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Looking Back
The loss of Spanish

By Ambeth Ocampo
Inquirer
First Posted 22:57:00 12/04/2007

Filed Under: Language, Education, history, Human Interest

Spanish as it is spoken has long been neglected in the Philippines, except in places like Cavite City and Zamboanga City where Chabacano is still current. Although I encounter Spanish in my work, I read it but find little need to speak it.

But things are changing. In Rome a few weeks ago, I noticed that waiters and clerks spoke to me in Spanish. It was obvious to ordinary Romans that I was a tourist and expected them to speak to me first in English before Italian. I presumed, wrongly, that they recognized me as a Filipino, and since the Philippines was a former Spanish colony, they concluded that all Filipinos speak Spanish. Upon further inquiry, I was surprised to discover that many Italians mistook me for a South American. Perhaps a native of Peru or Chile!

Three decades ago, when I first visited Europe, people presumed I was Chinese or Japanese. When I asked for something, the Italians tried to communicate vainly with their hands, then in broken English, finally in Italian. Being mistaken for a South American today only shows that the world has changed in the past three decades. Much has also changed in the way we see Spanish in the Philippines.

It has been two decades since the compulsory learning of Spanish in universities was abolished, during the term of Education Secretary Lourdes Quisumbing. I?m one of the last of a generation required to take 12 units of Spanish.

Speaking from experience, I enjoyed my Spanish classes in the Ateneo de Manila University, which was not the case with 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 then because of the so-called language barrier.

Many Filipinos remain separated from their history because of language. When I was reading for my master?s in Philippine studies, I almost shifted to the American period where primary source research seemed easier. Dr. Milagros C. Guerrero persuaded me to persevere in the Spanish period, arguing that with my defection, the already small group of historians with an interest and reading competence in Spanish would be further depleted.

Despite the fact that I enjoyed my Spanish language instruction, what I most remember from my Spanish classes were the drills on grammar, which I hated. I?m sure that if students had been taught and encouraged to speak rather than conjugate, if we were taught to read and appreciate literature rather than unravel the complexities of grammar and the subjunctive, many Filipinos would still be comfortable with Spanish today, if not in speaking, at least in reading.

The loss of Spanish language teaching since 1987 does not enable a new generation to enjoy jokes with a Spanish twist. For example, during the presidential campaign of 1986, Ferdinand Marcos belittled Corazon Aquino as a mere housewife incapable of handling affairs of state. A cruel joke on her name went round that would not make sense to a non-Spanish speaker: pointing to the heart, the person would say, ?Corazon? Si!? then pointing to the head, ?Aqui? No!? Little wonder she did not veto the move to abolish Spanish in the university curriculum in 1987.

We can see this sad development in the following:

? Nationalism and nationalist historiography that took from the writings of the 19th-century Filipino patriots in Spain, now remembered as the ?Propaganda Movement" or "Reform Movement,? that portrayed Spain and all things Spanish as negative or evil. Spanish as a language was demonized as a sad reminder of an oppressive and colonial past, the language of an unfeeling elite. Neither did it help when the Americans took over the Philippines and propagated ?Leyenda negra? in Philippine history, and encouraged the use of English as a language of instruction and government to the detriment of Spanish and Spanish culture.

? The uneven -- and I would presume, traditional -- method of teaching Spanish that was basically focused on grammar rather than conversation, reading, and an appreciation of Spanish literature. The focus on grammar was traditionally believed to be a preparation for the reading of ?Don Quijote,? but many teachers got so engrossed with the grammar that they forgot the literature, thus losing the hearts and minds of generations of Filipino students.

? At the time Spanish was abolished from the university curriculum, 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 making 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 the time Spanish was abolished from the university curriculum, there was no perceived practical use for the language, except in the realm of law and history. If you were not embarking on a career in these fields, Spanish was useless and irrelevant.

(Conclusion on Friday)

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu.

More Inquirer columns

Previous columnsf:
Red pants for a revolution? ? 11/29/07
The Filipino who would be white ? 11/22/07
Old but timely reports ? 11/20/07
A visit to Rome ? 11/13/07



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