Our language predicament
Philippine Daily Inquirer 15 August 1998
I HAVE a feeling that Education Secretary Andrew Gonzales was pulling his punches when he conveyed to media his concern that some 20 percent of the high school population of 5 million is deficient in the use of English as well as in math and science subjects. Only 20 percent? And which 20 percent? The rich? A cross-section?
As a writer for print and television in English and Filipino, I have had occasion to grapple with our language problems, most recently last August 1997 in the company of Gina Lopez and the production staff of ABS-CBN Foundation, producer of TV shows for children. I had been invited, along with other TV writers and teachers, to brainstorm on a 30-minute show in English that would complement English-language classes for Grades 2 and 5. This was in response, I was told, to a clamor from public school teachers who found the foundation’s programs helpful and who admitted that they needed help too in teaching English. I accepted the position of headwriter and for a couple of months sat down with public and private school teachers as well as with the program’s producers and directors to get a handle on academic requirements and creative parameters. Unfortunately the project never got off the ground (the peso fell) so I don’t know if my concept and treatment would have worked (I was thinking drills). But I do know that the problem is much bigger than Brother Andrew’s figures suggest.
My estimate is, it’s the other way around! It is not that 20 percent of 5 million high school students are deficient in English but that only some 20 percent are proficient in oral and written English. And, except for rare exceptions, these are likely to be the ones who go to private high schools where teachers speak good English and who live in homes where the elders speak English as a second language and who provide the children with ample reading fare (newspapers, magazines, books, computers) all in English, because the only way to learn a language well is to become immersed in it.
Time was when Filipinos were famous for being the only English-speaking people in Asia. From the American occupation until the ’60s, it didn’t matter if you were rich or poor. As long as you went to school, you learned to speak English, it being the official medium of instruction. I remember picking it up more quickly than most; I supposed it was because I got a lot of practice both in school and at home. In school it was all we were allowed to speak except in Sariling Wika class. At home it was the second language; I was always trying out my English on my mother who would always correct my mistakes, and my father was always asking me to read out loud the daily columns of Teodoro Valencia and Joe Guevara.
It was in the ’70s (if memory serves) when Marcos decreed a bilingual policy for education: English would still be taught and used in teaching math and the sciences but other subjects would be taught in the mutant Filipino, the Tagalog-based national language enriched with words from other dialects and languages that defy translation or require none because they’ve become part of the mainstream. At the time, it seemed like a victory for nationalists who had long been advocating such a policy in the interest of developing a truly national language that would allow full expression of the native psyche and intelligence and which would bind all Filipinos.
In the long run, however, the bilingual policy hasn’t worked. We failed to guard against problems we should have anticipated.
I submit that we took our English-speaking skills for granted. We didn’t realize what it took to speak good English and what it would take to sustain it in a bilingual environment. Perhaps we thought that we had our English too down pat to ever lose it. Maybe we thought it was so ingrained, it would get passed on through our genes. No such luck. Without sufficient practice in speaking, reading and writing, we’re losing it instead, and it’s beginning to show. Even on TV newscasts, the English is becoming sloppy, with newscasters breezing through all the wrong prepositions and mixing up idiomatic expressions.
Students are said to be doing better in classes conducted in Filipino than in English, but it could just be the natural advantage of a native language. It doesn’t mean that the bilingual policy has been good for the Filipino language. In fact, it has failed to evolve into a truly national language, what with the Cebuanos still fighting it and the authorities still insisting on what a writer friend calls ”laboratory Pilipino” na ang hirap namang basahin at intindihin, at napaka-pormal ng dating. It is so stilted, so different from the lingua franca, or the Filipino spoken at home, in the streets, and in media, that it confounds and bewilders rather than grabs, excites or inspires.
I can understand the reigning authorities’ desire to preserve the old forms and expressions, but it will have to wait until we get the hang of Tagalog again. Most of us Tagalogs who became fluent in English lost a lot of our Tagalog along the way. In the early ’80s, when I started writing in and translating into Tagalog, my vocabulary was terrible. A script that was a breeze to do in English was always a struggle to do in Tagalog, lalo na in laboratory Pilipino.
Even with help from dictionaries, I found that to render many English ideas or concepts in Tagalog I needed to do more than translate: I had to do some rethinking too. The writer-translator has to rethink the idea in terms of Filipino experience and find ways of expressing it in the kind of Tagalog that gets the message across in one reading. And even then, I found there’s no dropping English altogether because in many instances the English words (and English spellings) are already more widely used and understood than the Tagalog. In the end, I settled into a kind of Filipino that is more Tagalog than English but more Taglish than purist.
For now the President might have to settle for the same kind of Filipino. Given the admitted inadequacy of everyone’s Tagalog, anything else would slow down rather than speed up communications among government officials and between government and the people. Also, the President would have to continue working with English pa rin, given the fact that in the Visayas and Mindanao, no Tagalog or Filipino is spoken and English is the official medium of communication. So, yes, for the present, all Filipino communications should have English versions for the non-Tagalogs and all English communications should have Filipino versions for the poor-in-English. Until we get back the hang of both.
Meanwhile, we would be wise to value Taglish for its capacity to take in and keep up with the English language, and as a starting point for learning Filipino. Taglish works just fine, gets messages across in no uncertain terms. That is, as long as we don’t try to Filipinize English words spelling them Tagalog style, which only trips up readers and impedes comprehension and reading appreciation. Taglish does need reining in where it’s gone wild, but it also deserves affirming where it is correct and especially where it is effective, be it spiced by gayspeak or street slang.
The bottom line is, we can have both English and Filipino but only if we work at it. Schools should bring back drills, big time, and everyone should be encouraged to practice by reading aloud, with or without an audience. Media, specially television, should help out by making space and time for children and adult programs that teach good Filipino and good English. And it would help greatly if the language minorities would bow to the Tagalog majority and give Filipino a break, for the common good and for democracy’s sake.