Zones of discomfort

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There are enough Filipinos to populate another country who think there are quick solutions to this country’s problems, even if those problems have been decades and even centuries in the making.

Their so-called leaders encourage this assumption through their statements, acts, and policies—or what pass for policies. Insurgency and rebellion can be addressed by killing guerillas and their sympathizers, says the military. The police thinks the death penalty’s the solution to crime. Keeping “pornography” off the screen, say your barber, the Catholic Church, and SM Cinemas, will stop fathers from raping their daughters, husbands from patronizing brothels and officials from stealing from the public treasury, and will curb immorality in general among the populace.

As for poverty, that’s easily solved by the President’s taking a trip to the United States, as she did last year, or to China as she did recently. In both instances she returned aglow with the warmth of her reception and with pledges of assistance.

Mrs. Arroyo is also committed to constitutional amendments, but not solely because she’s eying the political opportunities a parliamentary system can offer. She’s also interested in amending those provisions that prevent foreigners from owning mass media companies, and others that make investing here still somewhat problematic. There’s also that long-standing policy encouraging the export of Filipino labor as a solution to unemployment and the country’s balance of payments problems.

This is not of recent vintage. The quick- fix mentality fused with the colonial one in this country long before the presidency landed on Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s lap. But that lethal combination has inevitably led to the search for something not only quick but also foreign to get the country out of its poverty and mass misery, whether it be foreign aid, foreign loans, foreign investments, foreign jobs, or a foreign language.

The foreign language is English. Last year Mrs. Arroyo issued a directive to the Department of Education to restore English as the medium of instruction in the country’s schools, on the argument that it’s Filipinos’ ability to use that language that can make the country “globally competitive.”

The Arroyo directive assumed that its use as medium of instruction would make students learn English—which it probably would, eventually. But there are other ways of learning a foreign language, among them attending classes specifically for that purpose. Millions of people all over the world do so, and most of them don’t have the language they’re learning for medium of instruction.

While English has had a long history in this country as medium of instruction, that fact does not necessarily mean it should so remain, among other reasons because it would force teachers to use the language to teach every subject. The experience of teachers reveals that this is not the best way for them to teach and for students to learn.

Some 65 percent of Filipinos claim knowledge of English, but may be defining “knowledge” in terms of basic understanding of everyday expressions, or the capacity to understand advertisements and simple instructions.

Because it involves complex concepts, learning requires more than this level of competence in the language of instruction. That is why, in the early 1990s, over 200 university and college presidents and deans urged the government to make the Filipino language the medium of instruction at the collegiate level.

Mrs. Arroyo’s directive, in any case, remained on paper because of budgetary constraints. DepEd said it didn’t have the money to hire English-language teachers to teach other teachers how to use English in teaching every course at the primary and secondary levels. By saying so, DepEd also indirectly focused on what’s really at the heart of the country’s problems with education: the insufficiency of the government’s budgetary commitment to it.

But the argument that it’s the use of English that will make Filipinos “globally competitive” dies hard. It does make sense, given the widespread use of the English language in diplomacy, business, foreign academic institutions, even the Internet. If Filipinos are to function in those areas internationally, English would be the first language they’ll have to learn.

But those who argue that Filipinos should learn English assume “global competitiveness” to mean the capacity to compete in the global labor market for nannies, construction workers, truck drivers and care-givers, not the capacity to conduct the country’s foreign relations competently, to engage in international trade and commerce, or to communicate with peers in academic institutions abroad.

It can be argued that global competitiveness in this sense can come in time, and that meanwhile the country should improve Filipino capacity to communicate in English for present as well as future goals. No argument there—so long as we all understand that the ends for which the country’s trying to do that are temporary, and that, even as we extol the “English-speaking” virtues of our domestics and caregivers, and try to improve them, we’re keeping the long-term view in mind.

That view should inform the decision of three Manila city colleges to implement their English-proficiency programs. Equally critical is that, while encouraging proficiency in English, the policy doesn’t lead to the marginalization of the Filipino language.

Neither is in evidence, and therein lies a fundamental problem that almost always occurs whenever the country’s so-called leaders get it into their heads to officially mandate the use of English. It is always for the limited end of enabling Filipinos to compete for menial jobs abroad, and always at the expense of Filipino.

The Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila (PLM—City University of Manila) has divided its campus into “English Zones” and “Free Zones”. In the former, students and faculty will have to speak in English during designated hours, while they may speak any language they prefer in the latter.

PLM president Benjamin Tayabas said the school “would like to create an environment where if you speak in Filipino in English Zones you will not get an answer.” Within a year, says Tayabas, “we should be very comfortable in speaking in English.”

Tayabas also said that “teachers will serve as models, and we will implement a system where students will be reporting teachers who don’t speak English in classrooms.”

Two other Manila institutions, the City College of Manila and the Eulogio “Amang” Rodriguez Institute of Science and Technology, will be implementing the same policy.

That should make these three institutions unique. They would be the only ones still functioning in colonial mode 58 years after the country’s independence was recognized by the United States.

The United States forced the use of English in the educational system during the less than fifty years that it had formal sovereignty over the Philippines. Among other measures, schools had a system of fines for anyone who spoke Tagalog or any other Filipino language.

Tayabas did not announce any fines for speaking in Filipino, but the consequence of PLM’s so-called English Proficiency Policy would be the same as in colonial times: the marginalization of Filipino and its identification with inferiority in minds already colonized by MTV, Coca-Cola, MacDonald’s, and the latest Hollywood flick.

Tayabas and his cohorts forget—or have never realized—that while there are virtues in learning a foreign language, respecting one’s own is critical to a people’s self-respect and their sense of who they are. PLM’s implementation of its policy—ostracizing those who speak Filipino, making students spy on their teachers—would help kick Filipino back into the US colonial period, when it was regarded as the language of backwardness.

Meanwhile, who says that forcing people to speak a language will result in their being competent—or even comfortable—in it? Listen to the colegialas from so-called exclusive schools who insist on speaking to each other in “English”. You’ll know what I mean.

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