Jose Antonio Cangco

The tables are being turned against us. How long shall we remain as a country of English speaking people? If we do not maintain our English speaking edge against our Asian neighbors, we will lose that margin unwarily in the next two or three generations.

Do you really believe that Filipinos can speak English very well? Compared to other non-native speakers, yes, we top the list. But is that enough? The English speaking and writing ability of our college graduates is bad. I had come across several nursing graduates from one of the bigger schools in Manila who spell cockroach as two words, they don’t think that it is an animal (but they know it is an insect), nor say that it can crawl. I am also aware of a small incident with an English major graduate applying for a high school English teaching position. When I saw her application letter, I politely pointed out that her introductory sentence had no verb. She said it was a declarative statement. Uh, ok.

If our objective is to produce college graduates only to serve as domestic helpers abroad, then I agree that our educational system on the national level is operative and formative. Yes, some of them even speak better English than their employers do.

But we should not rest our laurels here. Filipino women are working abroad as domestic helpers to escape from poverty. It is an honest way of earning money. But does it not stereotype all Filipinos—professionals and non-professionals alike? There is poverty because there are just too many of us eating a small pie, and not because there are more than 70 languages and dialects in our country.

The answer which is easier said than done is, of course, to bake a bigger pie. But while we are still in the process of mixing the ingredients, or perhaps while we are still looking and gathering them, please do not invite any more visitors. One of the ingredients I want to add, besides population control, is to use English as the medium of instruction in our schools. I believe that this is one way to raise our standards and be globally competitive.

There are many advantages of using English as the medium of instruction with modifications in our public schools. I shall discuss two. English is the language used for international communication. It is utilized in law, commerce and industry, science and the arts. The world is fast becoming a global family that we need to stay competitive. We need to maintain that edge.

I worked for a short time teaching English to Koreans. Korea is fast becoming a global player. Top companies such as Samsung, Daihatsu, Daewoo, and others want English-speaking Koreans as managers. They recruit them from the leading universities in their country. Korean students want to get into these schools so they come here to study the language.

Two of my students were a 22-year old man and a 16-year old girl. I asked them what they want to be after they shall have finished college. They told me their goals. I asked them again another question: what is their alternative in case they fail to achieve their goals. The young man smiled at me and he said that the reason he is studying so hard is not to fail. When I asked the same question to the teenaged girl, she looked at me straight in the eyes and said defiantly that she will not fail.

Korea is second to Japan in the region (and they hate it when you call them number two) because Koreans are focused. Each student—mother, father, son or daughter—has his or her own pencil case and electronic dictionary. Everybody is ready to learn. Back in their country, instead of going to rallies like our students do here, they go to an academy after school is over for yet more lessons.

I am not proposing that we adopt their educational system. Filipino students already want to change the world. They cannot concentrate on their studies. They shout and holler slogans when they can’t even graduate from college. After they shall have graduated then they can change the world. Maybe they are discontented and impatient, but I am of the opinion that using English as the medium of instruction for the elementary, high school and college levels will open their minds and broaden their horizons to other available solutions to the problems besetting our country and at the same time give them the edge in the future.

The second reason why English should be adapted as the medium of instruction is that it is a rich and living language. It comprises a very wide word list. One emotion, one smile can be expressed in so many different words, describing every twitch of a muscle as sneer, smirk, grin, simper, gloat, giggle, chuckle, guffaw, fit, chortle, cackle, titter, snicker, and so on. It opens the mind with so many possibilities, yet it remains focused on or around the original idea the speaker wants to convey.

Contrary to the myth that knowing more makes one a scatterbrain, English will help make the student and speaker reach out for more options and strive for accuracy.

Does being bilingual work against us? We should be grateful we could speak at least two languages. According to a research published in the U.S. by the National Academy Press edited by D. August and K. Hakuta (1997) one of the several benefits of being bilingual is that children who speak two or more languages have better cognitive abilities than children speaking only one language. It is believed that this is so because the second language, which is English in our case, becomes a second tool for the child with which to create new concepts.

Let English be the medium of instruction for all public elementary, high school and college levels especially in all cities and municipalities. In remote places such as mountain or coastal areas, isolated villages and barangays, then the local dialect may be used as a medium of instruction only until the primary level. The medium of instruction to be used in these schools may be determined by the respective school principal and approved by the district superintendent. From the intermediate level onwards, English shall be the medium of instruction.

One big issue where educators are bothered most is that young students learn better if their first language is used in teaching. Especially in far and remote villages, it is very important that the basic skills needed in life such as the three R’s (reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic) be imparted. Let this be done during the primary level using the vernacular as the medium of instruction. Upon reaching Grade V, it becomes imperative that English be used.

One rather minor concern arises. When the student arrives at home from school, there is no one with whom he or she can speak English with. The scenario seems to be is that when the student steps out of the classroom or school compound, there is no place where he or she will be able to practice or use English.

The reason precisely why I am proposing to adapt English as the medium of instruction is for these “alienated” students to have a place, which is the school, where they can practice their English language skills. In this case, it is the school’s responsibility to teach the skill and then provide the place where to use it.

Another minor concern is does English as a subject really matter for college students who pursue the sciences and the arts? Won’t learning advanced and collegiate English be just a waste of time? An engineer can build a bridge without knowing a single word of the queen’s language. An artist can paint without opening a book. The time spent learning the language can be devoted instead to their major subjects.

It is true that one can build a better mousetrap without knowing a single word in English. Unlike high school and elementary pupils, college students have already moved forward and they know, or at least have some inclination, of the career path they are going to follow. The moment they begin life as college freshmen, they have already started out on their respective journeys. Any students who will find English as redundant at this point are most likely to be in the minority. And national progress cannot stop just for them.

In conclusion, using English as the medium of instruction for our public schools with the modifications cited above will give all literate Filipinos the edge by imparting to them the skills to understand and speak it. Better still, our professionals and college graduates will have a slight margin of advantage. They will be able to build a better mousetrap by focusing their minds with a purpose and utilizing a wide array of knowledge available in English.

Copyright by the Author
(Published in the Philippine Panorama, July 27, 2008)

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