The Explainer: A language of convenience

My Fair Lady

Hear them down in Soho square,

Dropping “h’s” everywhere.

Speaking English anyway they like.

You sir, did you go to school?

Man Wadaya tike me for, a fool?

Henry No one taught him ‘take’ instead of ‘tike!

Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?

This verbal class distinction, by now,

Should be antique. If you spoke as she does, sir,

Instead of the way you do,

Why, you might be selling flowers, too!

Hear a Yorkshireman, or worse,

Hear a Cornishman converse,

I’d rather hear a choir singing flat.

Chickens cackling in a barn Just like this one!

Eliza Garn! Henry I ask you, sir, what sort of word is that?

It’s “Aoooow” and “Garn” that keep her in her place.

Not her wretched clothes and dirty face.

Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?

This verbal class distinction by now should be antique.

If you spoke as she does, sir, Instead of the way you do,

Why, you might be selling flowers, too.]


Rex Harrison,  seen here as Professor Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,”, bewailed the class divisions based on accents, among his fellow Englishmen. Any young Filipino involved in call center work, knows how an accent can make or break your career.

But beyond parroting Iowa-style English, there’s an ongoing debate on how, or whether, we should go about promoting English.

Recently, in Laoag, a kid spoke to a tricycle driver in English and got a slap from the driver. The driver, you see, thought the kid was being patronizing.

Chances are, the kid had taken the English-speaking campaign in school to heart; but the reaction of a touchy elder reminds us that language is an issue fraught with raw emotion and even danger.

Tonight, we’ll be meeting a writer who’s put together useful, even essential, guides to improving your English comprehension and proficiency. I’m Manolo Quezon, The Explainer.


I. If Dodos could speak


We like to think that the quality of English, never mind the quantity of English speakers, has been deteriorating since the 1970s or the 1980s or what have you; and we assume that we lived in a kind of linguistic golden age, as far as English was concerned, in the 1950s and 1960s.

But 72 years ago, in the mid 1930s, native English speakers and Filipino educators had already noticed a deterioration in the English proficiency of Filipinos.

On July 9, 1936, Francis Burton Harrison ran into this gentleman, Rafael Palma of UP’s Palma Hall fame. After their chance encounter, Harrison scribbled the following in his diary:

I commented to Palma that I could barely understand the English spoken by the young Filipinos of today. He admitted that their accent is getting worse and worse, and hopes this may be corrected by the use of gramophones in the schools.


Let’s begin by pointing out that our founding fathers and mothers were all multilingual people. Some were exceptionally gifted in that regard, like Rizal.

But consider three men we looked at in recent weeks: Apolinario Mabini, intellectual and lawyer, knew Spanish, Tagalog, and English; Bonifacio wrote in Tagalog but had earned a living as a clerk and so, was competent in Spanish; as was small town politician turned president Emilio Aguinaldo.

Indeed, if we take a look at the times of these three men, we can see that they wrestled with issues we still debate today.

Under Spain, although the language of government and Spanish society was naturally Spanish, the native tongues thrived. Even the Filipino households that formed part and parcel of the colonial society—and, therefore, used Spanish widely—never gave up the use of their respective local languages. This is in contrast with Spanish America where Spanish became the exclusive language of society and the various Indian languages took the form of a kind of exotic survival, spoken only by the uneducated, numerous though, they might be.

At the time of the Revolution, a completely unequivocal attitude toward our language failed to develop. The proposal for a provisional Constitution prepared by Mariano Ponce in April of 1898, by order of Emilio Aguinaldo, made no mention of an official or national language.

The Constitution submitted by Apolinario Mabini to the Revolutionary Government in Kawit on June 6, 1898 under Title X—On Public Instruction, first requires the teaching of “the official language, which is Tagalog,” at the elementary level, then the teaching of English at the next level, and the whole section ends with the statement that “When the English language shall have been sufficiently spread throughout the Philippine Archipelago ‘se declarara idioma oficial.’”

Whether this mean that English would become an official language or the official language, there was no clear-cut preference for a native tongue.

The Malolos Constitution, under Article 93, stated that the languages in use in the Philippines could continue in use, their use could not be regulated except by law and only for the acts of public authority and judicial processes. For the latter two, Spanish was to be used for the time being. Again, a rather amorphous situation.

