5 Common Mistakes for Asian Learners

Having taught young learners in Singapore for the past year and a half, I’ve noticed the regular hurdles that trip up my students while learning English.

1. Androgynous – he or she?
This is a common mistake for my Chinese students, who usually default to the gendered pronoun he in any situation. Before I recognised this, it made me self-conscious as students would regularly refer to me as he. The main reason for this is that the gendered pronouns simply do not exist in Mandarin, and the pronouns he and she must be learnt and practiced along with the possessive pronouns his and hers. Once this has sunk in, the next step is to differentiate his and he’s (he is)

2. Three or tree?
The /th/ sound is a tricky one to master. Teaching phonics and reading, as well as coaching students for oral exams at the Primary level, I encounter this every day. Most students will produce the /f/ sound instead, so I encourage them to hold down their bottom lip so that their teeth stay away. I model sticking the tongue between the teeth and blowing. If I hear a student say tree instead of three, I hold up my arms like branches until they correct themselves. Of course, it is difficult for those students who have recently lost both front teeth, and for teachers, there is an occupational hazard of being covered in spit as the children practice. The pronunciation is particularly evident when the child says, “Today it is the turd (third) of June.”

3. How many? Singular and plural nouns
The ‘s’ is often neglected at the end of countable plural nouns. Even in reading class, it is as though it is simply invisible. The main cause is that, in Chinese languages at least, plural nouns are distinguished through the determiner rather than the noun ending. It is perfectly reasonable to say, “Five student” and not add an ‘s’ at the end in Mandarin. I spend a lot of time teaching happily hissing to get across the importance of that final ‘s’, or feign surprise and say, “Only one?

4. Prepositions – tiny assassins
I often refer to prepositions in this way, because they are small yet have the power to completely kill meaning in a sentence. In other languages, there are either less to worry about or they can be used interchangeably without causing too many problems. In English we are very precise, especially when it comes to time. We say, in a minute, at four o’clock, on Tuesday, in a month. When it comes to travelling, it is equally confusing. We say, getting on the bus, driving in the car, riding on the train or by foot. My older students get frustrated as most prepositions are just two letters, but getting them right can be difficult.

5. The past, present and future walked into the classroom. It was tense
Tenses can be minefields for young learners, who may only have a few to learn in their mother tongue. English has thirteen tenses with very specific uses, so the students must know which one to apply in each scenario. My students often use the past continuous tense incorrectly in their narratives. For example, “He was wearing a bandana and he was stealing the money.” We use past continuous when two events happen simultaneously, or where the first action is interrupted. So, instead it should be: “He was wearing a bandana as he was stealing the money,” or simply just, “He wore a bandana and stole the money.” I often hear my Chinese students say, “I got done already.” The word already is a sneaky way for learners to avoid learning the past tense verb conjugations and should be discouraged. A student may prefer to incorrectly say, “I eat already” rather than “I ate.”

I hope this post was useful for those who are either learning English or teaching it. If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe for weekly updates. Cheers!

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Antisocial

Back in January, I locked myself out of Facebook and Instagram. Here’s an honest account of the last four months sans social media following my initial ‘Life Without Likes’ post.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing
I recently sent my pregnant friend a TED video that gave a fascinating view into what babies learn before they are born. Afterwards, I discovered that she’d already had her second baby, and her first just celebrated her birthday. Oops.

Andy oops

Out of the loop
I have missed barbecues, birthdays and baby showers because I’ve not been online. It is tricky to know who saw my original post declaring that I was coming off the platforms, so I’m not taking it personally. After all, it was my decision to make myself harder to contact. I am worried that I have inadvertently offended some by not RSVPing, though.

Robot

Confession time
Some of my friends and family may think I’m back on Facebook. Why? I recently set up my blog posts to be automatically uploaded there again. I made this decision because no one was visiting my WordPress site anymore and I was lonely. Exploiting their marketing tools is allowed, right?

