Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Rebuttal of Isabel Pefianco Martin's Fear-mongering and Mythmaking About Languages in the Philippines

First let me thank Rodel Rodis, President of the San Franciso City School Board, for helping to crystallize, during a recent email exchange, many of the ideas in this essay, which I offer as a comprehensive rebuttal of the points recently made by Isabel Pefianco Martin, president of the Linguistic Society of the Philippines in two articles published by the Philippine Daily Innuendo.

Fearing English in the Philippines

Martin: 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!
I've been asking around to find out which school this might actually be. Maybe the British or American School? I know that several model schools supported by the Books for the Barrios NGO insists on the students reading a book in English once a week and speaking English at every opportunity. But I am not aware of a school as Pefianco describes above. If anyone knows, I would like to know. There is no response to my emails to the Linguistic Society of the Philippines. I suspect it's a set up for the strawman argument about to follow. It is certainly not any school that follows the Basic Education Curriculum which nearly all private schools do even if they add religion and enrich the main subjects that public schools MUST teach: Math, Science, English, Pilipino and Makabayan. I come to the conclusion that this paragraph's claim of such a school's very existence is apocryphal at best and is probably fictional. But correct me please if anybody knows of such a school.

Martin: 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.
It is a fair enough premise that fear of a language might deter learning it. But is it fair to disparage half a million teachers by claiming they are ignorant of such an elementary fact? I think the linguist is actually borrowing from the perhaps better known phenomenon of a fear of Math. The examples presented surely don't prove such a fear exists, nor the alleged ignorance of the teaching corps. Lookit. Joking about nose bleeding after speaking in English reveals a rather great sense of humor on the part of the Linguist's friends, but the joke may be on her and she doesn't get their intention to make fun of high falutin' English professors. It may also be true that getting drunk is the prerequisite not to speaking English, but having to speak it with someone whose profession is its correction and criticism. The Doctor who switches to Tagalog upon learning of the same is likewise being jocular, not apprehensive, surely. As for those working at call centers taking accent remediation and English review courses, I would say they are afraid of losing a valuable job, not expressing a fear of English by doing so.

Martin: 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.
Maybe our teachers never heard of "affective filters" but I doubt they need Mr. Krashen or Ms. Pefianco to tell them that fear is not an effective tool in education. Granted there ARE teachers who are that deluded, but I think teachers have bigger problems, including a lack of English language competency themselves.

Martin: 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?
Here the argument has shifted subtly, as befits a sophisticated Linguist. I suppose after one has just won a world boxing title or a Beauty Contest, any self-confident person could care less what people think of their "carabao English." But surely that is not the same as "not fearing English".

Martin: 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.
The claim I've highlighted in red above is a dubious one, especially when applied to the problem of choosing a suitable Medium of Instruction, which after all is the primary subject of our discussion here. I've made the point often enough: the medium should fit the message, which in this case are those five subjects in the curriculum, Math, Science, English, Pilipino and Makabayan. I am sorry, but the claim that all languages are equally perfect and complete cannot possibly apply to the problems of teaching these subjects. For one thing I insist that the Medium of Instruction cannot avoid having to be a written language. It is utterly inconceivable how any school system could do without this aspect of languages. The needs of math and science for symbols and vocabulary are self-evident and indispensable, and likewise for all the subjects to conduct tests, write textbooks, assign readings, it is inconceivable that any old language will do because they are all equally perfect and complete. This is simply FALSE!
Martin: 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.
I suppose our Linguist also thinks very little of other linguists by implying that they are ignorant of the existence of dialects which indeed accounts for the vast richness of the Anglosphere. Here also, the Linguist reveals a kind of reverse colonial mentality. One of the most generous acts any civilization can perform for another is to share its language. I daresay, the "native" speakers of English that we encountered in history, the Americans, certainly did that for the Philippines, which largely accounts for the very existence of the Linguist and her profession on these shores. Since when in other words has a fear of English in the Philippines existed because people were made to think it was "owned" by the Evil Colonizers when it was and still is their greatest gift to us, and perhaps the most valuable and interesting part of our cultural heritage?
Martin: 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.
This is a truly irrelevant point because English happens to be one of the very few languages, perhaps the only one in the Philippines that is a written language with the qualifications to teach the key subjects of the curriculum. But her point stems entirely from the naive notion that all languages are created equal and useable as media of instruction. They are not. But such inequality should not be any occasion for an inferiority complex. We are merely choosing the best tool for the job. The idea that English cannot be owned by Filipinos is part of a subliminal elitism that the Linguist herself seems to reveal.

Martin: 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.
No one denies the multilingual context of education in the Philippines. The thesis that Filipinos "fear" English is nothing but a strawman argument however, which I think is more intended at self-aggrandizement when after setting it up, the Linguist insists that people should not be afraid of her subject or profession. It is when obscurantism slips into the stream of the argument that I suspect such motives.