Article XIII, Section 3 of the Constitution of the Philippines, at the time of its adoption by the Constitutional Convention on February 3, 1935, provided that “the National Assembly shall take steps toward the development and adoption of a common national language based on one of the existing native languages. Until otherwise provided by law, English and Spanish shall continue as official languages.”

Indeed, we forget that at the time the national language policy was established under the Commonwealth, it was part and parcel of a trilingual policy: English and Spanish were to be retained; they would be joined by the national language.

Proof of this can be found in an interesting book by Vince Rafael, titled “The Promise of the Foreign: Nationalism and the Technics of Translation in the Spanish Philippines.”

The fact that we are going to have a national language does not mean we are to abandon in our schools the study and use of the Spanish language and much less English which, under the [1935] Constitution, is the basis of primary instruction. Spanish will preserve for us our Latin culture and will be our point of contact with our former metropolis as well as Latin America. English, the great language of democracy, will bind us forever with to the people of the United States and place within our reach the wealth of knowledge treasured in this language.

-Manuel L. Quezon, December 31, 1937


This is not the time or place to get stuck in the English versus Filipino debate, but rather, to step aside from that debate and recognize, as our forefathers did, that knowing English is a good thing. Abandoning English altogether is a decision, and a problem of recent vintage.

So when we return, we’ll take a look at the obstacles in our path to better English –and meet an author who can help you out, even if your teachers can’t.


II. A linguistic lifeline


The problem is, as this scene from “Little Britain” showed, those who speak English natively often have an irritating and unfounded sense of superiority over those who can claim their own, authentic, English-speaking traditions.

And so let me point out that English has been around long enough, to earn respect and consideration as a Philippine language.

We have Filipino English, just as we had Filipino Spanish, itself a sub-variety of Mexican Spanish.

We also know that a language can die out, because we’ve seen how Spanish has died out within our lifetime in the Philippines.

And we live out a trilingual way of life in many of our homes. We instinctively cherish our native languages, because we know it’s necessary for us to have an identity, one derived from knowing we’re heirs to a particular culture; we have, most of us anyway, embraced a national language as something necessary for us to have national unity and which helps identify the values our subcultures have in common; and many of us have learned a foreign language because it is essential for prosperity and progress.


So before we meet our guest, let me recommend  some readings.

First of all, this book, “Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World,” the history of languages throughout the world and to explain why some languages survive and spread while others don’t. As a sub-theme is the question of why some languages succumbed to conquest and others didn’t.

For those of you who want to go deeper into the national language debate, besides Vince Rafael’s book on the death of Spanish, here are two books, sadly now difficult to find, by the late Education Secretary and Christian Brother Andrew Gonzales.

But let’s get to the problem at hand.

Is there a difference between knowing enough English to use it as a working tool, and knowing English to that extent that it has a place in your mind and in our your heart as a living language?

After all, what would be the use of submerging your child in a comprehensive English-speaking culture in school if once at home, your child wasn’t exposed in turn, to English?

Put another way, even if you want to learn English, and learn it well, can you learn it properly at the hands of our present-day teachers?

The author we’ll meet, when we return, can help parents speak proper English and help students rectify the errors that might be transmitted to them by incompetent English teachers.


My view


The leading English-language dailies all claim a circulation pretty much identical to the peak circulation of the Manila Times prior to Martial Law.

A best-seller in our country is a book that sells anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 copies in a year. That, in a country composed of 90 million people.

This network and this show are, themselves, a demonstration of how English is dying in our country. This station, ANC, and this show, exist in a kind of ghetto. Restricting English language programming to cable is hard-nosed economics at work. Your losses are less.

Conversely, the money to be made by kicking out English-language programming to cable, freeing up free TV for Filipino language programming, is limitless.

Here’s the Catch-22: when you keep English in the cable TV ghetto, the result is that you’re accelerating the extinction of English as a living language here at home; and the faster the rate of extinction, the more logical it becomes for networks to keep English in the cable TV ghetto.

The ghettoization of English on TV is similar to the ghettoization of English in our schools. There must be a better way to teach English and to divorce it from the emotions that have twisted the practical question of promoting English instruction into a kind of treason.

But hey, that’s just my opinion.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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