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Language the unifier

/ 12:14 AM February 27, 2014

I know it’s unpopular with the nationalists, but I’ve long argued the importance of not losing English as the country’s principal language. Yes, losing. When my wife went to school in the ’50s and ’60s, English was the language of tuition and the language at home together with Tagalog.

I have never accepted the argument that you learn best in Tagalog, or Cebuano, or Ilocano, or Pampango because it’s the native language at home, because if you’re taught in English, the language at home for the next generation is English. Equally, to claim it is necessary to establish a sense of nationhood is disputed by the many countries where the native language has been replaced by English, yet pride in nationhood is strong. The history, the culture, define a nation. Yes, the nuances of a local language are important because it best expresses the culture, but we live in a globalized world today where, if we want to succeed, we must make some changes. One of them is language.

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I readily accept retention of Filipino as the primary language, but taught equally with English. Young brains readily accept a two-language education. Whether Tagalog should be replaced with a local dialect (or, more correctly, in several instances, a local language) is probably okay if there’s the unifying language of English.

It came home to me over the weekend while reading the Economist, the world’s finest and most thought-provoking English-language magazine. The world is changing, is integrating, at a pace never envisioned. “Globalization” is the word of this century, and we must be part of that highly interconnected, globalized world.

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To make my point, let me quote the Economist, as it said it far better than I can. So here it is, with due acknowledgement (Senator Sotto, please note) to the article “The English empire” (2/15/2014).

The first point is whether the only other real contender should be Chinese. This is what they said: “The Académie Française may be prickly about the advance of English. But there is no real alternative as a global business language. The most plausible contender, Mandarin Chinese, is one of the world’s most difficult to master, and least computer-friendly.” The “least computer-friendly” is what most struck me. In a world that is overwhelmingly computerized today, this is a critical requirement.

The piece started with examples: “Yang Yuanquing, Lenovo’s boss, hardly spoke a word of English until he was about 40: he grew up in rural poverty and read engineering at university. But when Lenovo bought IBM’s personal-computer division in 2005 he decided to immerse himself in English: he moved his family to North Carolina, hired a language tutor and—the ultimate sacrifice—spent hours watching cable-TV news.

“Lenovo is one of a growing number of multinationals from the non-Anglophone world that have made English their official language. The fashion began in places with small populations but global ambitions such as Singapore (which retained English as its lingua franca when it left the British empire in 1963), the Nordic countries and Switzerland. The practice spread to the big European countries: numerous German and French multinationals now use English in board meetings and official documents.

“Corporate English is now invading more difficult territory such as Japan. Rakuten, a cross between Amazon and eBay, and Fast Retailing, which operates the Uniqlo fashion chain, were among the first to switch. Now they are being joined by old-economy companies such as Honda, a carmaker, and Bridgestone, a tyremaker.

“There are some obvious reasons why multinational companies want a lingua franca. Adopting English makes it easier to recruit global stars (including board members), reach global markets, assemble global production teams and integrate foreign acquisitions. There are less obvious reasons, too. Rakuten’s boss, Hiroshi Mikitani, argues that English promotes free thinking because it is free from the status distinctions which characterise Japanese and other Asian languages.”

Filipino incorporates that status distinction, which means you don’t get the honest, open argument toward the best solutions as the thinking of the boss dominates too much. A major disadvantage in a presidential system, incidentally.

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“Businesses worldwide are facing up to the reality that English is the language on which the sun never sets.” As any of the call center operators can tell you.

The claim that I hear too often—that the Philippines is an English-speaking country—is nonsense. Go into the countryside sometime, as I regularly do, and try to get understanding in English. It isn’t there. It’s one of the reasons for the high level of unemployment that so bothers the President. Companies dealing with the world need not only English-speaking people but also people who have English comprehension. It’s difficult to find in the Philippines.

So, the coequal language at an early age, not starting at Grade 4 as it is now. Otherwise, the young, open mind is missing the opportunity for easy learning.

Let’s stop discussing percentages mired in poverty, and talk about real, live, suffering people. According to the National Statistical Coordination Board, 21 percent of total households were poor in 2006. For 2012, the figure seems to have improved, declining to 19.7 percent. But if we use absolute numbers, the ranks of the impoverished families actually rose to 4.2 million in 2012 from 3.8 million in 2006. The poverty situation worsened, it didn’t get better.

That’s the real number. That’s the number that makes you sit up and say, “What the hell is going on?” These are people, not statistics.

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TAGS: English, Language, Like It Is, opinion, Peter Wallace
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