Myths about languages in the Philippines

Martin: While the nation awaits the outcome of the hearings on the ZTE-NBN deal, a small, almost invisible battle continues to be waged among stakeholders of language and literacy in the country. Very few are aware of the persistent efforts of lawmakers to institutionalize English as the sole language of learning in basic education. Even fewer wonder if the Speak English Only Policy of some schools or the present Bilingual Education Policy of the Department of Education actually works.

I have been reflecting on these movements in language and literacy for some years now. I have come to realize that many arguments about the issue are hinged on buried premises, on myths about languages in the Philippines.

The first set of myths has to do with English in the Philippines. There is a prevailing belief that if you don’t know English, you simply don’t know! This myth is evident in Filipinos who laugh at those who do not speak English with native-like fluency and accuracy, in school heads who will not hire a teacher because he or she has a strong Ilocano accent, and in teachers who give low marks to students with subject-verb agreement or preposition errors in their compositions. These teachers overlook depth of insight or evidence of critical thinking in the students’ writings. The link between intelligence and English language proficiency is very flimsy. In this world, you will find intelligent people who cannot speak a word of English, as well as not-so-smart ones who are native speakers of the language.
If I were a school head out to hire an English teacher for my school, should I be faulted for seeking someone who speaks fluently with a universally understandable accent, all other things being equal of course? As for students who cannot write sentences where verbs and subject agree and have error filled compositions, I think they should get low marks even if one takes proper account of "depth of insight" and evidence of "critical thinking." But of course there are intelligent people who DON'T speak English. Some of them are called French, Russians, Chinese, and Hindus. But I think it is rare in ANY language to be capable of deep insight and to think critically, but for some mysterious reason cannot get the basics of writing well down pat.

Martin: Another misconception about English is that the language cures all economic ailments. This is evident in House bills that seek to make English as the sole medium of instruction in the elementary and high school levels. The goal is to produce English-proficient graduates for contact centers, hospitals and medical transcription offices, never mind if these graduates are unthinking products of the schools. This belief that English brings in the money is also evident in most contact center training programs which overemphasize proficiency in the language, while sacrificing the agents’ ability to manage culture-diverse environments. Working in a contact center is very demanding. The ability to speak like an American will certainly not ensure excellent performance in the contact center jobs.
I don't know about all problems, but English proficiency has certainly proven to be our salvation for many of them, like family poverty and hunger when the OFWs are repatriating $12 billion a year and the Call Center and BPO industries are said to potentially bring in an equal amount. The ability "to speak like an American will certainly not ensure excellent performance in the contact center" but I guarantee you you that an INABILITY to get verbs and subjects to agree will surely get you fired!
That some Filipinos aspire for native-like proficiency in English is symptomatic of another misconception about the language. This aspiration points to the myth that there is only one kind of English language in this world, and that is, Standard American English. What many do not know is that World Englishes exist, and Philippine English is just one among these many Englishes.
The Linguist is apparently not aware of the sophistication of the Call Centers nowadays, who in fact train specialists in the various English dialects. There is Midwestern English, Southern English, Standard English, etc. And indeed they even do Spanish, French, German...

In 1969, Teodoro Llamzon, the first president of the Linguistic Society of the Philippines, already wrote about this in his trailblazing “Standard Filipino English.” In 1996, at De La Salle University-Manila, a conference on the theme “English is an Asian Language” reintroduced this idea of English as a Philippine language. It was at this conference that poet Gemino Abad proudly declared that the Filipinos have “colonized the English language!”
I am all for regarding the English Language as part of our cultural heritage. Filipinos have certainly excelled in its practice.

Martin: And then there is the myth that English and Filipino are languages in opposition to each other. This is evident in those who insist that English should be totally removed from basic education, as well as in some of the reasons cited for opposing House Bill 305 and Executive Order 210. Nationalism always seems to be associated with the Filipino language, as if one cannot express one’s love of country in English or in the local languages.
Finally, the most dangerous of all myths is the belief that there is no place for the local languages in basic education. This is evident in the existence of the Bilingual Education Policy, as well as in the persistent efforts of lawmakers to pass House Bill 305 (formerly known as HB 4701). In public schools across the nation, teachers have already been using the local languages (a.k.a. first language or mother tongue, which includes English and Tagalog in the cities) in teaching basic concepts to schoolchildren. No amount of legislation can remove the first languages from their natural settings, which to my mind include the schools.
Bilingualism is written into our Constitution, so the alleged efforts to go monolingual are bound to fail. But it is perverse to claim that ANYONE is trying to prevent teachers from using the Mother Tongue at the lowest rungs of the education system. It is unavoidable.

