Growing up with English
Language for healing
Winston Tay
Winston Tay is a professional counsellor. To do his work well, he has to choose his words carefully so that he can use language for healing. He has to be an eloquent speaker. We asked Winston about his journey with the English language.

Q: What are your earliest memories of learning English?
A: My mother played a big part in it. Mom always spoke to us in English so that we could absorb the language. She also believed she had to give us lots of exposure to the arts. Although my parents were not rich, Mom somehow took us for "Disney on Ice" and so many shows like that.

We had lots of freedom after school. My brother and I would pitch tents at home and play for hours. We even drew on the walls of our three-room flat. Mom wasn't happy about that but I think she could see that the freedom to express ourselves was good for us.

Q: Did you like reading storybooks as a child?
A: Frankly, I wasn't much of a reader. I did like Hardy Boys and Famous Five books. But, I was too busy playing football and hockey for my school. During our free time, I preferred catching grasshoppers and doing stuff like that.

But, Mom was a reader. Every day, she read the newspaper and her Bible. When she read the news, she would highlight words she didn't know and then look them up in the dictionary. She's now 71 years old. And, she still does that! She tells us that she is not highly educated, and that is why she wants to continue learning on her own.

Q: What a great role model your mother has been for you. Did that influence you as a teen?
A: Not really. It didn't occur to me that my mother's eagerness to learn new words was unusual. As a teen, you don't think about such things. Instead, I became rebellious at school. I got angry easily and then I would get into trouble for losing my temper. I was sent to detention very often, and didn't study much.

In Secondary 2, the only subjects I passed were English and Literature. I liked some of my Literature books: I loved Roald Dahl's BFG. So much so, in spite of spending so much time being punished - in those days, standing on the chair, being sent out of the classroom - I got the Literature prize for the whole level in Secondary 2! The literature teacher gave me a highlighter as a reward. That was a turning point for me.

Q: If you didn't study hard, how did you top the whole level in Literature?
A: I was totally surprised myself! In hindsight, I see that it was because I shared my personal reflections. What I wrote was totally original. I could interpret the characters in the stories. I could understand the text so easily because I was taken to so many stage performances when I was little. Also, my brother and I were encouraged to express ourselves at home.

Q: Did you continue to do well in Literature after that?
A: No, I didn't have the opportunity. My other marks were so low that I was sent to the Normal Stream in Secondary 3. I was dismayed: no more Literature for me even though I had excelled in it. Although, aside from that, I should admit that I was happy enough in the Normal Stream. Almost every History lesson, I had to stand outside the classroom. The teacher said that I could only return when I passed a test. I was so determined to show him I was not stupid that I scored an "A". That one "A" boosted my morale. It was another turning point for me.

Q: You now have a Masters degree. You not only work with clients, you also run the counselling centre. What a huge leap from the kid who was always in trouble. How did that happen?
A: Even though I was getting into trouble, there were teachers at St Andrew's Secondary who didn't give up on me. They encouraged me so much that I passed my "O" levels. I went on to study fine art at LASALLE College of the Arts. There, I had to write a lot: I had to critique other people's work, and defend my own art. I also went for many art exhibitions and film festivals - once again, it was great exposure to fine arts and language.

After that, I decided I wanted to help people. And so, while working as a police officer, I pursued my studies in counselling. That's how I arrived here. At my centre, Charis Lifeworks, our team works with people of all ages, but my passion is working with children and youth.

I help them to deal with their anger, and the kinds of issues that I struggled with when I was a teen.

Learning from Winston Tay
As a young child, Winston Tay had a head start in English: his mother spoke to him in English, they went to great performances, and he was encouraged to express himself freely at home. These efforts paid off when he did well in English and Literature at school. Listening to and speaking good English can help you, too.

Ironically, it was in art school that Mr Tay did his best writing. Perhaps it was because he wrote about what he loved - art. Try expressing your thoughts and feelings about what interests you most, and see how your writing comes alive.

We have a powerful role model in Mr Tay's mother. Even though she is very old, she still looks up the meanings of unfamiliar words. Like her, we can be active lifelong learners of language.

The series is brought to you by What's Up in partnership with the Speak Good English Movement of Singapore.