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Friday , 19 August 2022

Do not english, english me!

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Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, LL.M
Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, LL.M
Michael Henry Yusingco is a constitutionalist, policy analyst and law lecturer. He is Senior Research Fellow of the Ateneo Policy Center of the Ateneo School of Government. He lives in Macleod, Victoria.

There is an ongoing spirited debate about our national language. More specifically, about whether it should be utilized more prominently by government instead of English. The rationale given is that the latter discriminates against the “masa”, the code word for poor Filipinos.

Of course, behind such an argument are politicians who like to portray themselves as “anti-establishment”, which in their mind means being “pro-masa”. And characterizing English as the language of the elite, and therefore “anti-masa”, is a political gimmick that has put many politicians in office. The title of this piece is a good reminder of how this mentality “Erap-ted” in our politics.  

The premise here is that poor Filipinos struggle mightily with the English language. This seems inconsistent though, with official statistics that show the majority of Filipinos are actually functionally literate as far as English is concerned. For how else would Hollywood, the NBA and Lady Gaga dominate the consciousness of millions of Filipinos, I wonder?

At the core of the debate lies Article XIV, Section 7 of the 1987 Constitution which prescribes the language to be used by government, to wit: “For purposes of communication and instruction, the official languages of the Philippines are Filipino and, until otherwise provided by law, English.”

Thus, we have two official languages, Filipino and English. However, since the American colonial period, our government has always used English as its favored language of communication. This is the reason why our laws, court decisions and other state documents are all in English.

Pertinently, Section 6 provides that:

“The national language of the Philippines is Filipino. As it evolves, it shall be further developed and enriched on the basis of existing Philippine and other languages.

Subject to provisions of law and as the Congress may deem appropriate, the Government shall take steps to initiate and sustain the use of Filipino as a medium of official communication and as language of instruction in the educational system.”

Two points need to be raised here. First, while the language of the government, of legislation, and of the courts in the Philippines continues to be English, there are institutional mechanisms that facilitate the translation of any official communication or proceedings to Filipino. For instance, every court of justice in the country has an official translator. State documents such as our certificate of live birth also has an integrated translation to Filipino.   

Second, the use of Filipino as the language of the nation is suspect because it is basically a Tagalog clone and is very rarely spoken by nationals outside the Tagalog region. And indeed, there are actually over 120 languages spoken in the Philippines. Without a doubt, this necessitates a rethinking of the constitutional designation of Filipino as our one and only national language.  

Our language diversity should be more prominently and officially celebrated because it reflects the narrative that is real to all Filipinos. The promotion of Filipino as the primary language of the state can actually discriminate against non-Tagalog speakers in the country. Imposing this contrived language on the population reeks of Manila imperialism. 

English is obviously a colonial language. But considering that American colonization is a fact of life that is universally shared in the Philippines, the use of English as the official language would certainly be more unbiased for all Filipinos than Filipino. I know that many non-Tagalog speaking Filipinos resent the fact that their mother tongue is relegated simply as “regional” language.  

In sum, this debate about language really just manifests a dire symptom of our education crisis. That we see now many young Filipinos unable to clearly articulate their thoughts and express their views effectively. Unfortunately, social media and texting may have atrophied the communications skills of our youth. 

Nonetheless, there is nothing remotely amusing about lawmakers blaming the English language as the reason for their failure to cope with legislative processes and procedures. The problem is poor comprehension skills, not the language being used. Accepting this fact is a vital step in reforming our education system. 

Unquestionably, proficiency in the lingua franca of the day has gained tremendous economic benefits for many Filipinos. I have personally heard industry leaders during an IT exhibition in Sydney praising Filipinos for our neutral and intelligible accent compared to other English speakers in Asia, such as Indians, Malaysians and Singaporeans.

Therefore, President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr was correct to assert in his first State of the Nation Address that an integral component of education reform is “to maintain that advantage that we have established as an English-speaking people.” This means improving the comprehension skills of our youth goes hand in hand with leveling up their grasp of English. 

But this is just one side of the equation. The more important side, I daresay, is the celebration of our linguistic diversity. Notably, August is “Buwan ng Wika”, which means this is precisely the opportunity for Filipinos to appreciate the various languages being used in the country. 

Indeed, this is the time when Filipinos should be proudly promoting the language of their community and the history they represent. So, I am proud to say that I can understand Zambal, the native tongue of my mother who was from Candelaria, Zambales. I can also understand Cebuano because my father was from Cebu. And I am very happy that the rich histories of these two places are now accessible to other Filipinos.

Unity in diversity must be the guiding principle of our nation-building effort. The more we try to artificially create uniformity, the weaker our sense of nation will become. 



Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, LL.M
Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, LL.M
Michael Henry Yusingco is a constitutionalist, policy analyst and law lecturer. He is Senior Research Fellow of the Ateneo Policy Center of the Ateneo School of Government. He lives in Macleod, Victoria.

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