The English language debate in the Philippines

Last month, a group of educators, scholars and other prominent individuals filed a petition in the Supreme Court questioning the policies of the government which mandate the use of English as medium of instruction in schools. This sparked a spirited debate in mainstream media and of course in the blogosphere as to what should be the best language to be used in Philippine schools.

Wow Manila gives a backgrounder to the controversial memo of President Gloria Arroyo pertaining to the main language to be taught in schools:

“On May 17, 2003, the President Arroyo promulgated Executive Order No. 210 titled “Establishing the Policy to Strengthen English as a Second Language in the Educational System.” The salient points of the EO are the following:

* English should be taught as a second language at all levels of the educational system, starting with the First Grade;
* English should be used as the medium of instruction for English, Math and Science from at least the third Grade level;
* The English language shall be used as a primary medium of instruction in all public institutions of learning at the secondary level.”

Petitioner Patricia Licuanan appeals for a broader appreciation of the problems besetting Philippine education:

“It's not just English—it's the whole educational system! The deterioration of English must be understood in the context of the general decline in Philippine education. The problem we are facing is not simply the deterioration of English. It is also the deterioration of Math and Science, and it is this general decline that undermines the competitiveness of the Filipino and the Philippines. Indeed, undue emphasis on English may distract us from the bigger problem. Upgrading education in general should improve the quality of English as well.”

Tugot supports the memorandum order of the President. Blackshama's blog contributes in the language debate. A nagueño in the blogosphere agrees with the arguments of the petitioners. Filipina soul presents two views on the issue, and her post generated a lively discussion.

Philippine Schools Online reviews past proposals on the language issue and mentions the current legislative measures favoring the use of English in schools. My Philippine Life looks into the language policies in the country.

A must-read: Manuel L. Quezon III uploads the pertinent documents, news articles, opinion pieces and shares his perspective on the ‘language wars’ in the Philippines.

Perhaps the most intelligible blogpost in advocating the adoption of English comes from Philippine Commentary. A sample of his views:

“The main point I think is that English is an integral and inseparable and most substantial part of the Filipino cultural heritage–ineradicably a part of our intellectual, educational, and historical patrimony. Its rejection and treatment as “foreign” is a twisted form of the self-loathing that some people wish us all to practice as “nationalism.” What they actually are propagating is a romantic kind of aboriginalism that masks a more modern and leftist agenda…Nearly 100 percent of all major scientific papers are published in English, even by non-native English speakers, not only in Computer Science, but in Physics, Mathematics, Biology, Chemistry, Medicine, and the rest of the hard sciences. English is unavoidably the lingua Anglica of the world in this historical epoch, even if it irks the Filipino nationalists and their ideologies of resentment.”

Philippines Without Borders on why the need to master the English language?

“Because everybody else is trying to do the same. Right now, there are probably close to 400 million native English speakers, making English the third largest language next to Mandarin Chinese and Spanish…We should not dilly-dally on embracing policies that would restore the importance of English in Philippine society.”

Seek no more links to an article written by Babe Romualdez on the mistake to reject English as the medium of instruction:

“Filipinos are clearly losing out because of that very big mistake to abolish the use of English as a medium of instruction 20 years ago. Today, a lot of employers are complaining about the deteriorating quality of our graduates, and the fact that majority of them lack the required skill and facility in the English language.”

A small gleaning factory provides an excerpt of a study on the origins of Taglish: a combination of Tagalog and English. The sane unstable2: fighting temptations on school rules in learning English and the uses of this foreign language in Philippine society. Voltaire Oyzon on why English is patronized in the provinces:

“One common misconception about the Philippines is that it speaks only one language–and that is Tagalog (honey-coated as Filipino). In fact, Tagalog/Filipino speakers comprise only 29 percent of the total population and the rest are non-Tagalog…If English is a threat to the Tagalog/Filipino language because it is foreign, then Tagalog/Filipino is also a threat to all the non-Tagalog languages for the same reason. The English language, from the non-Tagalog point of view, is neutral in the sense that it is used globally.”

The Pinoy has an article which notes the concern of foreign investors and business sector on the deteriorating English proficiency in the country. But Businessmirror reports that some Japanese companies are leaving the country, and transferring to China, Thailand and Vietnam because few workers speak Niponggo in the Philippines.

hapoNessa on why the government wants students to learn English:

“Let's face it, the Philippine's biggest export is human labor, and the only thing keeping our economy afloat are those dollar remmittances. The government wants us to learn English so that we can find jobs abroad. We're not learning English for our benefit, we're learning it to serve our masters.”

