Thursday, September 07, 2006

Language muddle

A recent bill in the Philippine Congress seeks to reestablish English as the language of instruction in the schools. The sponsors of the bill list competitiveness in the global marketplace and workplace as supporting arguments in favour of its passage.

It is true that English is really the world's lingua franca. A great bulk of scientific literature is in that language. The language of electronic media is also in that language. A cliche is that even the Chinese are scrambling to learn the language, why should we abandon it?

The bottom line is competitiveness. If we look at the history of the West, the first lingua franca was probably Greek. (The known Western world was really the Mediterranean). But the Greeks lost the edge largely due to the centralisation of Imperial and later Church authority in Rome. Latin then became the lingua franca. A clear evidence that Greek was once the lingua mundi is in the Canon of the Latin Mass itself. The Latin Mass preserves its Greek origin in the Kyrie.

With Latin being the lingua franca, a Roman citizen had to learn it in order to deal with government. Soon Latin became the language of the people. By the time of Carolus Magnus, the Frankish King declared that Latin be replaced by the Lingua Rustica Romana in homilies of the Roman priests. So was born the Romance languages.

However Latin was still the language to be able to acquire knowledge. Monks preserved it. A student in the Middle Ages was expected to be able to dispute using it. By the time of the Reformation, a student was still required to be able to speak it If you want to move up the ladder, learn Latin and but be able to wield it well. That was competitiveness then.

We are faced with the same quandary today. I don't think learning English is enough to ensure competitiveness. What may be needed are the requisite technical and knowledge seeking and communication skills. Also the cardinal virtues, one of them is honesty is definitely THE ADVANTAGE.

One can be competitive with any language given the right attitude. Now in a society where cheating in licensure exams is considered commonplace, it is hardly a surprise why employers from overseas have low regard for our competitiveness.

But then again a knowledge of a few languages aside from your own will give a person a wider worldview. Learning a new language is a great cure for parochialism. The tragedy is even after 105 years of English language teaching in the Philippines, we haven't transcended parochialism, and narrow nationalist ideologies and flawed liberal viewpoints. These are made worse by taking horrible liberties with English grammar, usage and logic. Look at the broadsheets and some blogs by my kabayan!

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