Blog on Philippines' language policy

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Apr 28 13:44:52 UTC 2007

blackshama's blog

My thoughts on many issues from this perpetual exile.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Lingua et causus bellum: My take on language

The latest salvo in the Philippine language wars was fired early this week
when a group of academics and cultural leaders petitioned the Supreme
Court to prevent the President from implementing her executive order
mandating English as a medium of instruction in science and math. The
petitioners believe that this is unconstitutional. Manolo Quezon has given
the sides why it is un(constitutional).  Nonetheless Quezon's post has
garnered more than a hundred responses. Obviously for the lively
respondent blogger, the question of whether we should dump English or not
was not the issue. The issue is whether school children should use
Filipino to learn the basics of science and math, or to use English.

Scientific studies in psychology, basic education and science education
seem to suggest that numeracy and scientific thinking is more effective in
the first language of the speaker. Only when the child has attained a more
mature level of cognitive skills can English be introduced. In many areas
where English is taught as a second language, this is in the mid-grades of
primary school. Language psychologists give a cut off age of 6-8 years for
a child to develop a near-native proficiency in a second language. After
this a child would gain proficiency but at a "native-like" level.
Psychologists agree that it becomes more difficult to learn a new language
as an adult. Of course there are exceptions. One exception would be the
Pinoy National Hero, Dr Jose Rizal. If we are to believe beyond the
hagiography, Rizal learned many languages but he was exceptionally good in
Spanish, French, and German. Ambeth Ocampo writes that his English
especially the written kind, pales before that of Apolinario Mabini's.
Mabini self-studied as an adult and was able to write a gramatically
correct and coherent letter to an American lady.

As for German, the fact that Rizal was able to impress the Germans is
evidence enough of his proficiency. Rizal to this day is well remembered
especially in Heidelberg. In the blogosphere exchange, I believe there
isn't much agreement on English being a second or a foreign language in
the Philippines. While everyone agreed that English should be taught and
maintained, the question is at what level of proficiency and for what
purpose? The question of national identity came in. Will the use of
English erode the Pinoy identity? I think not unless the Pinoy himself
consciously dumps his Pinoy identity (in a way to break "invisible borders
in the host country) as evidenced in migration studies on Fil-Ams. In fact
this dumping of identity may even be transnational as one Fil-Am blogger
exemplifies when he writes that he was a Westerner and not Asian. Recent
studies in cognition suggests that this identity goes beyond culture and
language but lies in how different thinking patterns are between

Quezon gives us links on the experience of Malaysia through the statements
of its education ministers . Having read some of the web posted
statements, I would tend to agree with the Malaysians but we have to
recognize that there are distinct differences between Malaysian society
and ours. First of all Malaysia is more of an "immigrant" society than
Filipino society. However this immigration was a result of British
colonial policies that also imposed English. In the Philippines,
colonialism imposed English but the US Colonial rulers strictly controlled
the entry of immigrants, a policy that continued in Manolo Quezon's
grandfather's Commonwealth. This policy still continues in part since we
forbid foreigners to practice certain professions, without which there is
no path to Filipino citizenship.

Malaysia's situation made it imperative to have a national but
multi-racial language. The same is true with the state that it booted out,
Singapore. The language policy allowed Malaysia to maintain it's identity
and to forestall the negative effects of immigration. This situation
hardly verifies for the Philippines, we have to develop a stronger sense
of national identity but along a set of common national values that
promotes regional diversity. The Malaysian experience should give us pause
for thought. Its national language policy had negative consequences. The
Malays are likely to be monolingual as compared to the multi-lingual
Chinese and Indian communities. In a globalized economy, multilingual
people have an edge.

Malaysia has taken strides to promote multilingualism to its citizens and
promotes English as a necessary medium for development as well as it also
contributed to its national identity. But Malaysia is unlikely go back to
impose English as the only language of instruction especially in primary
school. A Malaysian minister writes

"Such a move, as using English to teach Science and Mathematics,
implemented in early 2003, would put children in the rural areas, rubber
estates, and city fringes at a disadvantage. These children have no
command of English at all. They will receive no help in learning English
at home as parents of these lower income groups living in these areas do
not speak English."

We will have to see how Malaysia fares with a renewed language policy. As
for my opinion, let's study, promote, speak, write and teach English as a
second language. It is not foreign since part of our national identity was
forged using it. Let the learners decide at what level of proficiency they
need. Of course these learners would know that there is a minimum level
needed if they want to be competitive in a global marketplace. BTW, we
have to promote English. Our ruling elite says that we need to.  However
we don't have an Philippine English Style Manual that contains rules on
usage, spelling and Philippine writing conventions.

When I was studying in Australia, I had to buy a copy of the Australian
Style Manual, a document published by the Commonwealth Government in
Canberra. All government and school users are expected to follow what the
manual says. Reading the Malaysian statements, I realized that they are
probably using a style manual that is obviously British influenced but
distinctly Malaysian. Everyone complains how we have regressed in English
competency but no one has really started creating one. So we use American
style manuals. Oh how we haven't appropriated English for our own good!

Posted by blackshama at 2:35 AM

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