Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Pray Tell, Which Language To Use?

So much has been written about the discussion on whether English should be removed as the "unofficial" language in the Philippines, thus making it optional in education as a medium of instruction and as a means of communication in the country's conduct of its political, social, and business life. Many have written impassioned essays in favor of the removal, prose that impressed me as good and lighthearted reading; but I do not believe that the advocacy of removing English in the Philippine setting itself as proposed holds enough substance to be tenable.

Arguments in favor usually are premised on some assumptions, which mostly are not backed by any reliable data and/or authority. Secondly, since they not provide any viable alternative, they suffer gravely in feasibility. It is not enough to suggest that the vacuum will be filled either by the national language, Tagalog, or Pilipino which is its "official" name, or any of the extant dialects within the archipelago. The babel of vernacular tongues has traditionally caused a lot of disunity and regionalism within this "islands" state. To cite an example of late (post-Marcos?), the Bisayan speakers led by a Congressman. Cuenco started a language revolt, refusing to accept Pilipino as the national language, since Bisayan is spoken by more Filipinos than any other dialect. The movement obviously fizzled out, but the point had been amply made.

English has been a uniting force. It could have been Spanish, had the Americans not waged the Spanish-American War. A national politician desiring full coverage and mileage for his messages does so in English, rather than attempting to learn and contend with the multitude of dialects spoken by his constituents.

One assumption is that the use of English as the medium of instruction has resulted in a sub-standard education for the Filipinos. But one cannot safely and justifiably assume that the cause of substandard education is the use of English as a medium of instruction, since given the realities it is the prevailing education system itself that is flawed. We find this even in a cursory comparison between the public and private elementary schools. By and large, the standards and systems available in these private schools are without doubt and debate much better than those in public schools, and the results bear this out. Drop-out rates in public schools are astronomically high when compared to the private schools. We can, of course, point to poverty and government neglect as the twin causes. But clearly one cannot necessarily deduce that the use of English played the dominant role in sub-standard education. Improve the system and make it accountable for delivering sufficient education to each public school student and without a doubt English speaking, too, will dramatically improve.

Another assumption is that the use of Taglish is proof of the failure of English as a medium of instruction; that because English is the medium of instruction the Filipino, unable to learn this Western language properly, has opted instead to incorporate whether little he has learned into his dialect, or vice-versa, i.e. interject his dialect into his English speech. This, of course, takes a dim view of the ability of the average Filipino to learn a language and/or dialect other than his own, whether it is Western or Oriental. The fact is the average Filipino from early childhood is already exposed to and has learned to survive in a multi-dialect setting, in school and in the real world. Learning English has not been an exception. But more importantly, we cannot assume that the use of Taglish is the inevitable consequence of the failure to acquire English properly when in fact it is a deliberate and conscious attempt of a people to creatively incorporate a foreign tongue into its indigenous dialect(s). One can just imagine the multitude of reasons why people do it, but it is phenomenon one can find in any corner of the globe. But are they aware and know what proper English is? Of course, they do. Take a look at the countless national, regional, and local English dailies, weeklies, or monthlies, one can find in the country. I know for a fact that they are sold everywhere from offices to marketplaces, from cities to towns. Their readerships run into millions. Taglish may be prevalent in speech, but the Filipinos can distinguish that from proper English, which they learned and continue to read in.

A third assumption is that because English has no importance and/or relevance to the typical workaday life of a typical Filipino, it can be dropped and replaced with another language/dialect at will. But most definitely, such is not the case. The use of English for more than 100 years has so ingrained it in the country's social, political, and economic life that at this point no Filipino, whether a sari-sari store owner or jeepney driver is completely isolated and/or insulated from it. That bottled bago-ong one buys from Aling Mareng's sari-sari store has a label written mostly in English, including the list of ingredients that health-conscious Pedro might want to read and find out. The street signs and notices are in English. At this time, the use of English has soaked in almost to the very core of the typical Filipino's thought and soul. It would be most difficult to both ideologically and physically remove him from it.

Lastly, with regard to its feasibility, to deconstruct and dismantle a system in place for over a hundred years is a gargantuan task, which even if called for and with justifiable reasons, would unduly tax a country already reeling from political and economic woes. No amount of political will and determination from all the so-called elitist decision makers could change that. What happened to the country in the past is past, and its history cannot be revised. It has to work and work effectively within that framework. In other words, make the most with the cards one is dealt with.

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