[lg policy] Philippines:

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jul 30 00:49:15 UTC 2009

How not to learn English and other stories

The way the language is being taught in the Philippines has become a
minor scandal. For the rest of us, it's a reminder of just how tricky
learning a language is.

By Ruth Walker
from the July 29, 2009 edition

Once in a while I run across something that makes me profoundly
grateful to be a native speaker of English. It happened again the
other day when I caught up with a report in The Economist about how
the Philippines is losing its edge in English. The proportion of
Filipinos who speak English, as well as their proficiency, has been on
the decline for three decades, the magazine reports. The fault lies
clearly with English teachers, the article suggests. This snippet from
a textbook for 8-year-olds is offered as Exhibit A: "The dog rolled on
the floor so fast and fell on the ground. There he laid yelling louder
than ever. The dog yelled on top of his voice."

With textbooks like this, is it any wonder that 9 out of 10 otherwise
qualified Filipino applicants, most of them college graduates, get
turned down by call centers because of their poor English? The
lay/laid error is bad enough in a book you'd expect to have been
thoroughly nitpicked. Then there's a poor word choice. Dogs don't
yell; they bark. The worst, though, was the idiom "on top of his
voice." The Filipinos' experience is a reminder what an idiosyncratic
thing language is. The rules are real. A dog barking "on top of his
voice" is truly wrong. No healthy, alert native speaker of English
would say it. Not even one of the millions who don't know why "There
he laid" is wrong.

But the rules are not always logical. And here's the killer,
especially for those of us who wrangle other people's words for a
living: The rules are, ultimately, what the people make them – even
when the people are wrong. I cheerfully plead guilty to being a
prescriptivist. I believe that rules of language and grammar help us
communicate, just as rules of the road help keep us safe in traffic.
(I used to joke that I may be the last person alive to insist on
"whom." I still say it, but nowadays it seems like less of a joke.)

But times change, usage changes, and suddenly the application of an
old rule sounds quaint or even wrong. Like a GPS navigator scrambling
after a driver has made a turn off course, the grammarians are left to
recalculate their position. The other day I was discussing with a
friend a couple of longtime stalwarts of National Public Radio. When
my friend referred to one of them as a "hostess," I thoughtlessly,
unthinkingly, corrected her: "Host." (Ooops! Ouch! Sorry!) But to be
fair to my inner prescriptivist, host was the right word. A quick
check of Google News turns up hostess with reference to Martha
Stewart, to the former model who served as Silvio Berlusconi's
"hostess" during the Group of Eight summit in Italy, and to "hostess

When did hostess get relegated to the social sphere as host took over
as the unisex term in broadcasting, at least on the news side? I'm not
sure but it's obviously happened. This is the kind of thing the
Filipinos must master if they are to reclaim their place as one of the
world's largest populations of English speakers. The outsourcing
industry in the Philippines hopes to employ nearly a million people,
account for 8.5 percent of gross domestic product, and have 10 percent
of the world market by the end of next year. It's an ambitious goal,
but I wish them well. English is a great language – once you get the
hang of it.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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