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James Soriano and English

If you have not seen the essay “Language, Learning, Identity, Privilege” written by James Soriano in his column iThink and which was published both in print and on the Manila Bulletin web site on the 24th of August 2011, make a brief detour to the bottom of this page where I have cut and pasted the article in its entirety.

It has been taken off the Manila Bulletin web site; according to Internet buzz because of its sudden notoriety or because of the excessive requests that had been severely taxing the site’s servers. So many people were searching for it that it became among the top trending topics worldwide on Twitter.

If Soriano’s intention was to provoke thought, then he achieved his objective as indicated by the raging debate on Twitter and many Internet boards. In fairness, there were elements of truism in his essay; and in no way did he make claims other than as he saw them with his own eyes and within his own personal range of experiences.

Therein, though, lays the problem. He himself exposed his own range of experiences to be shallow and regrettably also managed – whether wittingly or unwittingly, we shall leave it to him to explain if he so cares – to convey a persona of utter snobbery.

True, English is the language of learning – but only within the context of education at the Ateneo where Soriano apparently came from as well as in other so-called exclusive schools who pride themselves in their English-based instruction. Within a greater context, though, learning is the absorption of knowledge or information; and language – whatever it may be – is merely the means to convey this.

It is a mere accident of history that we inherited an educational system from an English-speaking colonial master, along with a corollary mass of information printed in that language. There had been attempts to translate some of this information into Filipino. Dire attempts in the translation in particular of technical terminology only ended, however, in ridiculous words that were in all honesty just forced Filipino versions of the original English.

Hence, a language commission subsequently put forth the acceptability of using foreign words in spoken and written Filipino without the need to crudely translate these as used to be the practice. Even the most technical subjects, thus, can now be taught in Filipino. Therefore, Soriano’s statement that Filipino is not the language of the laboratory or the classroom might have been true where he studied; but it was not necessarily true elsewhere.

Where there is teaching and where there are those willing and able to absorb what is being taught, there will also always be learning – in whatever language. Outside the walls of exclusive schools where teaching in English is not made as mandatory for practicality purposes if nothing else, therefore, there is also learning. Thus, it is not entirely correct to say that English alone is the language of learning or of the learned.

It is argued that globalization has made proficiency in English an advantage. The argument does have merits; albeit, given the current state of western English-speaking economies, for how long it will be is the question to ask. What odds are there that Mandarin will become the language to learn – if it is not already?

That said, even in globalization, English is merely a language to communicate what has already been learned and not necessarily the language to become learned in. Why, for instance, do Koreans flock to this country? It is to learn a language that they can use so that they may be able to communicate to other nationalities what they have already learned in Korean.

Do we snicker when Koreans or Chinese or Japanese or other non-English-speaking nationalities communicate in broken and phonetically incorrect English and with grammar that has been to the slaughterhouse? No we do not; and that is probably because we do not expect them to have the correct enunciations and grammar that some of us Filipinos can be so particular about. The truth is, they do not really care.

A lot of the vitriol that has been hurled at Soriano for his candour has probably been undeserved. I can, in fact, relate to some of his statements.

I was educated during an era when English alone – barring Filipino classes – was the medium of instruction. Hence, like Soriano, I also rather tend to think in English. It is a simple case of information-in-information-out; and no different from extracting data from your hard drive.

The difference between us is that although my mother’s father was a sailor in the United States Navy – and could speak American slang with an American twang – and my mother herself taught English in school, we never had pretensions about what the preferred language was at home. We were encouraged to learn English; but we spoke Tagalog at home.

Like Soriano, I also felt that learning Filipino in school – or Pilipino, as we called it during my school days – was something of a chore. In my case, though, I felt that way because I already and naturally spoke Tagalog – the basis for Filipino. I am sure those in this colourful archipelago of ours whose native dialect is other than Tagalog will not be thinking of it the way Soriano and I did.

For Soriano, though, there was irony in that he and his classmates thought they had to learn Filipino as a practical way to communicate with the world outside of their classrooms as opposed to all of them already speaking it because it – or Tagalog, its less formal version – was the native language of their locality. Whatever he thinks, English is still the second language – not the other way around.

Do we blame Soriano for the way he was brought up, though? As he himself narrated, everything inside the home during his formative years was set up for the learning of English. In fact, Soriano offered all of us a very personal and honest window into a world of privilege: a home with help to do the household chores; drivers to pick him up from school; and relations in the province to visit once in a while.

