The language barrier....

While driving home after dropping my son off at his mother's the other day, I came across a radio station which featured TV and radio personality Larry Henares performing an oral reading of a column written by Conrado de Quiros. At first I didn't pay it much attention, but somehow the topic piqued my interest.

It was about how language has become a barrier to literacy in this country.

I found the piece quite interesting that I looked it up on the internet. It's entitled Dying things, and I found it posted here, on It's also posted here, on Conrado de Quiros' blog.

Maybe you should give it a glance before going further.

Done reading it yet? Okay, to continue...

I certainly agree that the quality of written and spoken English in this country has significantly declined the past several years. I have come across people in higher management and people who hold postgraduate degrees who are virtually incapable of speaking or writing at least acceptable English. I'm not talking about having flawless diction or impeccable grammar. I'm talking about simple everyday spoken or written English. If this is the level of English proficiency to be expected of managers and professionals, what more can I expect from ordinary people or those unable to finish college or God forbid, high school?

De Quiros' view that the death of reading as a pasttime is responsible for this decline in English skills is pretty spot on. In this day and age, people would rather watch TV or movies, or play video games than hunker down with a book and read. He quotes Undersecretary Juan Miguel Luz of the Department of Education (DepEd) as saying: "It's all a function of reading." "The kids are not reading, or are not reading with comprehension." It is this second phrase that I find intriguing. "Not reading with comprehension."

De Quiros goes further by advancing the opinion that it is English as a language itself which is responsible why "kids are not reading with comprehension". In his view, Filipino students are doing "double the work of their counterparts in the English-speaking world. They have to learn the language first, and then express scientific and mathematical concepts in it. Their counterparts merely have to deal with the second."

I have to disagree. How can Filipino students be doing double the work of their counterparts in the "English-speaking world" when we are in fact, English speaking ourselves? The Philippines is one of the largest English speaking nations in the world (third or fourth largest, depending on where you look it up), up there with the ranks of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.

Besides, English is the universal medium of instruction in all schools in the Philippines. Despite the cries of the nationalists, Tagalog-based Pilipino, perhaps partly because of our own fault in not developing it, or because of the language's inherent limitations, is just not suitable for teaching science and mathematics.

If you think otherwise, try this simple test. Translate the following statements into comprehensible Pilipino:

A derivative is the limiting value of the ratio of the change in a function to the corresponding change in its independent variable.

An electromagnetic field is the field of force associated with electric charge in motion, having both electric and magnetic components and containing a definite amount of electromagnetic energy.

You see what I mean?

I don't see how Filipino students can be held back by the use of English, when it is, arguably, probably even more of a first language than it is a second, compared to Pilipino. All you have to do is take a look around you. The vast majority of signs and billboards everywhere, even in the provinces, and our mass-circulation newspapers (more on this later) are all in English.

Even the first words coming out of the mouths of babies are English: "Mama" and "Papa". We communicate with our newborns more in English than in Pilipino. We ask babies to show us their "beautiful eyes", we teach them to manipulate their hands by saying "close-open" and make them point by asking them "where's the light?".

The bottomline is, we are probably more English speaking than de Quiros gave us credit for in that particular column. The sad truth is however, we cannot make up what we lack in quality with quantity. Even despite our huge English-speaking population, the vast majority of us speak or write English in a sub par manner. And it shows.

As for newspapers, he lamented the fact that our newspapers circulate in far less numbers than other Asian countries, and that our broadsheets are invariably, all in English rather than Pilipino. Perhaps he is correct in his observation that we do not have a mass base of newspapers readers in the country. To me, the fact that our mass-circulation newspapers are almost all in English doesn't really matter. Whether as a blessing or as a curse, our use of English is an offshoot of our colonial past, and it is now part of who we are as a nation, whether we like it or not. With regard to poor readership of newspapers, I am more inclined to believe that it has probably something to do with our economy. The vast majority of people in the country are living below the poverty line, and the cost of buying a new issue of a broadsheet everyday, say the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) for instance, can run into more than P500.00 per month. This is enough to make a difference in some households whether they have three squares meals a day or not.

So I guess it all boils down to economics. Households with less disposable income tend to spend theirs on basic needs: food, clothing, shelter. Newspapers and other reading materials aren't necessities. Strangely enough, some even consider them as luxuries. You can hear the news on the radio or watch it on TV. As for the quip: "I'll just wait for the movie", is rightfully not just a quip when it has an economic basis as well. A cinema ticket is still a lot cheaper than books, and with the proliferation of pirated cable and VCDs and DVDs, even cheaper still if one resorts to "less than legitimate" sources of movies.

Unfortunately, this scenario also breeds a vicious cycle. The poor English speaking students of today will also become the poor English speaking teachers of tomorrow. Not to mention poor English speaking managers and professionals.

And with the internet fast becoming the medium of choice when it comes to information dissemination, we risk falling further behind given the relative expense of an internet connection.

In conclusion, I offer this humble estimation: It's all about economics. Fix the economy, lower prices of basic goods, increase the spending power of the masses so they can afford to buy books and newspapers. If that doesn't jumpstart our poor English literacy skills, I don't know what will. Of course, it's all easier said than done. It's not about who we are, and what language we speak or write in which is giving us problems. It's our limited means to feed our minds and improve our English literacy skills which is seriously holding us back.


It is a fact that Filipino students are now below par compared to their counterparts in other Asian countries.Indeed,the standard of education in this country has gone to the dogs...Thanks to our government and its screwed-up policies.

The late Sen. Rocco tried to uplift the standard of education when he was with the dept. of education,and what did the government do? They kicked him out....For political reasons.

It's not just about economics ron,it's about politics as well.
Ronald Allan said…
While politics does have a major role in in why we are having a lot of problems in this country, blaming politics for all our woes, whether with regard to literacy or anything else, doesn't seem to make for an "elegant" analysis. It's a given, right?

Actually, the dismal economic situation of the country which I cited as a cause is due in part to the screwed up policies of the government. But that goes without saying, I think.

Maybe we should go down deeper to find a more specific cause for the decline in our literacy.

Former Sec. Roco wasn't really kicked out, he resigned in protest after the DepEd Union filed charges of alleged corruption and electioneering against him. It stemmed from the printing of Christmas calendars with his picture on them, which was thought to be a form of electioneering. GMA endorsed these charges, to bring down Roco a peg or two, because he was turning out to be a popular rival for the Presidency.

While the image and approval rating of the DepEd rose to a record 73% during his tenure, a lot of DepEd employees didn't seem to like him, especially when he went after the syndicated loan sharks giving out loans to public teachers.

Yes, it's all about politics. But truth be told, there hardly isn't anything screwed up in this country that isn't caused by politics if we trace everything. :-)

Cheers Guy!
About the late Sen. Rocco's tenure in the DepEd.He did quit in protest pala,my bad.And that's because he was getting flak from every side for standing up for what's right.

Indeed,you try to clean up the mess and you inevitably step on sensitive toes...

Cheers too ron! :D
Ronald Allan said…
That seems to be the norm in Philippine politics. Rock the boat, and they toss you overboard. :-)

Moral of the story: If you want to be a boat rocker, make sure you can swim first! :-D

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