ThirtySomething v4.3 quotes various studies on the importance of emphasizing native language in the education of children:

“Beyond the preachy rhetorics, other studies on bilingual and multi-lingual methods of education across the world also show that students do better in school if they are taught in their mother tongue instead of an English-only medium of instruction…Why is Malacañang then so petulant on insisting an English-homogenized medium of instruction in schools?”


  • Marcos LLanes

    I believe that spanish should be taught in the philippines because the filipinos need the language to better understand their history. Whether they like it or not,the philippines is a hispanic country not an anglo one. Remember,it was named after king Felipe of Spain!!! I’m married to a beuatiful filipina and she loves the spanish language because she feels that it’s more filipino than english. The thing that bothers me the most is how the americans messed up the language/culture in just fifty years. Muchas gracias,Salamat

  • When I was in the Elementary Grades (1952 – Grade I), English was the medium of instruction. This provided me with a very great advantage in competing for jobs here in the United States. I have seen Filipino grade school students in the cebuano-speaking regions struggle with the Tagalog-based Filipino language. Why were they forced to learn a second language which they will not even use in their homes and their day-to-day conversation with other children? If you really think about it, using Filipino as the medium of instruction was a great disservice to the Filipino people. It has made the level of intelligence of generations of Filipinos very low as if it was intentionally implemented to make Filipino subservient and ignorant and easily manipulated to become “unitelligent voters”. The best example of the great disadvantage it (Filipino medium of instruction) has created is in our nurses who are now here in the United States – they do not know how to speak English. Yes, they speak a few words of English but by rote. They cannot think in English so they have to translate it first in thought before verbalizing the English translation of their thoughts. By that time, the person he or she was conversing with has become confused. Our nurses are unable to converse in English as they are unable to answer correctly the State Nursing Board Exam questions because they find it difficult to understand the questions. Although some nurses are able to adjust their thought processes in 2 years, some do not and still continue to find difficulty in speaking in English. These Filipino nurses survive in the facilities they are working in because working with them are other Filipino nurses who converse with them in their native tongues – Cebuano, Ilongo, Waray, Tagalog and Ilocano. The nurses are able to retain employment because there is a lack of nurses, but they are not upgraded to the higher nurse level because of lack of capability to speak proper English. The absence of ability to think and converse in English is one handicap that a Filipino can avoid if they are already taught to read and speak English in the conversational English language in the primary grades. They will be able to express themselves intelligently by the time they finish High School (intelligence is built up and developed by reading and taking in information from books and other resources. Children who speak their native regional tongue, i.e. cebuano, ilongo, etc. would not be able to build up and develop an intelligence based on the Tagalog-based Filipino language.) Since the Tagalogs are speaking more “Taglish” as ever, this just goes to show that English should be the dominant language in our schools. We do not need to learn or further embellish our own dialect since we already know how to speak and understand them. By insisting on the Filipino language as the educational medium of instruction, we are limiting the intellectual development of generations of Filipino children who will grow up intellectually inferior and deficient for a fast developing global environment. Those who insists on confining the educational medium of instruction to the Tagalog-Filipino language cannot possibly see the ill-effects the medium has on the nation unless they want the country to isolate itself from the rest of the world. The economy of the country floats on the currency sent to the country from Filipinos overseas. The country would not have so many oversea workers if those workers did not know how to speak English.

  • Moderator

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  • The Philippine government doesn’t get it! English is to the advantage of the youngsters especially if they’re looking for work abroad. So leave it alone, teach English as soon as the children start schooling. Do the old fashion way, speak and write English, you’ll be glad you did because I did. Our three children were all born here in the US and I never spoke to them in the Pangasinan dialect or Tagalog because I don’t want them to get lost or confused when they start school and yet they can all understand when my husband and I speak the dialect and the irony of it all is our oldest daughter has a master’s degree in Ethnic Studies and she knows more about the history of the Philippines than any of us in our family and we were all born and educated in the Philippines and we learned Philippine history (part of it). So give those children a break and an advantage teach them how to speak and write English, it’s the international language of the world even Chinese are learning it.
    Teresita G Humilde
    Sacramento, CA 95833

  • There is something peculiarly bizarre about a debate over which of two languages to use, in which the most eloquent and passionate arguments of BOTH sides are nonetheless couched in one of those two languages.

    More’s the irony in the stunning fact that almost all the Petitioners who oppose the use of English as primary medium of instruction in the high schools (meaning 70% of subjects will use English)–almost all the Petitioners make a living or practice a profession that involves the use of English language, as pundit, professor, or National Artist, writing and publishing and teaching in the real world. As if they are feeling guilty about something…

    The root of their confusion is a kind of aboriginal conception of what constitutes the modern Filipino’s “cultural heritage.” They adopt the “Renato-Constantinoesque” view that anything that came from Spain, and especially America, is “foreign” and “colonial” and ought to be largely despised for not being truly our own. Yes of course that is how it started. But now some of these things have become a part of us and what we inherit from the past, as much as anything from some distant Malay and Hindu-Arabic past, if not indeed more, much more, as Benedict the XVI recently claimed for Christianity.

