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A mansion of many languages

by Danton Remoto
Business Mirror Front Page

This is the last in a series of four columns commissioned by the British insurer, Pru-Life, as part of its Planet English project to showcase the English language and English-language writing in the Philippines. The columns appear on the front page of Business Mirror every Monday.


In 1977, my mentor, the National Artist for Literature and Theater Rolando S. Tinio, said:

“It is too simple-minded to suppose that enthusiasm for Filipino as lingua franca and national language of the country necessarily involves the elimination of English usage or training for it in schools. Proficiency in English provides us with all the advantages that champions of English say it does – access to the vast fund of culture expressed in it, mobility in various spheres of the international scene, especially those dominated by the English-speaking Americans, participation in a quality of modern life of which some features may be assimilated by us with great advantage. Linguistic nationalism does not imply cultural chauvinism. Nobody wants to go back to the mountains. The essential Filipino is not the center of an onion one gets at by peeling off layer after layer of vegetable skin. One’s experience with onions is quite telling: peel off everything and you end up with a pinch of air.”

Written 31 years ago, these words still echo especially now, when some misguided congressmen are pushing for English as the sole medium of instruction in schools. Afraid that we might lose our competitive edge in English, they themselves are proof positive that we might have lost it. Their bills, and their illogical defense of these bills, show that the problem is not lack of language skills, but of brain cells.

Decades of teaching English to students (together with four years of teaching Filipino) have shown me that the best students in English are also the best students in Filipino. And how did they master the two languages?

One, they had very good teachers in both languages. Two, they inhabited the worlds of both languages. Three, they have gone beyond the false either-or mentality that hobbled their parents.

Let me explain.

My best students in English and Filipino were tutored by crème de la crème, many of them teaching in private schools. At the Ateneo de Manila University, we have classes in Remedial English, since renamed Basic English or English 1. These are six units of non-credit subjects. The enrollees are mostly intelligent students from the public schools and the provinces. Lack of books and untrained teachers prevent them from having a level playing field with the other freshmen. A year of catching up is necessary for them to have the skills to have a mano-a-mano with the other students.

Moreover, I introduce them to the worlds of the language they are studying – be it in the formal realm of the textbook or the popular ones of film, graphic novel, or anime. I encourage them to keep a journal as well, which is not a diary where you write what time you woke up and why. A journal, or its postmodern cousin, the web log or blog, aims to capture impressions or moods on the wing. If at the same time it sharpens the students’ knowledge of English, then that is already hallelujah for the English teacher.

And the third is that today’s generation of students is no longer burdened by the guilt of learning English – and mastering it. I still remember those writing workshops I took in the 1980s, when I was asked why I wrote bourgeois stories in the colonizer’s language. The panelists said I should write about workers and peasants – and that I should write in Filipino. Without batting a false eyelash, I answered that I don’t know anything about workers and peasants, and to write about something I don’t know would be to misrepresent them. To the charge that I write only in English, I showed them my poems in Filipino, because the modern Filipino writer is not only a writer in either English or Filipino, but a writer in both languages, like colorful balls that he juggles with the dexterity of a seasoned circus performer.

So it’s not a choice between English or Filipino, but rather, English and Filipino, plus the language of one’s grandmother, be it Bikolano, Waray, or Tausug. And in college, another language of one’s choice, be it Bahasa Indonesia, German, or French – the better to view the world from many windows, since to learn a new language is to see the world from another angle of vision. In short, one no longer has to live between two languages, but to live in a mansion of many languages.

To end in a full circle, we must return to Rolando S. Tinio, who said: “Only the mastery of a first language enables one to master a second and a third. For one can think and feel only in one’s first language, then encode those thoughts and feelings into a second and a third.”

In short, as a friend and fellow professor has put it, “The Philippines is a multi-lingual paradise.” The earlier we know we live in a paradise of many languages, the better we can savor its fruits ripened by the sun.


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