And I must say something about the so - called Mother Tongue Hypothesis. There appears to be a large body of academic research and experience to show that TOTAL IMMERSION is actually the fastest and most effective means of learning a "foreign language" (ie, a language one does not already know.) The ample commercial success of outfits like Berlitz also confirms this idea.

But we don't even have to look that far, because isn't TOTAL IMMERSION how we learn our first language at our Mother's Knee to begin with?


Amadeo said...

I honestly am very confused as I read yet another nicely-woven treatise in English from a well-read (in English, I assume), well-schooled English-instructed professional attempting to downgrade the importance of English and its proficiency to the Filipinos in particular, and as a language among global languages in general.

It impels me to ask long-windedly, what is it about learning English, getting very proficient in it, and actually being admired far and wide for using it very effectively that then drives some of the same people to start deconstructing it and minimizing its relative importance, especially to a country like the Philippines which like it or not shares English as a critical part of its history and potential for making progress in the world around us?

Consequently, what are we simple but earnest plebeians who try very hard to acquire proficiency in English all our lives, to think about it?

Is this yet another scholarly attempt by a highly-intelligent person to confuse us, rather than enlighten?

DJB Rizalist said...

I wonder too Amadeo. I am sure it is nothing at all sinister or malevolent. Maybe the fact that it is the International Year of Languages and there is a big conference at the end of the month that we get these treatises in the newspapers.

I would not wonder much at all if it were Tagalog scholars or poets and playwrights pursuing their art and defending its prerogatives. But they seem self-secure and happy enough in their literary pursuits not to bother with criticisms of English usage that English linguists seem so fond of producing.

But inasmuch as they hold journalistic promontories I feel obligated to combat the efforts at reform and improvement by the government. Not everything it wants to do is wrong or corrupt, in my opinion and needs defending too.

blackshama said...

DJB Here is my email to A/Prof Pefianco-Martin

Dear A/Prof Pefianco- Martin

Do you know if anyone has challenged the "English only" policy in Philippine schools? In France, the country that zealously defends the French language against the "corruptive" influence if Anglais, the constitutional court has ruled that it violates the Declaration of the Rights of Man to prevent any person from speaking his/her language. This despite the state has the right to require the study of its language in its schools.

The French despite their language nationalism have it right. The learning of any language is linked with personal liberties since this involves the whole person and how it can express him/herself. Fear means there is petty tyranny.

I have no problem with schools encouraging people to speak and write in English as long as it doesn't destroy one' sense of identity. Loss of identity is the allegorical chain that Rizal had famously Simoun declare to Basilio. Perhaps the school administrators need to read Rizal once more.

Sincerely yours


MBW said...

Bit of correction there Blackshama if you don't mind: "Anglais" should begin with a small letter.

Meanwhile, right you are Blackshama on the two points about the Conseil Constitutionel (Constitutional Court or Council) of the French Republic stipulated in one of their rulings that no citizen of the Republic or any person on French soil should be deprived of the right to speak a different language or to use words other than French in public or in commerce, communication, industry, etc as guaranteed by the French constitutional right to freedom/liberty of expression thus throwing out a would-be French law that had sought to penalise the use of non-French in media and in industry although they acknowledged the State's ultimate right to require the mandatory use of French as medium of instruction in schools for subjects that are not language courses in nature.

On that second point, i.e., use of French as medium of instruction, I say, le Conseil Constitutionel are bloody right to leave that law intact for the simple reason that as Dean here says quite rightly, "For one thing I insist that the Medium of Instruction cannot avoid having to be a written language."

French is a written language, one whose roots are Latin which in itself is a universal language.

MBW said...

I was one of the petitionners (in my capacity as director then of a French-English bi-monthly magazine that was levied a hefty 50,000-franc fine) against the French law eventually -- subsequently struck down by the Conseil Constitutionnel in 1994 -- that penalised the use of English in marketing documents.

blackshama said...


Thanks for "anglais". Too bad I did not study French at university as my European language requirement, but German!

CNN just carried a story about France's 2008 Eurovision song entry. The French pop star sings part of the song in English!

Perhaps the French is waking up to the reality that English is really theirs. After all the Norman French made England to what it is today and look at the many Latin words borrowed through Norman French.

domingo arong said...


Inexplicably, on the one hand, unlike natives in ALL of Spain's South American colonies who were completely transformed--including even their aboriginals--into Hispanics during the same colonial period as the Philippines; Filipinos, on the other, fiercely retained their hodgepodge of regional dialects and were never Hispanized (Hispanicized?) after close to four centuries of total Spanish domination; but in only less than half a century of United States rule, Filipinos were totally “Americanized” (comparatively!

If the Philippine archipelago consists of 7,000 islands to swim to and negotiate around is the reason; these South American countries also have as many tall mountains to climb and a web of jungles to clear too.

But during this same 400-year period, South Americans and Filipinos were both Christianized by these same Spaniards.

