English opens doors

We'd like to believe that we deserve a society that treats people fairly regardless of how well they speak and write English and regardless of whether they speak it with a regional accent or not. We think, if we continue stomping our feet enough in a loud appeal to nationalist sentiment, that we could one day see a society where people with a fourth-grade level of English language proficiency are as well-regarded as those of us who are privy to the kind of thinking and knowledge that only the English language (as well as the languages of cultures with extensive track records of achievement) can efficiently convey.

Unfortunately what we think we deserve is not usually what we actually get.

Some people here may not have noticed it yet, but differences in degree of command over the English language across the population is one of the key polarising forces in Filipino society -- whether we like it or not. That is the grim reality whether it be in the mad scramble for plum positions in Government and the corporate world or a competition of ideas bourne out of those rare bursts of thinking outside the square (more specifically, thinking outside of the square of Pinoy-grade thinking).

As I did write in my book:
Acquisition of knowledge – the fuel for intellectual advancement – is an unnecessarily challenging issue in Philippine Society. The few volumes of material containing useful information in, say Tagalog, being turned out by the heroics of a few purists – and translators – constitute a trickle compared to the torrent of knowledge that is churned out by the advanced world everyday. The Philippine Elite, armed with their private school or foreign university educations – and superior command of English – readily soak this all up. The masses, on the other hand, struggle to grasp the same ideas through severely limited communication faculties. The insult of an inability to acquire ideas articulated in English is added to the injury of their lack of access to quality education.

Thus, the obvious Truth stares us in the face:

- English opens doors.

- Excellent English gets you through those doors first.


It gets you the great jobs.

Dish out a good dose of the ol' "Arrneo" accent and watch the smiles that follow in the faces of recruiters. Demonstrate consistent grammar, spelling, and sentence construction, and you find favour among managers who constantly fret over wasted time proofreading the reports and emails of the more vastly numerous products of the Philippines' diploma mills.

It gets you the chicks.

Don't believe all those Tagalog movies where Sharon Cuneta the kolehiyala falls for Robin Padilla the kanto boy. Those movies make a lot of money by playing on the sad frustrations and fantasies of the vast majority of Filipino males.

It gets you an audience.

An audience that matters, that is. Because, honestly folks, how much can one actually expect to learn from pandering to a crowd that finds comfort in re-assuring one another that being "down-to-earth" (read: mediocre) in English is "o.k."? There's a false sense of safety in the immense comforting numbers of Filipinos who come together in a gigantic love-in on the basis of a shared sense of exclusion from that tiny but elite world where world-class ideas are exchanged -- and profitably exploited -- in high-fallutin' glory. They are the masses and therefore the audience that matters, some say. Suuure. And yet we tremble at the might they wield come election time. Why do we "tremble"? Because we have come to know the palpable stupidity of the popular vote. What then do we learn by pandering to them? Leave that effort to the politicians -- a profession where even morons can succeed.

It so happens that the VAST majority of Filipinos are unable to cobble together an English paragraph without sporadically reverting to Tagalog words or simply turning the text into an incoherent spaghetti-like mishmash of subject-verb disagreements, inconsistent multiple clauses, and appalling application of idiomatic expressions (in the context of those, minor spelling oversights can be forgiven). Tragic when one considers how so many otherwise insightful ideas are not done justice by the people who wish to convey them, all because we prefer to find comfort in the warm fuzzy mediocrity of the vast majority.

The good news is that although I highlight that the tiny elite who enjoy an excellent command of English are overwhelmingly products of elite private schools, there are exceptional exceptions. You can see this in the few who have recognised what it takes to succeed in a society ravaged by a particularly debilitating strain of colonial mentality, and the broader reality of a world utterly dominated by a lingua franca that Filipinos once upon a time had a legitimate claim to mastery over in the region.

The bottom line is that English proficiency can be acquired regardless of the circumstances of one's upbringing. One only needs to stare what is real in the face and recognise what it takes to succeed.

The alternative will be a pathetic resignation to a lifetime of demanding that those who think as a matter of habit dumb down the language that they use.

[This article was originally published by the author on 09 June 2009 in the now-defunct FilipinoVoices.com.]


  1. We should probably try to bring back Spanish as well. It's spoken by as many people as English, if not more. And the Latin American market is booming, even outside of Portuguese Brazil.

  2. Yes, it's one of the biggest tragedies in human history -- being subject to 400 years of Spanish rule and then not becoming a Spanish-speaking country.

  3. In connection with The Lazzo's comment I was wondering. Considering that there are at least a good thousand words of Spanish origin in most of the major Philippine dialects,(The Tagalog language has at least 5000 words of Spanish origin.) theoretically would Filipinos have an easier time learning Spanish than English? To clarify, this question is a question about EASE of learning a language no superiority in scientific discourse.

  4. Spanish would be better than 114 dialects that no one elsewhere in the world speaks. Chinese would be more practical than Spanish. English would be far easiest given that all the official documents are already in English and most of the country can speak it. The question is vision and commitment. What is the vision? To remain the same?

  5. and what happens with the 30 million historical documents written in Spanish ?
    We throw them all away and forget our history ???
    Spanish should be our lingua franca like it was less than 100 years ago,, si señor, más fácil que inglés

  6. I think that the one thing that is overlooked is something that many people, in Europe, practice. By that, I mean speaking MULTIPLE languages. There should be a population, in the Philippines, that speaks BOTH English and Spanish. Forget all the obscure languages and dialects. It's called "EVOLUTION".


Post a Comment

Popular this week

Photos of a group of Filipino men slaughtering and eating a dog

Roundabouts to "solve" Manila traffic - a microcosm of flawed Filipino thinking