Where he probably erred was in trying to force a connection between that life of privilege and language. There is none. He was born into a wealthy family, period. He was sent to a school where English was the preferred language. There will be many in this country who will probably be as – if not more – affluent but who will not be citing English as a mother language nor making such a big fuss of it.

In truth, he exposed his own world to be small; and because he simply assumed that this small world is a microcosm of the rest of the country, he also managed to step on people’s sensitivities. An old woman with a wizened face interviewed on television last night, for instance, contemptuously challenged Soriano’s declarations by stating that, poor as she was, she could speak Tagalog, Bicolano and – proudly – English.

Over the Internet, there are those who refer to the vitriol raining down on Soriano as his public lynching. These are educated people, mind.

For all we know, Soriano merely wanted to call attention to the inequities that are endemic to our society. Everyone knows about the great divide between the haves and the have-nots. In the end, though, all he ever achieved was to sound as though he was gloating that he lives among the haves – an exclusive circle in which English is the preferred language. Despite calling himself malansang isdâ in a somewhat lame attempt at self-deprecation, he also dissociated himself from the rest of us by referring to English as his mother language.

What a shame that, sometimes, all that expensive university education does not teach people to see the point; neither does it teach people not to put their feet where their mouths are. Soriano was admirably honest in his essay; but in his honesty, he probably could have used a bit more wisdom.

He is young and writes well. He is probably shocked to have drawn such passionate reactions. If there is anything good that has come off this, it is the knowledge that there are so many who truly care about being Filipino.

Language, Learning, Identity, Privilege by James Soriano as published by the Manila Bulletin

MANILA, Philippines — English is the language of learning. I’ve known this since before I could go to school. As a toddler, my first study materials were a set of flash cards that my mother used to teach me the English alphabet.

My mother made home conducive to learning English: all my storybooks and coloring books were in English, and so were the cartoons I watched and the music I listened to. She required me to speak English at home. She even hired tutors to help me learn to read and write in English.

In school I learned to think in English. We used English to learn about numbers, equations and variables. With it we learned about observation and inference, the moon and the stars, monsoons and photosynthesis. With it we learned about shapes and colors, about meter and rhythm. I learned about God in English, and I prayed to Him in English.

Filipino, on the other hand, was always the ‘other’ subject — almost a special subject like PE or Home Economics, except that it was graded the same way as Science, Math, Religion, and English. My classmates and I used to complain about Filipino all the time. Filipino was a chore, like washing the dishes; it was not the language of learning. It was the language we used to speak to the people who washed our dishes.

We used to think learning Filipino was important because it was practical: Filipino was the language of the world outside the classroom. It was the language of the streets: it was how you spoke to the tindera when you went to the tindahan, what you used to tell your katulong that you had an utos, and how you texted manong when you needed “sundo na.”

These skills were required to survive in the outside world, because we are forced to relate with the tinderas and the manongs and the katulongs of this world. If we wanted to communicate to these people — or otherwise avoid being mugged on the jeepney — we needed to learn Filipino.

That being said though, I was proud of my proficiency with the language. Filipino was the language I used to speak with my cousins and uncles and grandparents in the province, so I never had much trouble reciting.

It was the reading and writing that was tedious and difficult. I spoke Filipino, but only when I was in a different world like the streets or the province; it did not come naturally to me. English was more natural; I read, wrote and thought in English. And so, in much of the same way that I learned German later on, I learned Filipino in terms of English. In this way I survived Filipino in high school, albeit with too many sentences that had the preposition ‘ay.’

It was really only in university that I began to grasp Filipino in terms of language and not just dialect. Filipino was not merely a peculiar variety of language, derived and continuously borrowing from the English and Spanish alphabets; it was its own system, with its own grammar, semantics, sounds, even symbols.

But more significantly, it was its own way of reading, writing, and thinking. There are ideas and concepts unique to Filipino that can never be translated into another. Try translating bayanihan, tagay, kilig or diskarte.

Only recently have I begun to grasp Filipino as the language of identity: the language of emotion, experience, and even of learning. And with this comes the realization that I do, in fact, smell worse than a malansang isda. My own language is foreign to me: I speak, think, read and write primarily in English. To borrow the terminology of Fr. Bulatao, I am a split-level Filipino.

But perhaps this is not so bad in a society of rotten beef and stinking fish. For while Filipino may be the language of identity, it is the language of the streets. It might have the capacity to be the language of learning, but it is not the language of the learned.

It is neither the language of the classroom and the laboratory, nor the language of the boardroom, the court room, or the operating room. It is not the language of privilege. I may be disconnected from my being Filipino, but with a tongue of privilege I will always have my connections.

So I have my education to thank for making English my mother language.

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