In support of the university’s efforts to nurture able communicators amongst our students, this bumper issue features
articles on Developing Our Students’ Communication Skills. It includes introductions to upcoming initiatives by
CDTL and the Centre for English Language Communication (CELC) to enhance our students’ ability to communicate
effectively, and also features contributions from colleagues throughout NUS as well as from the industry, in which they
will share communication skills courses or collaborations they are currently running in their respective domains and
the challenges they face in helping their students develop these core skills.
The clear exchange of ideas in any interactive context has a fundamental role to play to facilitate successful transactions. The role of competent language and communication abilities in enabling success in various arenas has been reiterated on different occasions by various people, including Singapore’s Minister Mentor as well as the presidents of NUS and NTU. In both his Tsinghua Global Vision Lecture on the 1st of June 2009 and the NUS commencement speech on the 17th of July 2009, NUS President Professor Tan Chorh Chuan highlighted the point that besides producing critical thinkers and responsible global citizens, the NUS environment must strive to educate students to become able communicators (Tan, 2009). Many articles in this publication itself would also have championed the need for good communication skills from various perspectives, whether it be to fulfill NUS’ mission or to prepare our graduates for the challenges of the 21st century.
It may seem strange to some that the best of the student cohort, who actually have managed to compete successfully for a place in NUS, would be in need of communication training. Perhaps, it has been taken for granted that the best of the cohort will not need communication and language development. In response, I would like to quote Education Minister Ng Eng Hen as he best sums up the situation about standards in English language in his address at the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) work plan seminar; “Teachers tell me that the standard of English can be improved, and attention must be paid not only to reading and writing the language, but also to speaking it well” (Ng, 2009, para. 19). He further issues the challenge to “[r]aise the standard of English. Just as we are renowned for high standards in mathematics and science, we should be known for producing students who express themselves well in English” (Ng, 2009, para. 27).
Does the tertiary level present appropriate platforms to hone English language communication skills? Would it not be more appropriate to develop such skills at earlier stages in education, where the competition for students’ time and attention for subject specialisation and knowledge acquisition is a little less intense? Though it is not known how pervasive communication and language problems are at NUS, it is not uncommon to hear comments about the disorganised written pieces and grammatically weak essays that faculty staff have to contend with in their marking of essay-based modules. There are also instances where supervisors have highlighted their plight when they can barely understand what some of their graduate students want to say in each sentence, much less the whole thesis. It is a common experience that tutors and lecturers find it hard to engage the average student’s views in interactive ways in class. In many cases, students may not be sufficiently confident to put forward a case in response to issues raised, much less make a coherent presentation.
Given the diversity of proficiencies represented in the student population, their varied areas of interest and purposes for further developing such skills, and the competing demands to develop many other knowledge bases and professional competencies within a limited time frame, it is not easy to come to a consensus on the best ways to facilitate the further development of students’ communicative competence. As a Centre that is tasked to support the English language and communication skills at NUS, we believe that contextual factors and resources can be harnessed to facilitate students’ acute awareness of the many facets of effective communication. However, the effort to improve our students’ communicative abilities cannot and must not be confined to the English language class. In fact, to ensure the maximal development of these communication skills, the need for good communication skills has to be insisted on by different gatekeepers (e.g. tutors, lecturers, supervisors) in their various interactional contexts. This is to ensure that this awareness translates into practice in contexts of high stakes use; where the failure to effect these skills would reinforce a perceived impact such that the clear communication of good ideas becomes recognised as equally important as the quality of the ideas themselves.