So, if “colonial mentality” is to be forever relied on as the convenient scapegoat to justify the “Americanization” of Filipinos, why did that same “mentality” fail to hispanize (Hispanicize?) the “colonial” Indios in Las Islas Filipinas during the longer Spanish period?

Perhaps, the answers to these questions raised here may help in resolving the "fearmongering" and "mythmaking."

Anonymous said...


total immersion will only work well if one is surrounded with english speakers both inside and outside of the environment where one is learning the language.

this is not the case in the philippines. english will remain a subject matter in school. once outside, you need to have a pool of yayas to converse with you in english all the time to become effective speaker of the language.

i am saddened that you have to source your reference from an obscure website when you can use google scholar.

DJB Rizalist said...

the main value to me of "total immersion" is not necessarily practical but theoretical, or if you like rhetorical. for it proves that the Mother Tongue Hypothesis needs to be challenged. After all that IS how we learn the mother tongue: by total immersion. I am attracted to the rhetoric of this point of view because it is the logical extension of the criticism I've been leveling at those who cannot use anything but English itself to criticize its use. Their resort to the Mother Tongue Hypothesis actually obscures the fact of total immersion inherent in learning a first language. So why not a second, which is just as foreign to the learner as the first!

Also, Berlitz does not require total societal immersion, although that is what basically happens during immigration.

Likewise "total immersion" say in schools does not require it outside of school for the idea to work.

DJB Rizalist said...

Domingo Arong,
Very interesting point of comparison with South America. But herein lies the difference. The secular colonial authorities in Mexico appear to have had more power over and greater control of the frailes and missionaries. Whereas here, we really had the reign of the Spanish Taliban. The Catholic Church hierarchy was dominant over the colonial administrations. What therefore happened was that in Mexico and South America, Spain was able to transmit the Spanish language to the general population, slowly but later as a matter of policy. ON the other hand, in the Philippines, it was the explicit policy of the Catholic Church never to teach the natives their language. The missionaries instead learned the people's language and transmitted Christianity. Their education policy was the most selfish in history. Which also explains why today, there is barely any sentimentality among Filipinos for Spain, who ruled for far longer than America. The latter in contrast, almost immediately gave us English, our most precious cultural and intellectual heritage. Thus 1000 to 1 Filipinos emigrate to America not Espana!

This at least is how I understand what happened.

Jego said...

I think smallpox also had something to do with South America. The Espanols brought the disease with them and the natives proved vulnerable to it and decimated the native population. More Espanols were therefore imported.

domingoarong said...


But Mexico in particular was the land of the ancient empires of the Aztec and the Mayan (not to mention the Olmec); and so, it would have been a lot easier to “hispanize” the unorganized Indios here.

As regards education, the Philippines--University of San Carlos, Cebu (1595) and University of Sto. Tomas (1611)--was not far behind Mexico (University of Mexico 1551). Not to mention the fact that there is an over-century old catholic church in almost every town here. Then, there was the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade from 1565 to 1815 (250 years).

So, why is it that fully 97% now speak Spanish in Mexico (which is closer to California and New Mexico) while less than, perhaps,1% speak Spanish here? And why English is one of the official Language in the Philippines now.

My unsolicited … to linguists who want to dispose of English here is to first study more closely and to understand why it took only less than 50 years, in spite of the perceived “fears,” for this transformation to happen.

Anonymous said...


steven pinker says language (mother tongue) is not learned--it is instinctive. what comes thus with learning a second language (L2) is the varying waves of interferences.

notice how a two-year child can easily build up his vocabulary despite the fractured grammar--the child simply imbibe the language picked up from the environment, with great facility.

the same condition is not easily attainable in second language learning where the grammar may be totally different from the grammar of the mother tongue. total immersion, like i said, will only work best is both the internal and external environment provide support for learning the L2.

for me there is greater advantage to promoting dual immersion, a type of bilingual program where both languages are taught in parallel sessions in school subjects, as it fosters metalinguistic awareness. which means, one is made aware of the differences in grammar and vocabulary an L1 is learning with L2, and therefore enhances his learning capability to distinguish linguistic features. in short, it promotes logical thinking (goes like: "one of these things is not like the other").

berlitz???!!!?? hello, it's a commercial venture, you so claim. therefore there is strong bias in representation of those who availed of its services. those who go learn a second language in such a COMMERCIAL language school are already MOTIVATED for personal reasons (read its blurb: VIPS, diplomats, etc).

let's get realistic: the philippines is a multilingual country. we can't even decide which is second language to us. what is certain is this: mother (tongue) knows best.

Samantha said...

"Thank you for the enlightening post. Appreciate it a lot.
Subliminal messaging can indeed be very powerful. Interesting enough, a website (non-aff link) sells a bunch of subliminal programs. Might be interesting to check them out. "