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The language of learning and the learned

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Each time someone writes about the Filipino language on the internet, it never fails to trigger endless discussions among bloggers and internet regulars, or netizens as they are called, all over the world. I myself have written a few pieces on the Filipino language, and each one of them triggered discussions among readers.

And so when James Soriano wrote a stinging piece on the national language a couple of weeks ago in the Manila Bulletin online edition, it triggered an emotional debate in the Filipino diaspora. It must have caused panic among Bulletin editors because they pulled out the article as soon as the angry reactions came in.

For some reason, some people become very emotional when confronted with the topic. Often, when one becomes too emotional, he also becomes irrational. The poor young James Soriano had to suffer through the ordeal of reading all the bashing from the thousands of netizens who joined the fray.

The main reason for the emotions is that many Filipinos – the Cebuanos, Ilocanos, Ilonggos, Bicolanos, Warays, etc. — still cannot accept that the national language is mostly based on Tagalog, and that Filipino is not a true national language. From this, we can see why Filipinos cannot truly unite as a people.

In his article entitled “Language, Learning, Identity, Privilege,” which was published on August 24, a week before the end of the National Language Month, the 20-year-old Ateneo student, who has been writing for the Bulletin since 2008, narrated how as a young boy, he was taught to read and talk only in English by his mother, and how he had to learn Filipino in later years because it was the “language of the streets.” He concluded the article by saying that Filipino “might have the capacity to be the language of learning, but it is not the language of the learned.”

Let us read his concluding paragraphs to give us an idea of what he was trying to say:

“Only recently have I begun to grasp Filipino as the language of identity: the language of emotion, experience, and even of learning. And with this comes the realization that I do, in fact, smell worse than a malansang isda. My own language is foreign to me: I speak, think, read and write primarily in English. To borrow the terminology of Fr. Bulatao, I am a split-level Filipino.

“But perhaps this is not so bad in a society of rotten beef and stinking fish. For while Filipino may be the language of identity, it is the language of the streets. It might have the capacity to be the language of learning, but it is not the language of the learned.

It is neither the language of the classroom and the laboratory, nor the language of the boardroom, the courtroom, or the operating room. It is not the language of privilege. I may be disconnected from my being Filipino, but with a tongue of privilege I will always have my connections.”

Soriano was only echoing the travails of many privileged Filipino youths in the Philippines and many young Filipinos who grew up here in America. Partly because of the stark reality that proficiency in English becomes an advantage in the child’s adult years and because of the wrong notion that children who speak English are smarter and more privileged than those who do not, many Filipino parents talk to their kids only in English as they grow up.

But as their relations expand, they realize that their parents should have taught them to speak in Filipino, too, because as Soriano put it, it is the “language of identity: the language of emotion, experience, and even of learning.”

Soriano acknowledges that as a Filipino, he was worse than a “malansang isda,” for not learning the language of his identity, and for thinking, speaking, reading and writing primarily in English. On the other hand, he adds, though sarcastically, that the Filipino society itself is made up of people worse than “malansang isda” because while it wants us to speak and love our national language, English remains the primary language used in schools, government, and business.

Soriano also agrees that Filipino has the capacity to be the “language of learning,” meaning the medium of instructions in schools, but the fact of the matter is it is not, and thus English continues to the “language of the learned.”

And that is precisely the dilemma that confronts Filipinos. While they want to use Filipino as much as possible, they still have to master English more than they need to master Filipino because it is the language of choice in government and business, and more importantly, it is the world’s preferred language.

In 2006, Rep. Teddy Casino, party-list representative of Bayan Muna, filed a bill seeking to bring back Pilipino as the medium of instruction in all schools in the country. Casino made the proposal for two main reasons: first, that the use of the national language in the country’s schools would better promote love of country; and second, that Pilipino is much easier for Filipino students to understand, and, therefore, would make them better students.

While I have always contended that language is a people’s soul, it does not necessarily have to be the medium of instruction. Filipino is the national language of the Philippines, and, to me, the soul of the Filipino people, whether in the Philippines or abroad. It is Filipino that binds the millions of Filipinos who speak different dialects — Tagalog, Ilocano, Kapampapangan, Bicolano, Cebuano, Waray, and many others. You can go anywhere in the Philippines and be able to communicate with other Filipinos in Filipino.

In the same manner that Filipino binds the people of the Philippines, English is the language that binds the peoples of the world. The world has become a global village, as Marshal MacLuhan had predicted decades ago, and English is the chosen global language.

I’ve been all over the world, and English did not fail me in such places as Russia, the Azerbaijan Republic, the Republic of Georgia, Yugoslavia, France, Italy, Malta, Greece, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Hongkong, Taiwan, United Arab Emirates, and many other places.

The peoples of many countries may have difficulty understanding and speaking English, but it is the only language where you can communicate virtually anywhere in the world.

As Filipinos here in America, we all know the advantage we have over newly arrived Latinos, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Japanese, Koreans and other immigrants, who have to take up a course on English as a Second Language to enable them to study and find work. Because of our ability to speak the English language, although sometimes with deep accent, we are able to easily excel in school and find a job.

The main reason Filipinos are recruited to work in countries all over the world is our ability to speak and understand English. But because of the negligence of many teachers in Philippine schools, we are now slowly losing that advantage. We have lost it to Indians, who speak fluent English because they were under British rule for years. And we are now losing that edge to China, which, upon realizing that English is a must-learn to advance in this world of globalization, began teaching English years ago.

We have to realize that while we want Filipinos to love the Filipino language, we also have to contend with the reality that to survive in this globalized world, Filipinos have to improve their ability to understand and speak the English language.

This does not mean, however, that Philippine schools will have to revert to the old practice of penalizing students who are caught speaking in Filipino or the dialects inside the campus. While I believe that English should continue to be used as the medium of instruction, I don’t think Filipino students should be prohibited from speaking their native language on or off the classrooms.

Let the students express themselves in Filipino even during recitations, and let the teachers speak in Filipino from time to time, if that would help the students better understand the lessons. But keep English as the language of the books and the lessons. The reason students are having difficulty getting better grades is not that they do not understand the textbooks, but because most of them cannot express themselves well in English, and some teachers cannot explain the lesson in English that students can easily understand. To solve this communication problem, let the teachers and students speak English when they can, and Filipino when they have to.

If Casino’s proposal to revert to Filipino as the medium of instruction is adopted, textbooks will have to be translated to Filipino and reprinted at the cost of hundreds of millions of pesos. And how do you translate math and science textbooks? How do you translate hypotenuse, fractions, osmosis, phrisms, velocity (which is different from speed) and thousands of other mathematical and scientific terms without students grappling in the dark? How long will it take to reeducate the teachers on these terms, not to mention the students?

The solution is not to revert back to Filipino as the medium of instruction in schools, because Filipino is spoken in most households anyway, but to improve the teaching of English in Philippine schools, so that Filipinos would gain back their edge in the Global Village.

Until we no longer need to send Filipinos overseas to beef up our economy, and until we are ready to make Filipino the preferred language in government and business, let us continue teaching our students English. Until we are ready to accept Filipino as the “language of the learned,” let us keep English as the “language of learning.”

By Val G. Abelgas




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