There’s the Rub

Stale fish


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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    We have to accept that Filipino language can no longer cope up now in Science, math and research and technology and other areas of learning. Why? Because we were not using it in all aspects of our life.

    Another thing is that, we are spending less in our education in both public and private.
    Public school has limited subsidy. Private school cannot charge tuition fees enough to modernize facilities and systems. Our tuition fees are not high, we are just poor

    I believe our teachers are good but our facilities and systems are bad.

    In other countries “masteral” and “PhD” is the name of the game. Here in our country, undergraduate degree is a rare achievement.

  • TANYA22

    I don’t agree that our curriculum will change the languages to Tagalog because it will definitely affected our competency in the Global Markets and we are regarded on it. I think the problems lies on the the System plus the Teachers corruptions in particular in the Government Schools. Not all the teachers are corrupt in the Government Schools but many are there just to check the attendance and sell some foods items ect. Also because our Government Officials and Politicians are very corrupt too, instead of spending the entire funds to the projects only 1/4 of the funds will be realized and the rest are pocketed.

    “I graduated from the Government School”, as you can see it.

    • Eustaquio Joven

      Yes. I can see it.

  • alienpatriot

    It is a noble sentiment but I recall the experience of many science and math graduates who have been through the bizarre experience of having lessons in taglish as the words required do not exist in Filipino.The main subject of lessons often has no Filipino word! Entire concepts are missing. The books do not exist except some awful ones prone to error.

    In Filipino the word “sa” has may meanings. It means “in”, “on” and “at” amongst others. How can precise meanings be conveyed when the entire preposition part of the language consists of one word!

    Are you serious, Conrado?

    I am a teacher who teaches in English. I had a meetig with a parent who has little English and so a translator was brought in. I was asked what material was being taught. The translator was unable to translate large chunks of my answer. The words do not exist. If only Filipino nobody would understand.
    If students are taught English properly in school there would not be a problem. It is only because standards of English are not as great as they are perceived to be that there is a problem. The problem is at high school. So many students arriving at my school from dep Ed schools have awful English. They can’t pronounce words. Their grammar is weak. It is not hard to see why there is a problem, It is with Dep Ed at high school level.


      Try 3 letters to form a sentence in Tagalog.

      Baba ba?

  • josh_alexei

    The Language does not make much difference, whether be it Japanese, Chinese of various dialects, French, Russian, but usually the quality of Education is closely related to the quality of the people and the economy of the nation…the Phl as a country has failed in both measures.

    • Eustaquio Joven

      Are you saying that we are poor because we are poorly educated? Or are we poorly educated because we are poor?

  • Eustaquio Joven

    For what it’s worth, my granddaughter learned English even before she did Tagalog, the local dialect. Her tutor? Dora, the explorer and other cartoons on TV. Her family was forced to converse with her in English, the only language she understood when she was four. Was she gifted. I don’t know. All I know of are the hurdles she faced in a tagalog speaking school. Imagine a local kid with the accent of a balikbayan! She’s now in Grade 7, an average performer from the start. Moral lesson: It’s not really that hard to teach youngsters a language.

  • Eustaquio Joven

    English can’t be this country’s national language. Why not? It’s preferred by people North and South of the tagalog speaking regions. Tagalog… Filipino… Pilipino… Ano nga ba T’yong? Not to worry though. A national language will evolve, probably at the turn of this century.

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