Saturday, April 28, 2007

Lingua et causus bellum: My take on language

The latest salvo in the Philippine language wars was fired early this week when a group of academics and cultural leaders petitioned the Supreme Court to prevent the President from implementing her executive order mandating English as a medium of instruction in science and math.

The petitioners believe that this is unconstitutional.

Manolo Quezon has given the sides why it is un(constitutional). Nonetheless Quezon's post has garnered more than a hundred responses.

Obviously for the lively respondent blogger, the question of whether we should dump English or not was not the issue. The issue is whether school children should use Filipino to learn the basics of science and math, or to use English.

Scientific studies in psychology, basic education and science education seem to suggest that numeracy and scientific thinking is more effective in the first language of the speaker. Only when the child has attained a more mature level of cognitive skills can English be introduced. In many areas where English is taught as a second language, this is in the mid-grades of primary school. Language psychologists give a cut off age of 6-8 years for a child to develop a near-native proficiency in a second language. After this a child would gain proficiency but at a "native-like" level.

Psychologists agree that it becomes more difficult to learn a new language as an adult. Of course there are exceptions. One exception would be the Pinoy National Hero, Dr Jose Rizal. If we are to believe beyond the hagiography, Rizal learned many languages but he was exceptionally good in Spanish, French, and German. Ambeth Ocampo writes that his English especially the written kind, pales before that of Apolinario Mabini's. Mabini self-studied as an adult and was able to write a gramatically correct and coherent letter to an American lady.

As for German, the fact that Rizal was able to impress the Germans is evidence enough of his proficiency. Rizal to this day is well remembered especially in Heidelberg.

In the blogosphere exchange, I believe there isn't much agreement on English being a second or a foreign language in the Philippines. While everyone agreed that English should be taught and maintained, the question is at what level of proficiency and for what purpose?

The question of national identity came in. Will the use of English erode the Pinoy identity? I think not unless the Pinoy himself consciously dumps his Pinoy identity (in a way to break "invisible borders in the host country) as evidenced in migration studies on Fil-Ams. In fact this dumping of identity may even be transnational as one Fil-Am blogger exemplifies when he writes that he was a Westerner and not Asian. Recent studies in cognition suggests that this identity goes beyond culture and language but lies in how different thinking patterns are between nationalities.

Quezon gives us links on the experience of Malaysia through the statements of its education ministers . Having read some of the web posted statements, I would tend to agree with the Malaysians but we have to recognize that there are distinct differences between Malaysian society and ours. First of all Malaysia is more of an "immigrant" society than Filipino society. However this immigration was a result of British colonial policies that also imposed English. In the Philippines, colonialism imposed English but the US Colonial rulers strictly controlled the entry of immigrants, a policy that continued in Manolo Quezon's grandfather's Commonwealth. This policy still continues in part since we forbid foreigners to practice certain professions, without which there is no path to Filipino citizenship.

Malaysia's situation made it imperative to have a national but multi-racial language. The same is true with the state that it booted out, Singapore. The language policy allowed Malaysia to maintain it's identity and to forestall the negative effects of immigration.

This situation hardly verifies for the Philippines, we have to develop a stronger sense of national identity but along a set of common national values that promotes regional diversity. The Malaysian experience should give us pause for thought. Its national language policy had negative consequences. The Malays are likely to be monolingual as compared to the multi-lingual Chinese and Indian communities. In a globalized economy, multilingual people have an edge.

Malaysia has taken strides to promote multilingualism to its citizens and promotes English as a necessary medium for development as well as it also contributed to its national identity.

But Malaysia is unlikely go back to impose English as the only language of instruction especially in primary school. A Malaysian minister writes

"Such a move, as using English to teach Science and Mathematics, implemented in early 2003, would put children in the rural areas, rubber estates, and city fringes at a disadvantage. These children have no command of English at all. They will receive no help in learning English at home as parents of these lower income groups living in these areas do not speak English."

We will have to see how Malaysia fares with a renewed language policy. As for my opinion, let's study, promote, speak, write and teach English as a second language. It is not foreign since part of our national identity was forged using it. Let the learners decide at what level of proficiency they need. Of course these learners would know that there is a minimum level needed if they want to be competitive in a global marketplace.

BTW, we have to promote English. Our ruling elite says that we need to. However we don't have an Philippine English Style Manual that contains rules on usage, spelling and Philippine writing conventions.

When I was studying in Australia, I had to buy a copy of the Australian Style Manual, a document published by the Commonwealth Government in Canberra. All government and school users are expected to follow what the manual says.

Reading the Malaysian statements, I realized that they are probably using a style manual that is obviously British influenced but distinctly Malaysian.

Everyone complains how we have regressed in English competency but no one has really started creating one. So we use American style manuals. Oh how we haven't appropriated English for our own good!


DJB Rizalist said...

So, this is your place of exile! Home is where the heart is though. Where is that for you?

blackshama said...

Try to guess? :)

Planet Earth. I am an Earth Citizen :)

The Philippines? :) :)

Let me quote Rizal's Canto del Viajero in English

"The pilgrim returns to his own country
Perhaps to familiar shores
He shall find only ice and ruins
Loves that withered, graves and nothing more"

"Now Go wanderer! In your own country always a stranger, always alone
Let others sing of loving
But you who return, only then to leave"

To Ambeth Ocampo's delight, I'm a big fan of Rizal. Rizal seems to personify everything us Pinoys are. Political refugee, intellectual, multilingual but can't express as much in his first language, global citizen, foreign student, foreign trained health professional, lover, martyr, mayabang etc

blackshama said...

I forgot victim of discrimination