President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s January 29 directive to the Department of Education to restore English as the medium of instruction in the country’s schools has provoked the usual reactions.
Most of these reactions, primarily from the media and those letter writers who claim to know everything, have been expectedly supportive. Their loud voices have drowned out the voices of the people who best know about the subject–the teachers themselves, who are 8 to 1 opposed to the restoration of English as the medium of instruction.
In expressing their support for a policy that, as usual in this administration has not been thought out carefully, the usual know-it-alls from the media took to their high horses to once more argue that the Philippines needs the English language to be “globally competitive.”
What they mean is that Filipinos need a language with which they can communicate with the rest of the world, and that language is English. English is indeed the most widely spoken language in the world, usually the common medium through which, say, a German and a Frenchman can communicate with each other. And as far as the new media are concerned, 80 percent of Internet websites are in English.
By using this argument, however, the partisans of English as medium of instruction assume that every Filipino who has to go through the primary grades, the secondary schools and then to college has to learn English so he or she can communicate with the rest of the world.
Not all 78 million Filipinos have to do that, or will ever have to do that. Neither has the entire population of any country ever needed to. It’s also virtually impossible to make an entire population literate in a foreign language they don’t use in their daily lives. And it’s not really necessary, unless, by “global competitiveness” the die-hard partisans of the English language mean Filipino capacity to compete in the international labor market as domestics and day laborers–and unless it is the country’s permanent aim to keep on providing that kind of labor to the rest of the world forever and ever.
Only a segment of the population needs a foreign language to communicate with. That language could be English, in, say, international business. But it could very well be French and Spanish in foreign relations. A Filipino doing business with counterparts in Malaysia, for example, needs to speak and write in English. A diplomat will need the same capacity in addition to knowledge of other languages.
For that, a foreign language like English can be taught in the country’s schools, the way countries like Japan and Thailand do it. It doesn’t require the use of English as medium of instruction, which means using that language to teach everything from the Constitution to the arts.
Indeed the unspoken assumption in justifying the use of English as medium of instruction is that it is the lot and aspiration of Filipinos in a globalized planet to empty other people’s trash, or to wash soiled diapers in other countries. To deal with the world as diplomats, scientists, businessmen and academics–as Japanese, Germans, Frenchmen do–one needs only to learn English as a foreign language, not use it as medium from the grades to high school to college.
Besides what the commitment to its use suggests about what decision-makers and their supporters mean when they say “global competitiveness,” there is also the fact that as a medium of instruction English is a failure in this country.
It’s not because of any flaw in the language. It’s not because Filipino teachers of English are too incompetent to provide students with the kind of English language literacy that can enable them to appreciate the nuances of complex ideas, or to even write a passable theme on what they did last summer.
The reason for it is more fundamental. It isn’t the language of daily life among 99 percent of Filipinos, which means that a student entering the classroom has to make a mechanical shift to another language the minute he or she crosses from the hallway to his or her next class. When he or she leaves the classroom, it’s back to Pilipino or whatever other language he or she normally speaks. It’s that language he or she will use when talking about the latest fad with other students, or the TV soap he or she saw last night, which was itself in Pilipino.
Ninety percent of language learning is practice. A student can memorize all the rules of grammar, and go through a compendium of the most common idioms in the English language daily. But if he or she doesn’t use that language except to write the occasional theme and to answer test questions, he or she will never be good enough at it to qualify for a job abroad other than cleaning toilets or operating a copying machine. Learning another language is a specialized and voluntary process. It can’t be forced on people who don’t see any use for it in their daily lives, and who, as a result, will forget about it the minute they exit the classroom.
But this is not as important as the fact that the use of English as medium of instruction makes both learning and teaching more complex than it already is. Both are basically communication processes, and involve the transmission not only of facts, but also of ideas and theories, most of them complex, and with all their attendant nuances.
“Global competitiveness” should mean the capacity of Filipinos to compete with others in international business, scholarship, finance, diplomacy, science, literature and the arts and other fields, rather than as their capacity to serve as other people’s peons and nannies. The use of English as a medium of instruction actually helps make that kind of global competitiveness even more difficult, since the knowledge and skills needed have to be transmitted through a language foreign to both teacher and student, which amounts to creating a barrier to communication in the country’s classrooms.
Meanwhile, among Filipinos themselves, communication has become increasingly difficult. Among other reasons, this is because to the class barriers created by differences in economic and social status has been added a language barrier between the wealthy and powerful and the poor and powerless. This is not because the latter have not been taught in the English language. It is because most of them are unable to finish the elementary grades, or even to go to school in the first place.
The result is that those who did go to school, and to exclusive English-speaking ones at that, can’t communicate to the vast majority of Filipinos except in broken Pilipino. The social and political consequences are evident. Filipinos are divided not only by economic status, but also by language. Politically the lack of communication has resulted in conflicting political values. This is obvious in the difference not only in perception between the few and the many as to who qualifies for office, but also in their respective choices for government officials.
Which means that among the casualties of the language divide is democracy, a system premised on everyone’s being not only politically empowered but educated as well. Education is in many ways a two-way street. The poor have as much to teach the wealthy by way of educating them on their aspirations, as the latter have to on their notions of responsible citizenship. None of that happens. Instead the thin layer of the wealthy and educated disdain the poor, who are equally contemptuous of their supposed betters.
The use of Pilipino as medium of instruction in all the schools will of course not erase either the antagonisms or the differences in outlook among the classes in Philippine society. But if given time it should eventually remove one of the barriers to their mutual appreciation of each other’s views, and help create the basis for a meaningful democracy.
Instead of pandering to popular and uninformed prejudices, the government meanwhile can express its commitment to education by putting more money into it. But it won’t do that. Instead it says restore English–in classrooms that leak, where even chalk can’t be had, and which are run by underpaid, harassed and overworked teachers.