Monday, January 22, 2007


I wrote this as a reaction to a conversation I had with someone from the call center industry. Juan Miguel Luz also says something similar in today's Inquirer.

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The irony is that those advocating English as the medium of instruction is schools don’t seem to understand what “medium” means. They are as ignorant of English as the students they want to educate. Both houses of congress as well as the pundits and industry leaders who keep egging them to pass legislation mandating English as the medium of instruction automatically assume that doing so would improve English proficiency.

The fact is that it would do just the opposite and it will take down with it math, science, and other skills as well.

Any educator – quoting studies done by educators and linguists – would tell you that the best way for anyone to learn something is by using the language they are most comfortable with. Heck, common sense would tell you that. Good teachers instinctively know this, lapsing into Tagalog or Taglish when teaching a concept in, say, Geometry that students can’t seem to grasp. Forcing them to use a language that their students are unfamiliar with (or are just beginning to learn) would just make the task more difficult for everyone.

The idea behind the drive to make English the medium of instruction is simple: that it is in our best interest to improve our English speaking skills. With this I agree. I am of the firm belief that the more languages we learn, the better we will be, not just as workers but as people in general. Besides, if this is our ticket out of poverty, then why should anyone oppose the learning of English out of a sense of false nationalism?

But the proponents are approaching it the wrong way. For non English speakers, the best way to learn English is to learn it AS A SECOND LANGUAGE. This means assuming that the students DO NOT KNOW HOW TO SPEAK ENGLISH in the first place.

I had an interesting conversation with the principal of a Chinese school that teaches its students Chinese as a second language. He said that he does not mention this to the parents and grandparents (using instead the term “fresh approach to Chinese-language learning” in the school brochures) since it would cause some sort of uproar. The grandparents would resent it if the school implied their grandkids were like ordinary Pinoys.

However, he continues (and succeeds) with a second-language approach since most of the kids sent to him are 4th and 5th generation Chinoys who grew up speaking Tagalog. Teaching Mandarin the same way it was taught to their grandparents would just confuse the hell out of the children.

Our lawmakers and industry leaders harbor the same mistaken notions as these Chinese grandparents, feeling outraged (or worse not even acknowledging the idea) that students today do not know enough of the language to use it as a tool for learning. They assume that all kids know how to speak English and are just out of practice.

The fact is these kids DO NOT KNOW HOW TO SPEAK ENGLISH in the first place. Teaching them using English without teaching them the English language first would just be STUPID.

How can anyone learn anything when the teacher speaks in a language they can’t understand? If all our professors showed up tomorrow speaking German, we non German speakers would flunk. Sure, after a semester or two listening to them we’d probably be conversant in the language, too, but it would be at the expense of other things we need to learn.

Of course the old fuddy-duddies would claim that they were educated during a time when a “No-Tagalog Policy” was enforced in school, complete with fines. But a quick listen to their spoken English would just prove my point. (“Bye and bye,” anyone?) Except for the young, sosyal congressmen, none of them would pass muster in a call center today. (Not even Mike Defensor, braces notwithstanding.)

To further complicate matters, most teachers – especially in the public schools – do not know how to speak proper English either. Forcing them to teach their classes in English would result in further catastrophe.

By all means, teach students how to speak English but don’t delude yourselves into thinking that having teachers speak English all the time is the best way to do it.

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