Dreaming of the rebirth of good English

PENMAN - Butch Dalisay () - June 3, 2002 - 12:00am
I don’t mean to shirk my column-writing duties, but the response to a piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago ("Grammar boot camp") was such that I thought it would be worthwhile to share some of the messages I got – here, slightly shortened and edited – with you. Most people wrote in to share their frustrations over the state of English language teaching and learning in the country today. What makes these letters interesting are their personal insights, that little bite or oomph that gives you a glimpse into the person behind the words. I’ll have more to say about the issues raised here in a later column, but let’s hear from our readers first, in what we used to call, back in our student-power days in the late ‘60s, a "speakout."
* * *
Our first letter, quite typical in its plaint, comes from a lady whom we’ll call "Sarah" for now:

"Dear Butch,

"It’s a shame that after working for about 18 years, I still find difficulty in expressing myself when I need to, especially during office meetings, brainstorming and other events where I think my opinion would be of value to the topic under discussion. I can’t talk because I am afraid that I might be laughed at for erroneous usage of English grammar or wrong choice and pronunciations of words.

"I do believe that a lot of professionals would agree with me, especially those who have graduated from engineering and commercial/business courses like mine (I have a BSC, major in accounting) that no matter how efficient we are when it comes to the major courses we have taken, we are often left behind during company promotions because we can’t clearly express ourselves. In 1996 I took a three-month summer class in public speaking hoping that I’d be able to improve my communication skills, but since most of the students were foreigners with other motives for taking the same subject, I think my intention was hardly achieved.

"I wish your group will offer English courses to professionals like us, graduates or undergraduates who want to improve our skills in communications, and since classes after office hours might not be sufficient may I suggest weekend classes as well.

"Thanks and more power,

* * *
The second letter comes from Mrs. Aleta P. Soliman of Candaba, Pampanga:

"Dear Mr. Dalisay,

"I read your column about grammar today at the bank. Since I could not take the newspaper with me, I just jotted down your e-mail address and planned on sharing with you a piece of my mind, as a student first then now as a mother of students.

"I am 48 years old a product of the public school system and a mother of three articulate boys. I speak better than I write so I hope you can bear with me…

"When it was my turn to study, I can remember very well that we started studying English in Grade 3…. In Grade 4 we had more readings, memory work, and the multiplication table. I can remember we had to stand at the back and we could only move one step forward after we had answered a flash card correctly…

"In high school, we had to speak in English – kung hindi, lista at may multa – so we had very good training as far as spoken English is concerned. At UST where I finished Commerce Economics, we had speech labs. We had a very good command of our English then, unlike today…

"What about my children? Thanks to Sesame Street and a lot of cartoons! They were my helpers in training my kids to read the alphabet and their spoken English… What about today’s children? Disaster! They have Tagalized cartoons! Even Channel 7 has adopted Tagalizing English movies…

"I don’t believe in pre-school (only because I have the luxury of time with my children. I teach them all they need to know to enter Grade 1. I fear more the pressure my son will receive from somebody who cannot be as motherly as I am to them.)

"Now back to our sad English… I taught at a (private) university and I was really at a loss how 4th year college students made it to where they were with such awful English. A sophomore could not even compose one complete sentence! My husband checked some entrance tests for foresters… "waste" spelled as "waist"! I was teaching management subjects… Their lack knowledge of proper English is their biggest stumbling block in learning other subjects. How can they understand finance when they cannot even read very well? How can they understand taxation for instance without learning English first? How can they do book reporting when they hardly understand what is said in the book? It may just be one subject – English – but this is the medium for all teaching materials in all their other subjects except Filipino and Spanish. Now are we still wondering about the deteriorating quality of students? Let’s go back to basics – teach proper English."
* * *
The third and most pensive letter comes from an old schoolmate, who – I was happy to learn – now teaches (and preaches?) at the University of Asia and the Pacific:

"Dear Butch,

"Let me start by telling you that I always enjoy reading your column – the times that I get the chance to do so, that is. I enjoy it the same way I enjoy reading William Safire – because I’m a hopeless romantic dreaming of a rebirth of good written (and definitely also spoken) English in this beloved country of ours.

"That having been said, I’d like to throw in my two-bits worth to what could be the start of the reconquista of the lost English tongue, which definitely should begin in school. Of course, as you already said, it should really start much sooner than college, but since the buck has to stop somewhere, it might as well be where you can do something about it (as in UP, since you’re not teaching high school).

"First, some observations. Why is it that when I read letters from my Mom (72 years old, UST graduate, English and Philosophy major), my Dad (80 years old, Ateneo then UST Law), my aunt (70 years old, UST Pharmacy), or sundry relatives of that generation, I hardly ever find grammatical errors in English? Taking it closer to ground zero, why is it that I can make the same observation about correspondence – even just e-mail – from my high school classmates (Philippine Science, batch 1970) and even batchmates from UP of that generation?

"Since I left UP in 1977 (after a two-year teaching stint at the Department of Chemistry), I’ve been observing a steady decline in both the spoken and written English of Filipino students. As you know I’ve not stopped being involved with young people, even now as a priest. I think the culprit is the shift in emphasis from grammar – more specifically structure – to literature. The late ‘70s and definitely the ‘80s saw the demise of grammar in schools, with a proliferation of teachers who’d much rather have their students read literature, and engage in freewheeling discussions, rather than master the rudiments of grammar. It was in the late ‘70s, for example, that I personally saw boxloads of excellent grammar books being discarded from a library I know to be sold por kilo.

"There must be something that the old English teachers in high school did right, that the newer ones haven’t been doing, that explains why the average student of that generation wrote English well – even if perhaps they didn’t speak it with as much of a Western accent as the students now. And I really think it’s their grasp of grammar, more specifically of structure.

"So here are my two bits:

"First: Make the students master sentence structure, through diagramming. Unless a person can visualize a sentence diagram, he will not be able to identify the function of each part. Besides, the only way he can punctuate a sentence properly – as in put commas, en-dashes, em-dashes, parenthesis, colons and semicolons – is if he knows the structure. I’m sure you have suffered at pieces with commas placed ‘intuitively’ or – as a European friend of mine would say – where the sentence naturally rests (as in where you have to gasp for breath).

"Then: Make them master the verb, not only tenses but moods. I really think most Filipinos do not know the different degrees of past or future, and again you must have suffered the unspeakable going through sentences with improper use of the perfect tenses (or most probably the non-use of the perfect tense, period). Then, if it’s not too late yet, please save the subjunctive mood!!! I wince every time I read ‘would’ when it should have read ‘will,’ or even ‘will’ when it’s a prayer, as in ‘We pray that this country will be great again!’

"Fr. Jim (Achacoso)"
* * *
And a happy birthday to summery June, who loves winters! Send e-mail to Butch Dalisay at penmanila@yahoo.com.
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