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.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.
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.
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?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".
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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?