Philippines: Language and learning – for whom?
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Philippines: Language and learning – for whom?

An essay published in the online edition of The Manila Bulletin which dwells on and is titled “Language, learning, identity, privilege” is eliciting strong opinions from Filipino netizens.

The essay’s publication is timely as the Philippines marks “Buwan ng Wika” or Language Month, to celebrate the Philippine national language, and at around the time students, teachers, and staff of state colleges and universities are campaigning for higher state appropriations as part of the larger movement towards a more patriotic educational system.

The Manila Bulletin website no longer shows the page featuring James Soriano’s essay. But thanks to Google, I was able to obtain a cached copy of the page and I am reposting the full text here:

Language, learning, identity, privilege
August 24, 2011, 4:06am
The Manila Bulletin

MANILA, Philippines — English is the language of learning. I’ve known this since before I could go to school. As a toddler, my first study materials were a set of flash cards that my mother used to teach me the English alphabet.

My mother made home conducive to learning English: all my storybooks and coloring books were in English, and so were the cartoons I watched and the music I listened to. She required me to speak English at home. She even hired tutors to help me learn to read and write in English.

In school I learned to think in English. We used English to learn about numbers, equations and variables. With it we learned about observation and inference, the moon and the stars, monsoons and photosynthesis. With it we learned about shapes and colors, about meter and rhythm. I learned about God in English, and I prayed to Him in English.

Filipino, on the other hand, was always the ‘other’ subject — almost a special subject like PE or Home Economics, except that it was graded the same way as Science, Math, Religion, and English. My classmates and I used to complain about Filipino all the time. Filipino was a chore, like washing the dishes; it was not the language of learning. It was the language we used to speak to the people who washed our dishes.

We used to think learning Filipino was important because it was practical: Filipino was the language of the world outside the classroom. It was the language of the streets: it was how you spoke to the tindera when you went to the tindahan, what you used to tell your katulong that you had an utos, and how you texted manong when you needed “sundo na.”

These skills were required to survive in the outside world, because we are forced to relate with the tinderas and the manongs and the katulongs of this world. If we wanted to communicate to these people — or otherwise avoid being mugged on the jeepney — we needed to learn Filipino.

That being said though, I was proud of my proficiency with the language. Filipino was the language I used to speak with my cousins and uncles and grandparents in the province, so I never had much trouble reciting.

It was the reading and writing that was tedious and difficult. I spoke Filipino, but only when I was in a different world like the streets or the province; it did not come naturally to me. English was more natural; I read, wrote and thought in English. And so, in much of the same way that I learned German later on, I learned Filipino in terms of English. In this way I survived Filipino in high school, albeit with too many sentences that had the preposition ‘ay.’

It was really only in university that I began to grasp Filipino in terms of language and not just dialect. Filipino was not merely a peculiar variety of language, derived and continuously borrowing from the English and Spanish alphabets; it was its own system, with its own grammar, semantics, sounds, even symbols.

But more significantly, it was its own way of reading, writing, and thinking. There are ideas and concepts unique to Filipino that can never be translated into another. Try translating bayanihan, tagay, kilig or diskarte.

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 court room, 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.

So I have my education to thank for making English my mother language.

When I first read it this morning, I was surprised by the honesty and candor expressed in Soriano’s essay. I think the issue here is less about language, and more about the orientation and worldview pushed by our educational system (including some parents).

For while education officials and school administrators always claim to teach patriotism to students, the reality is that the orientation, curricula and rationale for the medium of instruction are not at all patriotic. Activists have not given up and have been affirmed in their analysis that Philippine education is in a crisis situation not simply because of a shortage in resources, but also from a shortage in patriotism. He could arguably be considered a victim of this kind of system which encourages and rewards colonial mentality.

This essay by Soriano betrays the truth about the continuing colonial character of education, and why Soriano could be considered a victim of such a system which breeds graduates who look down on Filipinos and on the Filipino language. Hardly unsurprising really because the educational system enforces and reinforces that belief from preschool to post-graduate school.

Soriano’s choice of English is at first a social and political dictate. That’s what is imposed and favored in schools. But that’s just the first of a two-step colonial dance step. The next step is how he/we was/were taught to use that language, which is also brought to you by DepEd and CHED.

The challenge now is to bring change to the educational system, and make it one which produces patriotic graduates who, regardless of the language they use, offer their talents and knowledge to propel progress in our country and to be of humble and competent service to our people. The alternative is simply too bleak to contemplate.