Milhouse

Connectivity strength – good
Since rejecting social media, I’ve been writing letters home and practicing my calligraphy. To make it even more old school, I’ve been sealing the envelopes with wax impressed with my initial. As I live halfway around the world to most of my friends, I’ve been setting up regular video chats back home. Even though a screen is separating us, it feels good to see their faces moving and hear their voices. Life in three dimensions is always better.

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Brain training
I’ve had so much more time to write, practice yoga and learn Spanish. I don’t think I was spending an excessive amount of time mindlessly scrolling before, but I never gave my brain time to stop. Instead of notifications, memes and filtered photos, I try to let my brain aimlessly wander. Experts often cite that people have their best ideas in the shower or as they drift off to sleep, so I’m just carving out more moments like this where I’m not pulled towards the black hole that is my phone.

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Verdict
Overall, it has been a positive experience and I won’t be returning to Facebook or Instagram anytime soon. However, I’ve still not deactivated them. Why not? Well, I want the opportunity to return if I change my mind. As I live abroad, it is more difficult for me to stay in touch with everyone. One of the beautiful things about creating a personalised social network is that you can update everyone with the click of a button. This experiment has really given me a greater insight into how I use my time. Now, instead of maintaining my personal brand online, I’m spending more time maintaining my relationships with others.

How about you? Would you give up social media? 

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Classroom Curiosities XVI

When being an adult is tiring, it is good to see things from a child’s perspective. Luckily, I have over a hundred of them to brighten my week:

Family friendly
Some of my students have been writing personal recounts about a fun family day out. I always mark their drafts to avoid any recurring spelling or tense errors before they expand their ideas. One student did raise my eyebrow when she wrote, “We went on the Singapore flayer.” She meant ‘flyer’, I hope.

A letter changes everything
Studying adjectives, my class were encouraged to describe a dog. We discussed lots of ideas, from whether her nose was wet or dry, how long her pink tongue might be, and what she liked to do best. Obviously, going for walks was number one, but one comment made my toes curl. “She likes to chew her bones.” Funny how one ‘s’ can change the meaning entirely.

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Ordinal numbers can be confusing

Early bird
As the ability in my lower primary classes vary, when it comes to writing tasks we brainstorm ideas and I elicit sentences from them as we go. I write these up on the board so that the students can jot down our shared ideas and use them as a reference when they form their own written piece. For students who are new to writing, it can be daunting to write four paragraphs so we break it down. I cover two finger spacing for indenting, give prompts for punctuation and ask them to spell words or provide synonyms to check understanding. However, one child managed to write, “The children ate their schoolbags.” He’s clearly not a fan of mornings.

Solid question
This week, I was almost caught out. While discussing an answer with the class, one of my students corrected me. The passage spoke about having a barbecue, along with sweet treats and Japanese delicacies. I agreed with the suggestion that the boys were going to eat barbecue, a dessert and Japanese dishes. One student was indignant that it should be barbecued food instead, because they were not going to eat the actual barbecue itself. However, it does also mean barbecued food so we were both right, although the student did not seem to believe it!

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When I showed English currency to my students, I pointed to the Queen and asked who she was. “Grandma” was the top answer.

Someone call the Avengers
This week, I designed a Lego superhero sheet for my phonics classes. The worksheet tested their stretching ability, and once they had finished, they could colour in the superheroes (DC’s Batman, Wonderwoman and Superman). After that, I invited them to draw their own. One boy drew a stick man and looked very confused when I asked him to colour it in. Another gave Batman lipstick. My favourite moment was when one boy refused to colour in any more, and said, “One superhero is enough.” Don’t let Stan Lee hear that…

Crisis averted
Without warning, one of my six year old students announced, “I know the two bad fingers!” He proceeded to raise his middle finger and index finger and I snapped into action and went in for a high five. He was so distracted he failed to show his classmates the revolutionary hand signals after that. Phew.

