Philippines: Policy to strengthen English (cont'd)

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon May 7 14:23:07 UTC 2007

Sunday, May 06, 2007

It's not just about language

A group of concerned educators and some parents filed a petition last week
requesting the Supreme Court to stop Malacanang and the Department of
Education from implementing a policy designed to strengthen English as a
second language in the Philippine educational system.

The group is of the strong opinion that Malacanang's Executive Order 210
and Department of Educations EO 36 do not merely promote the use of
English as a second language, but actually strengthens the use of English
as the main medium of instruction in the countrys educational system.
According to the groups petition, both executive orders patently violate
the Constitution, specifically, Article 14 Section VI which, they say,
expressly prescribes that the Government shall take steps to initiate and
sustain the use of Filipino as a medium of official communication and as
language of instruction in the educational system.

The petition specifically points to three provisions in the executive
orders that they say run counter to the constitutional mandate to
propagate the use of Filipino as the main medium of instruction in the
Philippine educational system. First, the mandate to use English as the
primary medium of instruction for English, mathematics and science from at
least the third grade level. Second, the use of the English language as
the primary medium of instruction in all public and private institutions
of learning in the secondary level. Third, encouraging the use of English
as the primary medium of instruction in the tertiary level. The petition
cites a number of arguments that draw heavily from various empirical
studies conducted locally and abroad. The gist of the argument is that
most studies already validate that students do learn faster and better if
they are taught using their mother tongue. In effect what our educators
are saying is that the government is wrong: Using English as a medium of
instruction does not promote learning at all, nor does it result in
English proficiency. On the contrary, the move puts Filipino learners at a

The filing of the petition is just the most recent development in a
long-drawn out debate that has been taking place in various fora as well
as in cyberspace for sometime now. I first took note of the discussion
when a paper written by Dr. Patricia Licuanan of Miriam College began
making the rounds of various e-mail groups (Licuanan is one of the
petitioners). Unfortunately, the rhetoric of both Licuanans earlier paper
and that of the current petition before the Supreme Court has been
gleefully shot down by many pundits and hecklers with a rather simplistic,
but persuasive rebuttal: Both are written in perfect English. If it is
unconstitutional to promote English as a medium of instruction, what does
that make of the Supreme Court, the legislative bodies, and all other
institutions in this country including many academic institutions (and the
petitioners themselves!) who use English as the main medium of

Although the petitioners do not claim to speak for the whole Philippine
academic community, it is safe to assume that academe is supportive of the
perspective being forwarded by the group since no one from the community
has come forward to present a contrary point of view. The petitioners
anchor their arguments on pedagogical grounds, which implies that their
position is fully supported by science. On the other side of the debate
are those who believe that the current (dismal) level of proficiency in
English among graduates already requires drastic measures. It might also
be important to note that no one in the business community has come
forward to categorically express unqualified support for EO 210. Even my
own professional organization, the People Management Association of the
Philippines which, by virtue of its stature as the national organization
of human resource management practitioners in the country should be a key
participant in the discussion, still has to come up with an official
position on the matter.

However, insinuations that the business community prompted this latest
wrinkle are running thick. In particular, some fingers are pointing at the
call center industry which has been experiencing difficulty in finding
graduates that meet its English proficiency requirements. GMA-7s morning
show Unang Hirit sought me out for an interview last week and while the
feature was more about the call center industry, it was evident that the
ongoing debate on the use of English as medium of instruction was part of
the context. In that interview, I tried to clarify some misconceptions
about the needs of the business sector in general, and about the call
center industry, in particular.

Among other things, I clarified that while there are call centers that
specifically require high levels of English proficiency as a pre-condition
for hiring, this has never been a stand-alone dimension in the hiring
process. Call centers or business in general, simply do not hire
applicants on the basis of their ability to regurgitate grammatically
correct and perfectly enunciated sentences. English proficiency is
important. But analytical thinking, problem solving, and interpersonal
effectiveness skills are more important. And more often than not, the
absence of these skills automatically translates into deficiency in
English rather than the other way around. In short, someone who lacks
analytical thinking skills or interpersonal effectiveness automatically
flunks in the area of fluency. We find that the ability to articulate
ideas is a function of poor thinking skills to begin with, and not
necessarily due to lack of familiarity with English words and phrases. In
other words, it is wrong to assume that the business community is simply
complaining about English deficiency. Yes, we bewail the generally
declining levels of English proficiency, but we also rile against the
generally dismal levels in other competency areas. So as far as we are
concerned, the issue is not just about language, but about overall
competitiveness of the output of academe.

If we are to address the mismatch between the needs of industry and the
output of academe, we must get the context right. But as can be expected
in a situation where emotions are running high, the tendency to polarize
perspectives and categorize them into an either/or proposition becomes
pre-dominant. This is self-defeating, particularly when the tendency to
assert intellectual supremacy becomes the order of the day. What saddens
me about the whole debate is that people seem to be forgetting that this
is not just about who is right or wrong, this is about what is good for
the country in the short and long-term. Let me illustrate with a real
story. At a tripartite forum held last year that sought to bring academe,
industry, and government together to come to an agreement on how best to
address the problem of the mismatch, many among us from industry were
quite floored down by the scolding we got from a noted academic who
accused industry of dictating on academe without considering pedagogical,
social, cultural, even economic factors. The academic could have spared us
the patronizing lecture if he kept an open mind and listened to where we
were coming from, because clearly, we were not necessarily at opposite
ends of an argument.

The current debate clearly needs to be situated within a wider context and
requires a more enlightened and consultative approach. It is truly strange
that while the main issue appears to be about language, we are forgetting
that language is primarily a tool for communication. And on that aspect,
were all failing. Dismally.

Posted by Bong C. Austero at 7:11 PM


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