How’s our English?

The news about Miss Philippines receiving flak for English grammar errors  while speaking at a press conference opens up a long-running issue in Philippine education. In fact, with K12 launched in 2012, public schools have added ‘Mother Tongue’ as a subject in Grades 1 to 3  as “studies show this helps children learn not only their lessons, but second or third languages as well.” That’s a non-debatable fact. Our problem rather is how we go about teaching English. And it is most unfortunate that an individual, Miss Philippines, has been singled out as the receiving end of a national frustration.

DepEd teachers are known within their communities for openly reprimanding students for errors in grammar. This is partly from having been themselves schooled in traditional teaching approaches. I had a colleague, a retiree of DepEd, who came on board as a senior advisor. She’d correct other colleagues, young and old alike, even while they were presenting, when she believed they made grammar mistakes. She did it as if that’s what’s been programmed into her. A habit. Since she was in her early 80s everybody took it in good humor. Of course we would’ve appreciated the gesture if it was done behind closed doors.

For me, correctness in spoken English is non-negotiable in these situations: presentations of studies, proposals, and the like, legal proceedings, certain interviews, debates, certain speeches, and such like. If the speakers cannot do it in straight English, then in straight Filipino or in the dialect of the audience. Otherwise, have a translator. The reason is elimination of misinterpretation of facts as well as to convey that you mean business and also out of respect for the language (which is a nation’s heritage and cultural asset hence the term ‘huwag babuyin’) and the audience who may have had to walk miles and probably slay dragons along the way just to be able to hear your talk.

In all others, non-native speakers should be at ease speaking the language. Made a gaffe? Laughter is still the best medicine. Hopefully the other also finds it humurous (in a good way). You’ll know better the next time at least.

I once taught conversational English and writing as part of an ESL programme to two Korean grade schoolers on winter vacation here. The first thing I did before our initial meeting was visualized that if I were to switch places with them ie. if I were the one learning the Korean language how would I want or expect my teacher to proceed? For sure I didn’t want a Miss Smarty Pants with a glinty metal ruler attached to her hand that she’d smack me with every time I hesitated, were unsure, tried to check with my dictionary app, or actually uttered a mistake. I wouldn’t have learned anything from her, or if I did at all it would’ve been because I didn’t want the metal anywhere near my skin. I would associate learning the language to dreadful feelings. As soon as I’d have completed the programme I’d probably immediately go into self-imposed amnesia in the attempt to flush out the experience from my system.

Sadly, this is the fate of Filipino- or dialect-speaking pupils in the public schools who are learning English for the first time. The Koreans on the other hand are doing it right by learning the language outside of the formal school system through appropriate learner-paced programmes. For Filipino pupils in public schools, as young as six or seven, imagine the mental shock and confusion as they are made to fast-navigate on their own this wholly new and peculiar world. Teachers demand correctness at once when such ought to be arrived at through a process, a mutually-rewarding process that is.

What if ESL is brought into the school curriculum especially public schools? But first in order to do that a review of public school teacher-training programs. What trainings and skill-related programs are English teachers receiving? Many English teachers in public schools especially in the countryside are left behind compared to their counterpart in the urban areas, private schools, and even independent ESL teachers. Many public school English teachers today themselves cannot speak or express lengthily in straight and error-free English. As what IT people would say, garbage in garbage out. Also, English, or any language for that matter, cannot thrive where it is not spoken or utilized by others in the community. After all, English is a living language.


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