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Phantom menace
During class, I welcome interesting questions and allow the class to journey along mini tangents relating to our topic. This helps to engage my learners. Of course, there is a limit and I have to monitor which direction we head in, but I think it is valuable to let the children express themselves. I think that a teacher should never ‘shhh’ their students, after all, we’re there to improve their speaking skills. However, one comment temporarily stunned me this week. One child asked me, “Did you kill yourself?” Before I could reply, another said, “Charlie Charlie” and it took me a few minutes to get everyone back on track.

Blackout
I empathise with my students on a daily basis. Learning English is tricky, as it is full of exceptions to the rules and can be a veritable mine field for those working towards fluency. This week, one student was actively expanding his vocabulary and had a lightbulb moment when he realised he could add the suffix -ful to form adjectives. “Wonderful, cheerful, awful…niceful.” When I corrected him, that lightbulb smashed into smithereens.

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Instructions on how to take over the world. Step 1) Break your legs.

Dot dash dot
I teach nursery age children phonics primarily, but we also work on speaking, comprehension and fine motor skills. Some children are still learning to write their names and form the English characters, while others are getting used to looking from left to right when they follow stories. I created a tracing sheet for my students to test their pencil grip, and was helping one girl draw her ‘e’ letters the right way round when I heard a tapping noise. Looking up, I saw one of my three year old students furiously stabbing his pencil into the paper. I think he thought we had to form the letters in dots too, rather than drawing over them in smooth lines.

To the beat of his own drum
I like to take an interest in the lives of my students, and often ask broad questions to initiate class discussions. After one student mentioned they played piano, I asked the whole class if anyone played an instrument. Many played the piano or the recorder, but one boy professed to playing the rectangle. It was the triangle back in my day…

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A premature health scare for a nine year old…

Finally, I leave you with a revelation. Talking about recipes, I gave an example of making chocolate chip cookies, and asked the students to describe the instructions using imperative verbs. One suggested, “Cook the cookies.” I realise ‘bake’ is better, but this blew my mind. Of all the foods we cook, why did these get the monopoly on the cooking method? The answer is linguistic evolution, and we have the Dutch to thank. Still, I enjoy stumbling across these coincidences.

Until next week.

 

 

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Filling in the Gaps

I’ve never been comfortable with silence. I strike up conversations with strangers on long haul planes. I fill blank spaces with empty small talk. I condense my experiences into conversation fodder. I misquote idioms. I overshare with new acquaintances and scare off any possibility of friendship. I say things I don’t agree with, but then staunchly defend. Anything to avoid the awkwardness of not talking.

I always wanted to be one of those minimalist speakers who only utters thoughtful sentiments. The kind of person that others respect and listen to. Instead, I found myself as the stuttering intern, the endlessly blabbering friend, or the colleague that couldn’t time her input in meetings.

Video chats are hazardous. Etiquette seems to escape me completely. I interrupt, apologise, purse my lips in embarrassment. Sometimes, I refuse to repeat myself. I find writing an easier way to express myself. A more authentic version because my mouth blurts out surprising things with my brain a beat behind. That, and I’m officially tongue tied. It was confirmed by a dentist friend at university. Before that, I never knew it was a medical condition – it was just a saying that occasionally fit.

At twenty four, I started scuba diving. It was the first time I felt free from the compulsion to speak. With a respirator in my mouth, it wasn’t physically possible. All I could do underwater was focus on my breathing and surroundings. Inhale. Check my oxygen gauge. Exhale. Follow the fish. Inhale. Drift over the coral. Exhale. Fall deeper as the bubbles slowly rise. It was my first glimpse into meditation.

Until now, meditation had never appealed to me. I remember attending a session in school and being asked to leave as I got the giggles. I tried again by doing yoga in London, but I didn’t enjoy the breathing and spiritual side. I wanted to workout in a more competitive way.

