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.

Never fear English

By Danton Remoto
Business Mirror Front Page

This is the third part in the series of columns commissioned by the British insurer Pru-Life for its Planet English project to showcase the importance of English and of English writing in the Philippines.


THE Philippines is still the third-largest English-speaking country in the world. But more and more, we have to qualify this statement. Does it mean a deep knowledge of English, or functional English just enough to get by? And what does this statement mean—that there is only one kind of English in the world?

Linguists and language specialists have concluded that there is nothing wrong with code-switching, i.e., using English and Tagalog, when discussing difficult concepts in subjects like science and math. Moreover, they found out that students in their early years (Grades 1 to 2) learn concepts better when they are taught in their native languages. In short, one’s first tongue—or the language one has imbibed like mother’s milk—is best in laying the foundation for learning.

But this doesn’t indicate the uselessness of English. Learning in English can be introduced in Grade 3 for those whose first language is not English, and we are talking here of a majority of Filipinos. The foundations having been prepared, the students can now navigate the shoals of concepts and arrive at insights using another, borrowed tongue. How so? Because they would already have the confidence to form concepts and insights without translating them in their minds three times, i.e., from Ilocano to Tagalog to English.

Dr. Isabel Pefianco Martin, former chair of the Ateneo’s English Department, wrote that in our country, “The language most feared is English. I see this in my students who joke that their noses bleed after they talk in English; in my friends who claim that they speak English only when they’re drunk; and in my doctor who suddenly switches to Tagalog after I tell him I teach English. We see this fear of English in classes where students feel stupid because they mispronounced a word; in contact centers where applicants take accent-neutralization sessions; and in English review centers that continue to mushroom in Metro Manila. Fear of English is also manifested in predictions that the country is approaching an English-deprived future; in House bills that seek to make English the sole medium of instruction in schools; and in courses or training programs that focus only on developing grammatical accuracy.”

How can we banish this fear of English?

As in relationships, we stop fearing somebody when we look at him or her as a friend. Thus, what Stephen Krashen calls “affective filters” should be eliminated. These are the emotional barriers that prevent one from liking, or even loving, a language. And, logically, one can like or love a language when these “affective filters” are gone.

I’ve been teaching English for 22 years at the Ateneo and have taught all kinds of students—from the poor, book-deprived but bright scholar from Malaybalay, Bukidnon, to the cool, casual and book-hating Fil-Am from Queens, New York. There’s also the occasional Cambodian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean or Vietnamese who has enrolled for my undergraduate or even graduate classes in English.

What to do with them?

I tell them to be familiar with English. In short, to live in that language, to inhabit it, to embrace it. They should read their texts, watch English-language films, listen to language tapes and love songs, keep a journal or a blog in English. I encourage them to talk to each other in English. So, in my class, Vith the Cambodian talks to Hanh the Vietnamese in English that may be slow now, but we are going there. Maria of Malaybalay begins to string together longer sentences in English, describing the hills of her province. To learn a language is to know its culture. Therefore, I tell them (especially students from other Asian countries) to be more open to other cultures and ways of being. In short, to open the doors and windows of their houses to the call of another language.

Another way to banish this fear is to remember that there are now many varieties of English. Its ownership is now shared by many countries and continents. English is no longer talked about in the singular form. Rather, like the atom, it has split, and like an organism, it has mutated into many forms. When I was studying in the UK, I heard Kenyan English from Peter Okeke and Nigerian English from Orufemi Abodundrin. When I studied later in the US, my conversations with Felicity (from Isle of Skye, Scotland), with Marta (from St. Lucia, Caribbean) and with Bob (from Malta) sounded some kind of rich, varied and musical English to my Filipino ears.

English is important and will always be so. It’s one of the 150 languages we use in the Philippines today. Studies show that Filipinos—a talented lot—speak at least three different languages. Who knows, one of them could even be English!

As the poet and UP professor Jimmy Abad has said, English is no longer a foreign language. It’s already ours, for we have already colonized it. As with a T-shirt or a pair of jeans that you own, you should wear it proudly—and wear it well.