Speaking in tongues: Our language problem | Inquirer Opinion
Business Matters

Speaking in tongues: Our language problem

Scriptures tell two stories teaching the profound challenge of linguistic diversity that we have long ignored. The people of Babel, ambitioning to build a tower that would reach heaven, failed because God, punishing their pride, sent them a plague of different languages so that they could not communicate to finish the task. In the New Testament, as a parting blessing on the Ascension of Jesus, the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples, touching them with tongues of fire and enabling them to speak in foreign languages, preparing them for their mission to spread the Word of God.

For the architects of the Babel tower, the multiplicity of languages was a punishment, a curse. In the Ascension narrative, the capacity to speak in diverse languages was a gift, a grace. Our experience more closely approximates Babel. Still, we can appreciate why linguists mourn the inevitable death of languages when the community of native speakers dwindles down, and their children are no longer learning their mother tongue.

Waiting to clear procedures for medical consultation, I saw an old lady struggling to complete the form required for entry into the hospital. She was clearly not literate and the young girl accompanying her barely so. The hospital did not have the staff to help her; the caretaker of another patient had to help. It reminded me of a friend, rushing to donate blood needed for immediate transfusion, finding herself stymied by the form required to clear her as a donor. Educated in “elite” schools, she had earned a Ph.D. abroad. Her problem? The questionnaire was in Filipino, which was her mother tongue.

While waiting for a court hearing to support a friend’s application for Philippine citizenship, I saw a group of prisoners in orange jumpsuits file in for their cases. In the discussions I witnessed, conducted mostly in English or Taglish, it was obvious that the prisoners did not fully understand what was going on. In a more ordered judicial system, competent, committed lawyers would probably have found a way to get an acquittal for these plaintiffs on the grounds that they had been denied due process in a hearing conducted in a language they did not understand.


The Philippine performance in international assessment tests has underlined the gravity of the language problem. Some experts thought that administering the test in English might have lowered Philippine scores, but others believed that the use of Filipino might have produced even worse results. Language diversity has afflicted other countries. Steve Walter, Dallas-based linguist, has studied the problem in the Philippines and in some of the most linguistically challenged societies in the world, including Eritrea, Cameroon, and Timor Leste.

Walter has distilled from the more successful interventions five foundational principles for addressing the problem: 1) teachers cannot teach well what they do not know well; 2) some children need more support than others to reach expected learning outcomes; 3) learning is highest when delivered in a language both learners and teachers know well; 4) the best strategy to learn a second language in school combines: a) going from the known to the unknown by reteaching content already learned by students; b) creating active engagement on the part of children; c) good modeling by teachers in the use of the language; 5) investing in the linguistic, academic, and cognitive foundation for learning in a second language at least six years of instruction in the mother tongue language they know best.

Most people will probably accept the first four principles as intuitive, common sense. The fifth principle is based on research in Western countries; it needs to be tested in the Philippines. This kind of research will take at least six years; the problem is not solvable by quick fixes. It will also require considerable resources. But muddling through the problem over the last 75 years has left the Philippines mired in last place in international assessment tests, with disastrous implications for education and national development.

The costs of taking action will be heavy. The costs of not acting even heavier. And the burden will be disproportionately borne by the majority of the society least able to bear it.


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Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.


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Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club ([email protected]).

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