This year, I feel differently. Perhaps it is because I’m approaching thirty, or maybe it’s because I am living abroad. I am being more selective with how I spend my time and I no longer suffer from FOMO as I did in my early twenties. I understand the transience of friendships as an expat. As a teacher, I speak less to encourage my students to speak more, and my voice has become something to preserve so I’m less inclined to chat needlessly.

As an extrovert, coming to terms with my newfound solitude has been hard. At first, I worried that I was becoming selfish or even depressed, yet the opposite was true. I’m far more relaxed and content now that I only attend events I want to go to. I started being less concerned about what others thought. I stopped drinking for a month. I started saving. More importantly, I realised that I didn’t owe my time to anyone else, and that I should spend it like a currency on those who matter most.

Of course, I do still have friends and see them for drinks, dinners and days out, but I don’t give away all my free time now. Before, I could never say no. Giving up social media has helped alleviate the pressure. I can’t see everything that is going on in my social circles, so I can instead focus on making more meaningful connections. Social gatherings are no longer diluted into one picture on Instagram, and catching up is no longer a distant ‘like’ on a post.

Checking in has become an important weekly ritual. Solo treks through the jungle, immersed only in the sounds. Swimming and hearing nothing but the pressure of the water. Sitting in a yoga class and not talking, not thinking, being present. Sitting down and watching my fingers write thoughts I hadn’t yet articulated.

This new outlook has taken me by surprise, but maybe it’s for the best. Especially if you end up sitting next to me on a plane!

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Classroom Curiosities XV

This week, my classes covered self-realisation, a new way of blowing your nose and found an alternative sidekick for Pinocchio.

Fast food
I’ve been teaching our lower primary kids all about procedures and using imperative verbs. When I asked for an example of a recipe, one child described how to make soup. “Cut some vegetables. Add water. Pour in a can of soup.” Sounds like a Delia Smith fan to me.

Jiminy Cricket!
In my phonics class this week, we focused on shooting stars. For the independent work time, I had the students trace the ‘Starlight, Star Bright’ poem, and then colour a picture of Pinocchio wishing on a star with his pal Jiminy Cricket beside him. One of the boys coloured him entirely brown, and said to the others, “That is a giant cockroach!”

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Be careful what you wish for
Practicing speaking is an important part of language development, so I always build in time for the children to talk in my lessons. This week, I asked the children what they wished for after seeing a shooting star, which in reality was a shiny holographic star on a stick that I swished around. One class was materialistic and wished for Elsa crowns or Optimus Prime toys, whereas another wanted to go to space and grow the greenest grass. One boy, who is usually reserved, told us that he wanted to be a crocodile and proceeded to clamp another student’s head between his arm-jaws. The best one, though, was from a girl that wished it was her birthday every day. When I told Tom that night, he said, “She’ll be so old.”

Period
In one particularly dull lesson, I taught the children how to separate sentences. It’s amazing how quickly they forget to use uppercase letters and punctuation. To make it more interesting (for me as well), I told the students that a full stop sounds like the ‘puck’ noise made when you pucker your lips. Now, rather than saying, “What goes at the end of the sentence?” I make the sound effect and they know to check. I just hope they don’t tell their other teachers.

Epiphany
One talkative student had a bit of a moment in class this week. Stopping mid-sentence, he abruptly declared, “I’m the only one with a high voice.” Give it a few years…

The dark side
I celebrated Star Wars day with a crudely drawn Darth Vader on my board. Some children recognised him but only a handful understood the joke of “May the fourth (force) be with you.” One overexcited pupil exclaimed, “Tomorrow, may the fifth be with you.” Nope.

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Fine motor skills
Teaching young children, it is important to improve their pencil grip and control, building those muscles in their hands through tracing, colouring and forming letters independently. One newbie to my class had good control but pressed too lightly, so his pencil was barely visible. When I asked him to press harder, he squeezed the pencil until his knuckles went white but wrote as lightly as before.

