‘Dr English’ wants to build bridges between locals, migrant workers

‘Dr English’ wants to build bridges between locals, migrant workers

Bangladeshi-born Singaporean Sazzad Hossain, 23, hopes to provide 100,000 foreign workers with the tools to communicate in basic English in the next four months. And he wants fellow Singaporeans to help him.

Sazzad Hossain
SDI Academy CEO Sazzad Hossain has been teaching migrant workers English since junior college. (Photo: Melissa Zhu)

SINGAPORE: Bangladeshi-born Singaporean Sazzad Hossain has yet to attend university, but he is already a professor of sorts. 

The 23-year-old, who recently completed his national service, has been conducting English classes for migrant workers since his junior college days. He now heads a social enterprise - SDI Academy - that lays claim to having coached more than 5,000 migrant workers in Singapore. 

Although he's an immigrant who had to drop two levels in primary school due to his lack of proficiency in English, he has managed the impressive feat of authoring not one, but two English textbooks. A crowdfunding campaign on the GIVE.asia platform for the latest one, called Dr English, was launched last Sunday (May 14). 

Each T-shirt, selling at S$25, will fund one Dr English guidebook for a migrant worker. 

Mr Hossain and his team aim to raise funds to give 100,000 migrant workers copies of Dr English by selling as many T-shirts bearing the slogan "Trust me, I'm no stranger" within four months.

It's a goal he calls "naive". Yet this so-called naivety has served him well in the past.

Mr Hossain started teaching four or five workers at a park bench in his neighbourhood at Lakeside but the number swelled rapidly through word of mouth. 

After his promotional exams at the end of the first year of junior college, he shelled out money to book an auditorium for his first formal English class. Being "naive and ambitious", he decided he would aim to train 100 workers with worksheets he had painstakingly prepared himself over an eight-month period. 

A hundred and thirty-four eager students showed up. 

SDI academy
Migrant workers attending an SDI Academy course at Yale-NUS College. (Photo courtesy of SDI Academy)


When he was 11, Mr Hossain's family relocated from Bangladesh to Singapore. 

Coming from a Bengali-speaking background, he did not know much English and struggled to gain admission to a primary school. “Communication was a very big issue," he said. 

When Yuhua Primary School finally admitted him, he had to drop two grades.

It was difficult initially: "I felt alone, had no one to play with. I used to play cricket back at home … I didn’t have that community here."

Mr Hossain reckons it was this experience of being new to the country that has helped him relate better to migrant workers. 

"Because I went through a similar journey, I can tell what are the very specific problems that they might encounter while trying to learn."

Migrant workers
All smiles at an SDI Academy preview lesson in December last year. (Photo courtesy of SDI Academy)

In secondary school, he first started making friends with migrant workers living in dormitories near his home in Lakeside. 

"They used to ask me for directions to the mall or to the bus stop. After a while when I started recognising familiar faces, we started chatting more and friendships formed."

They treated him like a younger brother, inviting him to picnics on their off-days or welcoming him to join in their Hari Raya celebrations. As they got closer, they also started telling him about some of the language-related struggles they faced in situations like seeing the doctor or understanding safety instructions at work.

It was a particularly bad incident in 2009 - when Mr Hossain was just 15 - that pushed him to do more to help his new friends. 

One of the migrant workers was working as an aircon technician and saw that one of the cylinders was leaking gas. He had been briefed on how to handle the situation, but could not understand the instructions. 

Instinct kicked in and he put his bare hand over the cylinder in a panicked attempt to stop the leak.

The hand was completely charred and had to be amputated. No longer of value to his employers, he was sent home. 

"That was really, really horrible. It got me thinking: This is a life and death situation for them. I have to do something."


What he did, ultimately, was to start SDI Academy. His first textbook came about in response to requests from students who wanted to self-study outside of lesson time.  

The Conversational English Guide for Beginners, which he published in 2014, had a limited run of just 200 copies for workers attending the academy's four-month everyday English courses.

Conversational english for beginners
This guidebook, written by then 20-year-old Sazzad Hossain, includes essential words and phrases tailored to scenarios migrant workers might face. (Photo: Melissa Zhu)

But when his students brought the books back to their dormitories and workplaces, other migrant workers soon grew interested and wanted to learn more English as well.

To better understand how to help migrant workers pick up important language skills, Mr Hossain ordered various English textbooks and pored over their style.

What he realised, he said, was that people in English-speaking countries pick up the language faster than those in non-English-speaking countries because instead of being bogged down with formal grammatical rules, they start with the essentials first. 

"As a child, we start asking for things that are really necessary – water, food and stuff like that. That’s how we start, with words, then small phrases and as we learn, proper sentence structures. That’s how any language is taught in its natural process," his eyes sparkling with excitement as he spoke of the breakthrough. 

Based on this, he came up with the idea of using practical scenarios the workers go through every day - such as going to the train station or buying groceries - and then breaking these down into categories of words and phrases to go through in class.

Conversational English Guide
Categories in the guidebook included common words such as those relating to food and animals. (Photo: Melissa Zhu)

As the method proved effective for many of the workers - he tells me with great pride that one of his students recently spoke at a TEDx event - he started thinking of scaling it up to not just students at SDI Academy, but other migrant workers who may not be able to commit to attending lessons. 


Mr Hossain is confident that with enough support, he can distribute Dr English to the targeted 100,000 migrant workers. 

SDI Academy has an existing partnership with the Dormitory Association of Singapore, which runs 40 of Singapore's largest dormitories housing about 238,000 workers, he said. 

There are about 1.4 million migrant workers in Singapore, and lowering the number of workplace accidents due to the communication barrier remains a priority, according to Mr Hossain. 

But another important part of his mission is to engage Singaporeans and encourage them to challenge negative stereotypes about migrant workers. 

The crowdfunding campaign will result in a physical launch on Jul 16, where sponsors can personally gift the textbook to a migrant worker, as well as take part in games and activities together. 

“We want the idea of an inclusive society to become a mainstream idea, to let people know we’re not strangers with one another and it’s good to warm up to each other," he said. 

The slogan on the T-shirt sold for the crowdfunding campaign aims to drive home the message of inclusivity, Mr Hossain said. (Photo: Melissa Zhu)

"Our one core message is that we are a lot more similar than we realise and diversity is something that really complements us. It’s not just a buzz word that we like to use but we want people to understand that diversity is something that enriches our society."

The message, he said, goes beyond just the campaign: “We want to turn some of the negative perceptions into positivity by encouraging people to take actions that are simple and yet profound."

Source: CNA/mz