Why Filipino (2)

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Mar 17 13:31:28 UTC 2006

This story was taken from www.inq7.net

Why Filipino (2)

First posted 01:41am (Mla time) Mar 17, 2006 By Inquirer

I'M HERE in Cebu where, earlier this morning, I met Gov. Bellaflor
Angara-Castillo of Aurora province, who mentioned that they needed to
produce health education materials in different local languages. I was
surprised and asked, "But isn't Aurora a Tagalog province?" The governor
had to explain that the province now has numerous migrants, mainly
Ilocano, but now also including people from as far as the Visayas. That
conversation highlighted just one of the many problems that come from our
lack of a national language. Even worse, we seem to be moving backwards,
what with the recent Department of Education findings that high school
seniors' proficiency in Filipino drastically dropped over the last few

Last Wednesday, I looked into our long history of neglecting the
development of a national language. We seem to associate Filipino and our
other languages with poverty and backwardness. Accompanying this
linguistic inferiority complex is an over-valuation of English, which we
think provides the key to national development, mainly to export more
Filipino workers. I'd question that assumption, and argue that our neglect
of Filipino and our unrealistic expectations of English decrease our
competitiveness in the global market.


Our more economically developed neighbors rightly recognize the need to
balance nationalism with globalism, and this is reflected in their
language policies. In the post-colonial period after World War II, many
developing countries pushed hard to craft a national language. Some
countries, like Thailand, were more fortunate because they already had a
common language spoken by most of its citizens. Others, like Indonesia and
the Philippines, had a more daunting task because of great linguistic
diversity. Indonesia was, however, able to develop Bahasa Indonesia while
we lagged behind in our development of Filipino.

Some of the reasons for a national language were quite practical: you
needed a common language for education, public health, agriculture,
industry. But the most important reason for developing a national language
was that of developing a national identity that transcended class, caste,
ethnicity, religion. It was important to have a common language to tell
the story of a nation, and pass this from one generation to another. And,
with time, our neighbors began as well to develop fine literature, written
in the national language, capturing the dynamism, the exuberance, as well
as the anguish and angst, of national life.


A nationalistic policy toward language did not mean xenophobia. Japanese,
for example, is peppered with borrowed English words, from home
furnishings to high-tech jargon. The Chinese, on the other hand, drew on
existing words to describe the wonders of the new technologies: the train
is a "fire horse," a computer an "electric brain." Gradually, our
neighbors began to use their national language to open the world to their
citizens. Visit bookstores in China, Indonesia or Thailand, and you'll
find hundreds of books-the world's finest literature, as well as computer
manuals, self-improvement books, textbooks in the social and natural
sciences-translated into the local national language. These countries have
come to accept the importance of English and other languages of the world
and encourage citizens to learn these languages, through their national
language. In a Thai bookstore, you'll find Thai-English, Thai-Japanese,
Thai-Chinese, Thai-French dictionaries, to name a few, both in book and
electronic forms, the latter with speech synthesizers so you hear the
proper pronunciation of foreign words.

Again, the reasons for doing this are very utilitarian: you learn a
foreign language not because it's required but because it serves a
purpose, often related to national development. So when the Chinese learn
English, it's to be able to read the original technical books, or to
communicate with visiting technicians. Their goal is to plug into the
world to reap its benefits for the home country. No wonder the West is
running scared-the Japanese did it, the Chinese are doing it now, using
just enough English (or German, or French) to learn new skills and
technologies, which they then copy, often with great improvements.

Talking back

What's happening in the Philippines? We've neglected Filipino and our
other languages. Only recently did we recognize that maybe the way to go
in schools is to have the local language (e.g., Cebuano) used in the first
years of primary school to teach Filipino and other basic subjects,
including, for older kids, English. And even as we laughed at our
neighbors for their resistance to English, our own proficiency in that
language has stagnated. I often suspect we're not actually seeing a
deterioration of English in the Philippines. What's happened is that for
most Filipinos, the level of English has remained pretty much the same
from the colonial period, just enough to understand the instructions of
the boss. Which is why we had such a perfect fit for a particular segment
of the overseas labor market. Now that new opportunities are emerging,
such as in the call centers, we're realizing we don't have enough
Filipinos who can speak English in a more interactive way, offering
information and advice. And when it comes to the most lucrative
high-paying jobs and consultancies, we have only a handful of Filipinos
who have the ability to analyze problems in English, and to propose and
explain solutions.

To capture that market, it won't be enough to just learn English.
Filipinos have to be able to use the language spoken at home and bring
this to tackle the complexities of the outside world. But since we
neglected both Filipino and English in our schools, we have many young
Filipinos who just can't communicate. I despair over the way students in
the University of the Philippines grope for words: "Kasi, sir, you know,
the ano of the ano is, well, you know it's all very complex." Alas, at the
rate we're going, we won't need English or Tagalog. We'll need to teach
mind reading in schools. Proficient neither in Filipino nor English, our
worlds will remain limited. We will continue to export Filipinos, but
mainly in low-pay service occupations. At home, we suffer too from not
being able to develop science and technology, so we end up buying other
countries' consumer products.

As we search for solutions to our national aphasia, we might heed the
advice of Mahatma Gandhi, who once said Indians have to learn Hindi to
speak with each other, and English to speak to the world. I would say we
should go for as many languages as possible so we can discover the world,
but meantime, let's develop our own languages, too, and our sense of
identity, so we can indeed speak with the world, and not just be spoken
to. It all boils down to a simple matter of respecting ourselves, so that
when the world talks to us, we can talk back.


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