Bogus advice
One of the less glamorous parts of teaching nursery children is wiping snot off their faces and showing them how to blow their noses using a tissue. One child said his mummy had taught him a different way. Blowing out sharply, he quickly caught it with his tongue in one swift movement. His neighbour wasn’t the only one to gag.

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Fishface
When my new reading class did not know the word ‘cod’ I immediately sucked in my cheeks, moved my squished lips up and down like a fish and flapped my hands like fins beside my face. One of the children shouted, “Oh, a clownfish!” They’re too smart.

Bragging rights
Finally, I leave you with an uplifting thought. One of my students who has only recently learnt to read and write, loves sharing her jokes and stories. She came into the class with a tatty pile of plain paper that had been sellotaped together. It was an entire book complete with illustrations. She passed it to me to read and proudly said, “This is my third book.” If a seven year old can do it, what is stopping the rest of us?

If you enjoyed reading this, check out my Teaching page for more. Until next time!

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My Green Guru

It’s May the 4th which can only mean one thing…

Yoda

Sorry to disappoint you, fellow Star Wars fans. My new master is this little guy:

Duolingo owl

Lately, I’ve broken the humdrum rhythm of my life to tackle some new challenges. I’ve taken up meditation and yoga, quit social media and I’m learning Spanish. Duolingo has been my main teaching device, but I’m also listening to Lightspeed Spanish podcasts and reading books from the library which conquer verb conjugations. I’ve also been watching Narcos and Breaking Bad, but honestly, they’ve only expanded my ability to swear fluently to my friends.

For those who haven’t heard of Duolingo, it is a free language learning app that has 200 million subscribers. On the English speaking version of the app, it currently has 31 available languages, from Arabic to Vietnamese, Spanish to Swahili. There are even fictional languages on offer for Star Trek and Games of Thrones fans, where you can learn Klingon and High Valyrian if you fancy dropping the subtitles. It adopts gamification to make learning fun, and consists of small lessons which earn you XP and open up new levels for more learning. It breaks down the language into stages, teaching you vocabulary, tenses and other grammatical constructs as you go. You can return to any previous lesson to refresh your memory.

Some of you may be familiar with CAPTCHA squares, where you must enter the squiggly word to complete an online purchase. A computer scientist, Luis von Ahn, helped launch these and saw the world begin to use them effectively. However, he began to feel guilty about the collective time it took for each person to enter in a word. He then saw an opportunity to translate the internet using this human input. All physical books are being uploaded online via scanning, but books over 50 years old were not easily deciphered by a computer using OCR (Optical Character Recognition). Why do I mention all this? Well, from here, the free app and website Duolingo was created. It not only teaches its participants their chosen language(s), but also helps translate and digitise books online at the same time. You can watch his full TED talk here.

Here are my favourite things about Duolingo:

1. Delving deeper
For any lesson, you can hit the discussion tab to explain the answer or give you more of a local context. It’s good to suffer together when you fall into a trap, or just to have a moan about how the suggested word threw you off the scent completely. For me, I’m learning Spanish in the hope of moving to Costa Rica, so I enjoy learning about the differences between Spanish and Latin American Spanish. If there is a particularly weird sentence, I always click on the discussions button for some comedy.

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2. Flirting
If you’re looking for love, Duolingo has your back. No one will be able to resist you with smooth lines like this:

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3. Bizarre sentences
We’ve all been there:

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4. Dark
Sometimes, Duo goes to the gallows. Some levels are peppered with phrases that make you look over your shoulder, or just leave you feeling empty.

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5. Deep, man
There are some beautiful phrases that surface every now and then:

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6. Duolingo Stories
Available on the website, the Stories are aimed towards intermediate learners. Some narratives consist of one part, but others may continue over two or three consecutive parts. Each story takes around 10-15 minutes to complete, and is presented in a voiced script. You can click on the words or phrase for a translation. Throughout, you are tested on word meaning, synonyms, dictated phrases to write down and asked comprehension questions. The themes are diverse, from a disastrous blind date to a basement thriller.

