No silver bullet
PENMAN - Butch Dalisay () - June 10, 2002 - 12:00am
One of the more interesting questions that came up after a recent talk I gave at a conference of teachers was, in effect, what I thought of bilingualism in our educational system today. I could sense that buried somewhere in that question was an apprehension that one reason for the apparent decline in our students’ proficiency in English was their being taught at the same time in Filipino.

I said that I had no problem, in theory, with bilingualism, and was very much in support of it. I myself write and speak in both English and Filipino – even if, as a native Visayan, I had to learn Filipino (or Tagalog) for myself as I grew up in Manila.

It would be very odd if, in a nation of more than a hundred languages – and they’re languages, folks, not just dialects – we had to pick a foreign tongue to do all of our formal thinking and writing in. (The flipside of this argument, of course, has been expressed by such writers as Chinua Achebe, who saw in English the very thread that could run through and string together societies fragmented by tribalism and colonialism.)

Bilingualism has already been discussed in countless conferences and papers, so I’m not going to talk about that here and now in any kind of academic sense or detail. Rather, let me share some of my own questions and observations that you might want to think about.

I know that we have problems enough in the teaching of English, but what’s it like in Filipino? I have the impression that the situation isn’t that much better, if at all.

First, we can’t assume that every Filipino knows Filipino – and knows and uses it well. But for the powerful intervention of the mass media, such as TV and the movies, Filipino/Tagalog would be a foreign language to many Filipinos outside of Metro Manila. In fact, neither can we assume that every Manileño or Tagalog speaks and writes Filipino well. And we certainly can’t assume that if your English is bad, then your Filipino is good (one notion that even some registration advisers peddle: "Ay, mahina ka pala sa English, mag-Filipino ka na lang!")

The language routinely gets murdered in print and on the airwaves, and it probably "suffers" as much (if we look at the mix-up of languages as a form of dilution rather than enrichment) from the inroads of English as our command of English "suffers" from the persistence of Filipino, or some other Philippine language, in our subconscious. One of poet and critic Virgilio Almario’s pet peeves is how even established writers in Filipino can’t distinguish between "ng" ("of") and "nang" ("when).

My point is, if we’re serious about bilingualism, we should try and teach Filipino with as much zeal, as much resourcefulness, and as much enjoyment as we teach – or should teach – English. Unfortunately, I suspect that "Filipino" as a subject has often been spoiled for our kids by teachers who march them through balarila like a drill sergeant marching his wards across a crocodile-infested swamp. And – let’s admit it, folks – we don’t help our kids any by speaking to them in English all the time, or by giving them the impression that "Tagalog" is something for maids, drivers, and bad movies, and otherwise a chore to learn (and to teach, for parents stuck with sorting out the pandiwa’s and panlapi’s).

I know someone who, with her husband, made a very conscious and very early decision to teach their children nothing but English, and to have them speak exclusively in English around the house and everywhere they went. The idea, presumably, was that insulating them from Filipino would prepare them better for the challenges of an English-dominated world.

While I respect every parent’s right to choose the education that they see fit for their family and beliefs, I’d have to say that this kind of choice can only have guaranteed the growth of socially maladjusted children, foreigners in their own country maimed for life by a silly notion of what it takes to succeed as a person – here and not in America, but even in America, where you’ll also need much more than language to get ahead.

In our desire to promote "good" English and raise an English-literate brood, let’s not forget where we are, who we are, and all the other things that determine our personal and collective growth apart from language. (Reader Jomar Alas, from Adamson University, goes so far as to maintain that "flawless English is incompatible with our vernacular soul.") I have hordes of friends and former students who can speak and write English as well as any Yank or Brit – but who can’t find good jobs. (A similar fallacy seems to apply to information technology – "If you learn it, the jobs will come" – where we now have a glut of IT graduates with nowhere to go.)

Training ourselves to become what’s called a "one-trick pony" (or, all right, two tricks – English-speaking, IT-savvy workers) may look smart, inspired, and aggressive in the short term, but you’d have to wonder about its effects in the long run. Neither English nor IT is a silver bullet that’ll kill the vampire of mass poverty. No doubt, they’ll give us an edge in global markets, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we should stop teaching them.

But I am saying that we shouldn’t forget our other concerns, talents, and resources as a nation – including our national language and our culture – and the other skills we need to learn and to master to become more than smiling tray-bearers (no offense to waiters and to what they contribute to our economy) to the rest of the world: math and hard science, numeracy as much as literacy, an understanding of economics as much as entertainment, a passion for history as much as sports.

That said, and not to leave you stewing in dissatisfaction with what I’ve been saying about the importance of being and thinking Pinoy, here are a few on-line resources you might want to look into for some quick fixes for that dubious word, that troubled phrase, and that wayward sentence:, also known as the "Good Grammar, Good Style Archive";, the "Common Errors in English" website; and the self-explanatory Make sure to copy these Web addresses or URLs exactly – and enjoy English at its best and most precise!
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I received even more mail about English teaching after I published three letters from our readers last week. Most of them, like the one below – the last I’ll put out on the subject – extolled the praises of good old-fashioned training methods like diagramming under "strict but caring" teachers.

One language-learning method I remember that worked very well for me in grade school was the "SRA" (Science Research Associates, I believe) series of graduated readings, which was also a fun game (the more and the better you read, the higher you went up a color-coded ladder; it was my way of making up for being a patsy on the football field). Unfortunately for most Pinoy kids, the imported SRA approach was available only in schools like La Salle, which bled my poor parents dry. (Well, look, Ma, I’m an English professor now – with take-home pay of less than P10,000 a month!)

But let’s go to that letter, from someone who, it turns out, was an old classmate of mine:

Dear Butch,

Although I did not have the chance to read the article on grammar that caused reader reactions, I agree with the observations of all three letter writers. The best observations came from Fr. Jim and I can relate completely with his "two bits."

When I was in Grade 7, I was very fortunate to have had two very strict, but caring, teachers. Ms. Marina Marquez was our teacher in Reading. She demanded that we memorize three new words each day, to know what they meant, and to be able to use them properly in sentences. Mrs. Magdalena Huab (bless her soul) doubled as our Math and Language teacher. I learned diagramming from her and what a joy it was to parse a sentence!

Widening my vocabulary and understanding the rules of grammar have taken me far. Today, I head the Marketing and Communications Group of SGV & Co. Besides taking care of all our publications, I also conduct writing workshops every so often. The travails of Ms. Sarah are commonplace and can be very frustrating – for both teacher and student – because sometimes it may be too late for them to learn.

When I lived in Japan some years ago, I taught English in a language school. I found the Japanese students very keen on learning grammar rules probably because their own language is governed by several sets of rules. One evening, all the other teachers (American, Australians, and Canadians) were stumped and could not identify a grammar rule that an inquisitive student wanted to understand. They turned to me as a last resort. It was easy enough for me to see – a dependent clause that required a subjunctive verb!

We need more Miss Marquezes and Mrs. Huabs in our schools. Of course, we could sure use a lot of Butch Dalisays, too!


Marlu V. Balmaceda

P.S. We were also classmates in Mrs. Sylvia Ventura’s Short Story class many years ago. We were the giggly girls in front of the classroom who dreaded your story analyses.

Hmmm… sorry about that, Marlu!
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Send e-mail to Butch Dalisay at

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