This is a must-read.
Tongue-tied First posted 11:52pm (Mla time) June 07, 2006 By Conrado de QuirosInquirer Editor's Note: Published on Page A10 of the June 8, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer
OVER the past weeks, the debate on whether schools are better off teaching in English or Filipino (or any of the local languages) has arisen again. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, of course, has been going around arguing for English. That in fact was what she was doing as guest speaker of Cavite State University when Theresa Pangilinan heckled her in Filipino, shouting among others, “Patalsikin si Gloria” [“Oust Gloria]. I don’t know that Pangilinan was arguing for Filipino, but she has at least proven among many other things that Filipino is a most effective language for communication. Her point certainly was not lost on Arroyo, who has gone on to file a case against her for God-(or Arroyo)-knows-what.
I’d just like to add a few perspectives to show the complexity of the problem.
First off, the argument that reading and literacy have declined in this country as a result of falling English-language skills simply doesn’t hold water. Everywhere in the world reading has declined as a result of stiff competition from other forms of media. TV and the PC in particular have pushed it back to the sea -- although, between the two, I figure PC has done the lesser harm, being more interactive than TV. I personally think the PC itself can encourage rather than detract from reading once it goes past its status of supplying pithy “catalogue-type” information through the Internet. Who says you can’t read books from the PC?
As to poor English affecting literacy, that’s hogwash. My favorite example does not come from education, it comes from journalism, and specifically from my own personal experience. As I’ve learned from attending media forums abroad, we’re the most illiterate among Asian countries in reading newspapers. At least to go by their circulation. Elsewhere in Asia, the circulations of newspapers run into millions. In this country, well, the circulation of all our broadsheets doesn’t come up to a million.
The reason for this is simply language. In the other Asian countries, the mass-circulation newspapers are in the local languages and are read quite literally by the masses. My Southeast Asian friends were bowled over when I answered their question about how big the biggest circulation newspaper in this country was, with “less than 300,000.” In their countries, that is the circulation of fringe publications. The newspapers in their countries that do have a very small circulation are the ones in English, which cater only to an expatriate audience. As in many other things, we’re the odd man out in this part of the world, our main newspapers, or broadsheets, being in English rather than in Filipino.
Theoretically, of course, the natural solution would be to shift to Filipino. But here’s the part that makes the problem thorny. We’re also the odd-man out of Asia in yet another respect, which is that while most of us speak Filipino, or can understand it, most of us as well read in English. Or at least the educated class does. That accounts for the phenomenon of TV programs, particularly news and talk shows, having converted nearly exclusively into Filipino and newspapers still using mainly English. Only the late night TV news is now in English, prime time is Filipino. Even provincial news often broadcasts in Filipino rather than in the local languages.
There have been several attempts in the past to put out broadsheets in Filipino but none of them has succeeded. Most Filipinos prefer to read them in English. Tabloids and entertainment publications are quite another matter entirely -- they have commanded a fair share of audiences. But I’ll get to that later.
The issue, it seems to me, resolves itself into this: Which is easier to do -- to teach Filipinos to read and write in Filipino or to teach Filipinos to speak English, making it the language of ordinary discourse? I grant the first isn’t easy, but the second is next to impossible. Creating an entire generation of English-speaking Filipinos even with the most robust or frenetic attempts to teach English in schools can’t do that. And it would be the tail wagging the dog: it would be using education to teach people a language rather than using language, whichever is the most used, to educate a people.
The first choice in fact is not as hopeless as it seems, however arduous the climb might seem at this point. The problem is not really that most Filipinos do not read in Filipino but that most Filipinos do not read “serious stuff” in Filipino. Filipino is associated with tabloid and entertainment. It does get read -- but in that form. One remarkable statistic I’ve learned is that during the heyday of the local romantic novels, when they replaced Mills and Boone in bookstore shelves, the novels written in Filipino outnumbered the ones written in English by six to one. The ones written in English at most had a circulation of 5,000, the ones in Filipino 30,000.
None of this is to say we shouldn’t try to learn English with a passion. All this is to say we can -- and should -- make English a second language in this country, not the first one. The notion that we won’t progress if we don’t speak English like a native is nuts. Thais don’t, and they’re already a dragon, while Arroyo is still dreaming vainly of turning this country into an Enchanted Kingdom. The notion, moreover, that if we don’t speak English fluently we won’t be able to find work, particularly abroad, is even more nuts. It limits the national ambition to finding work and not creating it.
It’s the difference between the Filipino graduate who asks his fellow graduate what kind of work he has found, and the Chinese-Filipino graduate who asks his fellow graduate what kind of business he has put up. People who think of putting up businesses do not worry what language they speak.
Their employees are busy trying to learn theirs.