Taking on English

English, the language which I’m writing with here, divides us.

And, after Mr. Marcos Jr. particularly mentioned English should be the medium of instruction in schools during his inaugural address, English spawned renewed loosely connected debates and divides us even more.

Laying aside all the thought-and-emotional provoking arguments, let’s manage with the fact Mr. Marcos aired the interrelated points about the pragmatic importance of English to the economy and the teaching of English in our schools.

Broadly, Mr. Marcos Jr. recognizes, for better or for worse, English hereabouts has become an economic skill, a marketable commodity.

How that came to pass has more than to do with the rise of English all over the world rather than Mr. Marcos Jr. being dismayed by many Filipinos badly speaking or writing English.

“English is the most marketable language in today’s globalized economy. It is more sought-after than any conventional commodity traded in the market, pervading the entire range of social and business relations in which it is used and discussed,” says linguistics scholar Rosemary Salomone about English’s modern turn.

To fully comprehend this, Ms. Salomone says this was made possible by globalization, internationalism and the recent rise of knowledge-based economies.

Knowledge-based economies — “in which the production and use of knowledge (rather than goods or services) are primary and in which language and languages have become ‘strategic economic assets’ in themselves” — should concern us if we are to get ahead.

Anyway, those worldwide forces impact our politics and economy. So much so, these now shape not only government’s decisions over language choices and policies but also our decisions on educating children, from grade school to university.

But while we can’t readily get away from seeing English under the distasteful “commodity paradigm,” this shouldn’t also stop us from smartly making use of English to liberate disadvantaged Filipinos.

Not in the service of the worldwide neo-liberal economy, mind you. But in actually making poor Filipinos live far better lives here.

Yes, English opens up “opportunities and access” to poor Filipinos who so far have been excluded because of the state of English teaching in this country.

Let’s face it. English as taught here has not exactly been beneficial to many Filipinos.

If many of us see our schools as supposedly forces of liberation and social leveling, it is not happening.

In point of fact, the decrepit use and teaching of English nowadays, from primary schooling upward, reinforce class divides.

The elite, educated in well-resourced private English-medium schools, reap the consequent benefits of higher education, rewarding careers and social status.

Even beyond schooling, these privileged young people are exposed to English through books, newspapers, films and computers — all of which foster academic achievement and the ability to move freely in the global economy.

Obviously, this isn’t true, with poorer Filipinos being fed with a diet of low-quality English instruction in public schools, due in part to the uneven English proficiency of public school teachers and lack of right resources.

It’s a sad schizophrenic state with which local education activists say take on political undertones, since it is as if calling for better English teaching now mainly reflects “the agendas of those in power, often motivated by an overriding interest in attracting foreign investment and loans to secure their political position rather than concerns for educational quality or workability.”
Still, we still need English to work here. What to do?

Solutions have been offered. But one solution seems to be have been overlooked — multilingualism or knowing several languages.

The notion of multilingualism, however, doesn’t sit well with Filipinos actively calling for the politically-charged “one language, one nation” policy.

But multilingualism is not at the expense of Filipino.

In fact, multilingualism advances “mother tongue instruction” in our schools, notably in the early years of schooling.

Here, the United Nations’ (UN) UNESCO is steadfastly producing studies and reports to advance “mother tongue instruction” since it allows even more English proficiency.

English and Filipino are partners not antagonists, it seems.

Teasing out, that means “first and second languages are mutually supportive and that children need to learn and initially develop literacy in a mother tongue” in order to do better at a second language.

Nothing, therefore, is fundamentally wrong about a country having two official languages as long as these languages are taught well and at the right time in our schools.

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