The declaration of Philippine Independence from Spain was read from a window of Emilio Aguinaldo’s home in Kawit on June 12, 1898. On the same day, the Philippine flag and anthem, as we know them today, became officially the symbols of the Filipino nation. Textbook history makes the past look so easy because the more complex story is often swept under the rug and left for college history class. It is one thing to declare Independence and another to actually attain it. Left out of the fairy tale textbook history taught to children is the long painful process of becoming a nation.
June 12, 1898, also reminds us of almost four centuries of Spanish rule that we have reduced to images of sex-starved friars and oppressive guardia civil. Watching TV news on Philippine Independence Day as well as Spain and the euro bailout reminded me that I belong to a generation of Filipinos required to take 12 units of Spanish in college. Those of a generation earlier claim they endured 24 units. It has been two decades since the compulsory learning of Spanish in universities was abolished, under the term of Education Secretary Lourdes Quisumbing, and looking back, I think we threw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.
I enjoyed my Spanish classes at the Ateneo de Manila, but that experience was sadly not the case of other students in other universities. I particularly relished the oral exam that provided a chance to make a friend of a complete stranger as we conversed on a given situation in front of a professor for 10-15 minutes. Having 12 units of Spanish gave me the foundation needed for a career in Philippine history, specifically my interest in the late 19th century whose documentation remains doubly locked today: physically in libraries and archives, and further locked because of the so-called language barrier. Many Filipinos remain separated from their history because of language.
While I enjoyed my Spanish language instruction, what I remember from my Spanish classes were the drills on grammar—and I hated grammar. I’m sure that if students had been taught and encouraged to speak rather than conjugate, to read and appreciate literature rather than unravel the complexities of the subjunctive, many Filipinos would still be comfortable with Spanish today, if not in speaking, at least in reading.
At the time Spanish was abolished from the university curriculum in 1987, there was a prevailing sentiment to fully implement bilingual education in English and Filipino, with a preferential option for the latter. President Corazon Aquino even issued an executive order that made Filipino the language of government, a well-intentioned move that unfortunately did not succeed. Spanish thus suffered twice in this move to develop language instruction in the Philippines.
At that time, there was no perceived practical use for Spanish except in the realm of law and history. If you were not embarking on a career in these fields, Spanish was deemed useless and irrelevant. Spanish was also seen as a “colonial” language, like English, that should be abolished in favor of Filipino.
Today we have a Filipino-Spanish Friendship Day, thanks to a bill passed by Sen. Edgardo J. Angara. Today the call center industry has given Spanish a practical and lucrative use in the Philippines. While we have a competitive edge in English in the call center business, we have cutthroat competition from India, Pakistan, and now even China. The Filipino has an obvious edge in Spanish, and we are told that in some call centers Spanish speakers are paid more than those who speak American English.
As the Philippines tries to be more competitive in the global and globalizing world, the government has refocused on enhancing the deteriorating English skills of students. And one asks: Why not arm young Filipinos with another language of their choice aside from English? In universities where a foreign language component is required, given a choice to take French, German, Japanese, Chinese or Bahasa, it is obvious that Spanish becomes an attractive option a “preferred” language.
Aside from its commercial use, the rise of Spanish as a spoken language has made the learning of it practical and useful to Filipinos who travel to the United States for work or tourism. In some areas there, Spanish is fast becoming a second language, and some recruiters and employers of Filipino workers bound for the United States now require a certificate in basic Spanish.
The teaching of Spanish today is different from that in my time. New methods emphasize communication rather than grammar. Students are encouraged to speak, read, and write in Spanish. Grammar has been pushed to the margins as a support to language instruction rather than the end-all of it. Furthermore, learning Spanish has been supplemented by audiovisual materials readily available on the Internet and cable television, especially TVE or Television Española, which provides us the news, game shows like “Saber y Ganar,” documentaries and films 24/7. Many young Filipinos know about Dora the Explorer and Betty la Fea, making me wonder how fast the world has changed in the past two decades that turned Spanish from a despised ancient language in the Philippines into something useful and contemporary.
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