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Commentary
Fearing English in the Philippines

By Isabel Pefianco Martin
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 02:09:00 04/12/2008

Filed Under: Language, Education

Sometime ago, at a teacher training session I conducted, I made the mistake of suggesting that Math and Science teachers consider code switching (using English and Tagalog) as a strategy for making lessons less difficult for their students. I did not know that the school had just implemented an English-only policy in the classrooms, corridors and faculty lounges. No wonder teachers and students rushed to the quadrangle during break time!

This practice of enforcing English-only zones in schools is symptomatic of the lack of awareness among school heads about the nature of languages, as well as the basics of learning a language. One important reality that many overlook is that students will not learn a language if they fear it.

In the Philippines, the language most feared is English. I see this in my students who joke that their noses bleed after they talk in English; in my friends who claim that they speak English only when they?re drunk; and in my doctor who suddenly switches to Tagalog after I tell him that I teach English. We see this fear of English in classes where students feel stupid because they mispronounced a word; in contact centers where applicants take accent neutralization sessions; and in English review centers that continue to mushroom throughout Metro Manila. Fear of English is also manifested in predictions that the country is approaching an English-deprived future; in House bills that seek to make English the sole medium of instruction in schools; and in courses or training programs that focus only on developing grammatical accuracy.

Many research studies prove that learning a language becomes more effective when emotional barriers are eliminated. Linguist and educational researcher Stephen Krashen refers to these emotional barriers as ?affective filters.? The formula for success in learning a language is painfully simple: the lower the feelings of fear (low affective filter), the higher the chances of learning.

One famous Filipino who exemplifies the lack of fear of English is boxer Manny Pacquiao. I have observed with delight how Pacquiao, in his post-fight interviews, confidently and effortlessly churn out so-called ?carabao? English to share his joy over his victories. Pacquiao does not fear Barrera or Morales. Why on earth should he fear English?

Just recently, 17-year-old Janina San Miguel was crowned Bb. Pilipinas World 2008 despite her ?funny? English during the pageant?s Q&A. Janina?s experience proves that personal successes need not be dependent on proficiency in English. Why fear English then?

From a linguistic standpoint, all languages are equally perfect and complete. This means that there really is no reason to fear English. Nothing in the sound system or writing system of English makes it superior to other languages. Conversely, nothing in the sound system or writing system of the national and local languages makes these languages inferior to English. It is the Filipinos? attitude toward English that elevates the language to a prestige form. It is this same attitude that makes it difficult for most Filipinos to learn it.

Another reason English should not be feared is that the language is not owned by one country or one race, as many Filipinos believe. The profile of English today reveals that ownership of the language is already shared across continents and cultures. In international English Language Teaching circles, academics do not talk about English in singular terms anymore. There is widespread recognition that several Englishes exist?American English, British English, Australian English, but also, Malaysian English, Singapore English, and yes, Philippine English. In addition, ?non-native? speakers of English are beginning to outnumber ?native? speakers in the world today.

To be sure, English occupies an important place in Philippine society. But, it is only one language among the 150 that exist today. It is believed that most Filipinos speak at least three different languages. For these Filipinos, English might not even be one of the languages they speak. So when English is first introduced to them, it should be introduced slowly and gently, with much respect for their first languages.

Teaching and learning English in the Philippines may be a difficult task, but it need not be a frightening experience. So much has already been spent on testing the proficiency of teachers and then training these teachers to become more proficient in the language. But simply focusing on testing and training, without recognizing the multilingual context of teaching and learning English in the Philippines, only reinforces fear of the language.

This year, the International Year of Languages, all language education stakeholders are invited to reflect on their policies and practices so that Filipinos will finally regard their languages, including English, not with fear, but with confidence and pride.

Isabel Pefianco Martin is president of the Linguistic Society of the Philippines (LSP) and a member of the International Year of Languages Committee Philippines. The LSP is hosting an international conference on April 28 to 30 at the University of Santo Tomas. This conference features the theme ?World Englishes and Second Language Teaching and Learning.? For feedback and information, please email linguisticsoc@gmail.com or visit www.lsphil.org.



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