    But just look at one hundred years of Constitution making and Supreme Court Decision making, to which august bodies these folks now appeal for a reversal of time itself. There is at least a century now of English language heritage there, since every single Constitution, Law and Supreme Court Decision ever written and rendered in the Philippine Archipelago has been written originally in English.

    By the way, I am an adept and afficionado of ancient Tagalog poetry, yet I know, as a physicist, that it has neither the vocabulary nor the utility for the study of quantum mechanics, or Nursing, or computer engineering. I treasure it even more for that singular lack of relativity and relevance.

  • Cristobalito

    The use of English is in no way a cultural heritage of the Philippines, Spanish is more so even though Corazón Aquino’s government abolished its use. Even Gloria Arroyo is a fluent Spanish-speaker as are the Aquino family! You should reinstate Spanish and teach both English and Spanish if anything.

  • Chris

    I am american married to a bicolana…
    I am amazed and intrigued with the history of the country.
    The national pride is amazing.
    I am also amazed that the current generation is so far away from their local roots that they aren’t aware of their own dialects in some cases. English is important …yes. I grew up in Chile and am a fluent Spanish speaker. So spanish helps me when it comes to Tagalog. A national language is important for unity, but a global language is important also for national sucess. In the States the fastest growing alternate language is Spanish and a lot of americans are up in arms about it…but ignorant to the solution being that they should learn it…the fact of the matter is the more language you know and don’t limit yourself to, the more flexible and able to perform you are… Some european nationals have command of three and four languages… Do I have the answer? NO just an opinion as does everyone else.
    English seems to be the language of the world, it doesn’t mean the world is bowing to the american ideal or compromising their national pride… It just means the world can get smaller and more people can look outside the box of isolation and share their positive cultural/ economic qualities.

    Muchas gracias, Salamat, Thank you

  • teabag

    National Language = Spanish YES
    Secondary Language = English YES

  • I believe those who are against English (or Spanish) education in the Philippines are misguided in their sense of nationalism. Even in countries where the people speak amongst themselves only the native language, the ability to speak English is an asset that is required in any field, because of cross-international business relations, and any country who wants to build it’s economy is going to have to do business with another country whether they want to or not, importation and exportation is how the world’s countries build their economies, and even if Pilipino is important, let’s be realistic, Filipino kids don’t need schooling to have a fundamental sense of how to speak Pilipino since it’s their birth language. How else will they, especially the poor, learn English? From the television? Of course not, most of the poor can’t afford Cable TV (where most of the English entertainment is), and most shows on Antenna are in Tagalog. From other Filipinos? Unless you’re surrounded by Filipinos who grew up in the states all the time, chances are the best English they’ll learn from Filipino peers is Taglish at most. IT’S THE SCHOOLS WHERE THEY WILL LEARN ENGLISH, AND THAT WILL HELP BUILD THE PHILIPPINES, overseas jobs and Filipinos working overseas has nothing to do with the benefits that come from learning English, because where will the Philippines get the money to rebuild itself? Money doesn’t grow on trees, we’ll have to rebuild the economy by doing some type of exportation/importation, and are you gonna communicate in Tagalog with Europeans, Latin Americans, or Americans? Of course not, they don’t speak Tagalog, but what language will they most likely have learned? English of course. Nationalism is good, but when it’s misplaced and is coming up with objectives that offer a glaring view into the Filipinos’ own insecurities about language and about sosyalness of English (which it shouldn’t be in the first place), then nationalism can be detrimental to the growth of a nation in that respect. You shouldn’t be against the teaching of English just because you think it will be unnationalistic or show that Filipinos aren’t proud to be Filipino, that’s a ridiculous notion, in a showing of Filipino pride, Filipinos would learn foreign languages to try to improve the economy of the Philippines through business relationships and networking.

    On a sidenote, Spanish will be reinstated as an official language by January 2008 according to GMA:
    La presidenta filipina pedirá ayuda a España para oficializar el español

    I’d also like to add that language is best learned as a child, once a child hits puberty, the ability to assimilate a language becomes more difficult, so if we are going to teach the Filipinos to speak better English or Spanish or French or any language, it has to start when they’re children.

  • Spanish is also good, because it’s also announced that by 2030, Spanish will be the second most spoken language in the world, and it’s ridiculously easy for Filipinos to learn Spanish since it’s our language as well, and many Filipinos already speak even a little bit of Spanish.

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