for you.
For more information about the 2020 H2 ELL syllabus, visit the SEAB website at https://www.seab.gov.sg/docs/default-source/national-examinations/syllabus/alevel/2020syllabus/9508_y20_sy.pdf
For more information about the English Language Elective Scholarship, visit the MOE website at https://www.moe.gov.sg/admissions/scholarships/moe-preu/english
(Cover image source: http://guide.berkeley.edu/undergraduate/degree-programs/linguistics/)