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7. Podcasts
Again, these are available on the website Labs link. I’ve only recently started listening to these as I wanted to expand my vocabulary first, but I am enjoying them so far. The podcasts are more difficult than the Stories, but you can see the transcript if you scroll down the page. I opted to test my listening comprehension on its own. You do receive occasional help in English from bilingual narrator, Martina Castro, who founded Adonde Media. The personal recounts cover a diverse range of topics, from sporting heroes to family abductions.

8. Competition
On Duolingo, you can join a group of fellow learners who are learning your language. You are entered into a weekly points race and can interact other users in a forum. There are questions and pictures posted by the app to generate conversation too. Maintaining your daily streak is more achievable when you’re pitted against other learners. When you complete your tree, the levels get harder. You are asked to translate more by writing your own sentences with no prompts, and new vocabulary is added.

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9. Further learning
One function I only recently discovered is the Duolingo Words page. It lists all the words you have encountered on the app and their strength bars. Words that you consistently get right and encounter frequently are full strength, whereas words you only occasionally meet in the levels, or words you often confuse, are weaker. The spaced repetition algorithm will throw these words at you eventually, but if you’re keen to build your vocabulary quickly you could note down these weaker words and use another app, such as Anki. It’s worth noting Duolingo now has their own version, Tinycards, but I found this too easy and repetitive.

I’ll be back soon with more from Duolingo and my Spanish learning journey. Hasta entonces, ¡adiós!

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Classroom Curiosities XIV

It was Labour Day here in Singapore, and my students have worked hard to produce some corkers in the classroom this week:

Gone fishing
Last week I made some new sea creatures to make our phonics fishing game more fun. Using magnetic fishing rods, we matched flashcards to the correct word through stretching out the sounds. Just don’t ask what the ‘bus’ shape is meant to be.20180425_172107

Tied up in knots
Teaching silent letters can be tricky. When my students read the word ‘know’ I asked them to distinguish between the homophones ‘no’ and ‘know’ using gestures. One child said, “I know ‘know’ and ‘no,’ you know.”

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Greetings
Teaching English, I understand how apologetic us Brits sound when asking for things. Rather than saying, “I want the chicken soup,” a Brit might ask the waiter, “Could I possibly have the chicken soup, please?” That is why I was thrilled to see one of my students experimenting with a phrase they’d picked up:

Dear Jimmy,
Thank you for your letter. I hope you are in the pink of health. 

So near, yet so far.

Awkward
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Please note that I sometimes take photos before making all the necessary corrections for comic effect!

Observation
This week, I was asked to be observed by three teachers. Of course, my students were on top form in front of their new audience. When I asked for an example sentence, one student said, “Thank you for being trifle” rather than ‘truthful.’

The learning journey
As a teacher, I always tell my students that it is part of learning to make mistakes. For older students, I enjoy showing them this by deliberately making my own on the whiteboard and encouraging them to correct me. One child, who already knew my mantra on this, repeated it for the others but didn’t quite get it right: “It’s ok to make mixtapes.” 

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Stand up
One of the boys I teach has behavioural issues but we are usually able to avert any meltdowns by diffusing the situation with humour. I always have a few bad teacher jokes up my sleeve, or failing that, a funny story with facial expressions to match. This week, he came prepared with his own jokes:

Him: What is the loudest pet you can have?
Me: Hmmm, I don’t know.
Him: A TRUMpet!

Him: Why can’t dinosaurs clap?
Me: They have short arms?
Him: They’re dead.

Him: Why can’t you hear a pterodactyl use the toilet?
Me: I don’t know. Why?
Him: The pee is silent.

Something in the water
Finally, it is well-known that the water in Singapore contains a high level of chlorine, which can be attributed to hair loss. Until now, I’ve considered it an urban myth and will happily drink the tap water, but after seeing this picture that a student drew of me, I might just reconsider:

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Until next week.

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