The siren call of English

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

Figures show that the Philippines is still the third-largest English-speaking country in the world. But more and more, we have to qualify this statement. Does it mean a deep knowledge of English, or functional English just enough to get by? And what does this statement mean – that there is only one kind of English in the world?

Linguists and language specialists have concluded that there is nothing wrong with code-switching, i.e., using English and Filipino, when discussing difficult concepts in subjects like Science and Math. Moreover, they found out that students in their early years (Grades 1 to 2) learn concepts better when they are taught in their native languages. In short, one’s first tongue – or the language one has imbibed like mother’s milk – is best in laying the foundations for learning.

But this doesn’t indicate the uselessness of English. Learning in English can be introduced in Grade 3 for those whose first language is not English, and we are talking here of a majority of Filipinos. The foundations having been prepared, the students can now navigate the shoals of concepts and arrive at insights using another, borrowed tongue. How so? Because they would already have the confidence to form concepts and insights without translating them in their minds three times, i.e., from Ilocano to Tagalog to English.

Dr. Isabel Pefianco Martin, former chairperson of the Ateneo de Manila University’s English department, wrote that in our country, “The language most feared is English. I see this in my students who joke that their noses bleed after they talk in English; in my friends who claim that they speak English only when they’re drunk; and in my doctor who suddenly switches to Tagalog after I tell him I teach English. We see this fear of English in classes where students feel stupid because they mispronounced a word; in contact centers where applicants take accent neutralization sessions; and in English review centers that continue to mushroom in Metro Manila. Fear of English is also manifested in predictions that the country is approaching an English-deprived future; in House bills that seek to make English the sole medium of instruction in schools; and in courses or training programs that focus only on developing grammatical accuracy.”

How can we banish this fear of English?

As in relationships, we stop fearing somebody when we look at him or her as a friend. Thus, what Stephen Krashen calls “affective filters” should be eliminated. These are the emotional barriers that prevent one from liking, or even loving, a language. And logically, one can like or love a language when these “affective filters” are gone.

I’ve been teaching English for 33 years. I have taught at the Ateneo, Rutgers University in the United States, The Manila Times College and the University of Nottingham in Malaysia, where I currently work as the head of school and professor of Creative Writing. I have taught all kinds of students – from the poor, book-deprived but bright scholar from Malaybalay, Bukidnon to the cool, casual, and book-hating Fil-Am from Queens, New York City, to the Malaysian Chinese who speaks three languages – Mandarin at home, Bahasa required in elementary school, and English required at the universities. There is also the occasional Cambodian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese who enrolled for my undergraduate or even graduate classes in English at the Ateneo. Many of them wanted to become Jesuit priests, and came to the Philippines to take up classes in English, Philosophy, and Pre-Divinity.

What to do with these students?

I tell them to be familiar with English. In short, to live in that language, to inhabit it, to embrace it. They should read their texts, watch English-language films, listen to language tapes and love songs, keep a journal or a blog in English. I encourage them to talk to each other in English. So in my class, Vith the Cambodian talks to Hanh the Vietnamese in English that may be slow now, but we are going there. Maria of Malaybalay begins to string together longer sentences in English, describing the hills of her province. Kareshma is writing a Japanese haiku in English and next semester would write a short story about a rebellious girl in a Tamil Malaysian family. To learn a language is to know its culture. Therefore, I tell them (especially students from other Asian countries) to be more open to other cultures and ways of being. In short, to open the doors and windows of their houses to the call of another language.

Another way to banish this fear is to remember that there are now many varieties of English; it called World Englishes. Its ownership is now shared by many countries and continents. English is no longer talked about in the singular form. Rather, like the atom, it has split and like an organism, it has mutated into many forms. When I was studying in the UK, I heard Kenyan English from Peter Okeke and Nigerian English from Orufemi Abodundrin. When I studied later in the USA, my conversations with Felicity (from Isle of Skye, Scotland), with Marta (from St. Lucia, Caribbean) and with Bob (from Malta) sounded some kind of rich, varied, and musical English to my Filipino ears. And now in Malaysia I talk to Siti who is Malay, Malachi who is of Tamil origin, and Yu Ling who is Chinese, their English inflected with the inner rhythms of their native languages.

English is important and will always be so. It’s one of the 150 languages we use in the Philippines today. Studies show that Filipinos – a talented lot – speak at least three different languages. Who knows, one of them could even be English!

As the poet and UP Professor Jimmy Abad has said, English is no longer a foreign language. It’s already ours, for we have already colonized it. As with a T-shirt or a pair of jeans that you own, you should wear it proudly – and wear it well.

Comments can be sent to danton.lodesta[email protected]. My books in National Book Store include The Best of Ladlad, Happy Na Gay Pa, and Riverrun: A Novel.


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