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08:58 PM August 6th, 2013

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By: Conrado de Quiros, August 6th, 2013 08:58 PM

I started thinking about it again a couple or so months ago when Quacquarelli Symonds, a British organization specializing in education, released its finding that Philippine universities had fallen way down in Asian rankings. Specifically, I started thinking about it again after several people reacted by saying that the free fall began when schools like the University of the Philippines adopted the bilingual policy, and that they should have stuck to English-only teaching.

“It” of course is the language problem in this country. It has bedeviled us for a long time and will continue to bedevil us for a long time. It is a huge problem, it is a thorny conundrum. To this day, we haven’t found the Alexandrian sword that would slice the knot.

This month being Buwan ng Wika, it’s a good time to spare a thought to it.

The judgment about the decline of Philippine schools owing not to our stars but to our language, or the substitution of Filipino for English in various subjects, is of course specious. It overlooks the fact that UP, the most resolute in the enforcement of the bilingual policy, remained the only Philippine school in the top 100 in Asia, improving marginally from 68th to 67th this year. More to the point, it overlooks the fact that the other Asian countries that are doing far better than us do not have an English-only academic policy. It’s not just that some of them have a bilingual policy as well, it’s that most of them teach in their own languages.

It’s not just common sense, it’s scientific sense. The students who do best in math and the science are those who learned them in their languages. The lessons are immediately understandable, they are immediately learnable. By contrast, Filipino students who are taught math and science in English have to work literally doubly hard to learn them. First they have to learn the language that conveys them, then they have to learn the concepts they contain. Unless of course they are natively English speakers, which some people at UP, Ateneo, La Salle, and Xavier are. That is a tiny fraction of the population.

Beyond this, the role of English as the language of governance and communication apart from education, takes its toll in literacy. I won’t go into the part about governance except to say again what a grand thing it is that P-Noy delivers his State of the Nation Address in Filipino. There is no overstating its impact, conveying as it does the true meaning of governance, a dialogue between governor and governed.

Just as well, we’re the only Asian country whose mass-circulation newspapers are in English, the others have them in their local languages, the English ones reserved only for an expatriate audience. In consequence, we have the lowest-circulation newspapers in Asia. The 50 top newspapers in the world are dominated by Japan, China, and South Korea, the first five, with circulations of from 3 million to 10 million, are Japanese. None of them is in English. Malaysia has the highest-circulation newspapers in Southeast Asia, averaging 2.5 million daily. At the top are the Chinese-language ones.

If this is a gauge of literacy, then we’re positively illiterate.

Having said this, I must also say that the problem is damnably complicated and doesn’t lend itself to simple solutions. Though I myself would argue for using Filipino as the language of governance.

The situation is simply that, by dint of an accident of history, we are thoroughly schizophrenic linguistically. It’s not merely that we are divided by a host of dialects and subdialects, though that is a thorny problem enough in itself. Unfortunately, we did not become a colony like the Latin American ones, which became Spanish-speaking. Nor did we become like the other Asian countries whose languages survived colonial rule fairly intact. We are mestizos in more ways than one.

The schizophrenic part has to do with the fact that while most of us can understand and speak Filipino, or Tagalog, most of us can neither read nor write in it. Most of us being the so-called “intelligentsia.” The masa do read komiks, magazines like Liwayway, tabloids, and at one point romance novels in Filipino, but not much more. Over the past two or three decades, there have been several attempts to publish broadsheets in Filipino, but all eventually folded up for lack of readership. The most successful of these was a serious tabloid, which was Eggie Apostol’s Pinoy Times. It arose during Erap’s impeachment and disappeared not long afterward.

I’ve said before that text, e-mails, tweets, comments on stories online, and the social media generally are breaking down barriers, allowing us to read and write in our own languages, but I don’t know if that is enough to spark renewed interest in reviving serious publications in Filipino—serious meaning politics and business and not just sex and crime, though one can always argue those are pretty much the same things. Right now, what we have is the phenomenon of news on TV broadcast in Filipino and the same thing written in English in broadsheets.

English can’t be this country’s national language. Trying to make it so is wagging the dog with its tail. But neither does Filipino supplant English as the primary written language—though I am perfectly open to challenge on this. Who knows? Maybe it can be done.

How to forge a truly national language? How to use it to improve literacy? How to unite this country with one language?

Frankly, I don’t know. Though framing the question in this way, or adding these observations to it, might help supply answers to it. One thing I do know is that Jose Rizal, who wrote in Spanish, among them a couple of brilliant novels, was known to have said:

“Ang hindi magmahal sa sariling wika, daig pa ang hayop at malansang isda.”

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