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The problem with English-speaking Filipinos

Pardon the irony, but if there’s one trait Filipinos are proud of as a people, it is their capacity to speak a foreign language. Speaking fluent English is our country’s strategic edge that has attracted foreign investors to set up companies and outsource labor. These past few months, we received recognition from the Global English Corporation as the world’s best in Business English proficiency. We have also been branded as the world’s most affordable English teacher, according to BBC. Finally, schools like Ateneo, UP, and La Salle have made it to research and ratings firm Quacquarelli Symonds’ top 50 English-teaching schools worldwide. 

All this needs deeper reflection, however, owing to the latest viral video of a young Filipina berating a security guard using her colegiala English. However, let us go beyond the personalities involved, especially since there was already an apology issued regarding the incident. Truth be told, we should admit that her recourse to win an argument is not at all surprising. Many of us, in fact, use it quite well. Perhaps, the only difference is we do not sound like soap opera antagonists and that we were never caught on camera. But as the incident may characterize many of us, we could gather insights about ourselves as English-speaking Filipinos. 

Some pertinent questions arise from the incident: what does it mean when Juana dela Cruz uses a foreign language to belittle her fellow Filipina? Why do we use English to intimidate our countrymen who cannot speak it fluently? How did we come to this point where we use English as a tool for division in our nation? 

I believe it all starts in our schools. For one, our curriculum and subjects are severely disjointed. We may be teaching English well, but there is a lack of integration with other subjects. Take Values Education. Wouldn’t it be worthwhile if English classes could also discuss the ethical considerations of being fluent in a foreign language because of the privilege of being enrolled in a renowned private school? The class could discuss how people abuse this entitlement to make it to the top echelon of companies simply because other employees could not afford steep tuition fees.

More importantly, we detach the teaching of English from our country’s history. My college teacher Ambeth Ocampo quoted a historical document from 1918 that contains then US Secretary of Education Charles Yeater proudly reporting how English has been taught successfully in the Philippines. Through Ocampo’s research, we find that Yeater wrote, “The English language will not only be the common medium of exchange among people but will be the language which will practically be exclusively used in the government and legislative service ... The native dialects will continue to be used for home purposes for many years, possibly for one or two generations. They cannot afford a medium of intellectual exchange because of the poverty of their vocabularies and because those speaking the various dialects are unable to understand each other.”

Considering this historical context of how English was taught to replace and displace our own “dialects,” it is evident then how English can have the capacity to divide the nation between the westernized haves and the aboriginal have-nots. By detaching our teaching of English from History, we have taught our students to wield a double-edged sword highlighting only its advantages but cowering away from discussing the wounds it has wrought and inflicted on our sense of nationalism as Filipinos.

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Fluency in English will continue to be a most useful skill set of every educated Filipino. It is already part of our culture and global identity as a bilingual nation. For this, we should be proud. But languages, because of their capacity for communication, must only be used to unite people and never to divide us by distinguishing the educated from the underprivileged. 

If teachers continue to be negligent in encouraging students to rethink and reflect on how they should use the skills learned in school, then we would continue to perpetuate the practice of some people who use their education to advance self at the expense of the disadvantaged other. Christian writer CS Lewis counseled, “Education without values makes us clever devils.” Are Filipino teachers content with producing English-speaking ones?

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