Language, learning, identity, privilege

The following article by James Soriano, a Manila Bulletin columnist and senior BS Management student at Ateneo de Manila University, was originally published in the Manila Bulletin on Aug. 24, 2011. The controversial article, which drew criticisms from netizens on social networking sites Twitter and Facebook and even became a trending topic nationwide on August 26, 2011, was supposedly removed from the publication’s website at some point in time. A Google search, however, showed the article in its original Manila Bulletin location. As it whipped up a storm from the streets to Congress, the article was republished in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on 10 Sep 2011. If you wish to follow the comments, click on the original article, or the GMA News follow-up article featured in the comment section below:

James Soriano

English is the language of learning. I’ve known this since before I could go to school. As a toddler, my first study materials were a set of flash cards that my mother used to teach me the English alphabet.

My mother made home conducive to learning English: all my storybooks and coloring books were in English, and so were the cartoons I watched and the music I listened to. She required me to speak English at home. She even hired tutors to help me learn to read and write in English.

In school I learned to think in English. We used English to learn about numbers, equations and variables. With it we learned about observation and inference, the moon and the stars, monsoons and photosynthesis. With it we learned about shapes and colors, about meter and rhythm. I learned about God in English, and I prayed to Him in English.

Filipino, on the other hand, was always the “other” subject – almost a special subject like PE or Home Economics, except that it was graded the same way as Science, Math, Religion and English. My classmates and I used to complain about Filipino all the time. Filipino was a chore, like washing the dishes; it was not the language of learning. It was the language we used to speak to the people who washed our dishes.

We used to think learning Filipino was important because it was practical: Filipino was the language of the world outside the classroom. It was the language of the streets: it was how you spoke to the tindera when you went to the tindahan, what you used to tell your katulong that you had an utos, and how you texted manong when you needed “sundo na.”

These skills were required to survive in the outside world, because we are forced to relate with the tinderas and the manongs and the katulongs of this world. If we wanted to communicate to these people – or otherwise avoid being mugged on the jeepney – we needed to learn Filipino.

That being said though, I was proud of my proficiency with the language. Filipino was the language I used to speak with my cousins and uncles and grandparents in the province, so I never had much trouble reciting.

It was the reading and writing that was tedious and difficult. I spoke Filipino, but only when I was in a different world like the streets or the province; it did not come naturally to me. English was more natural; I read, wrote and thought in English. And so, in much of the same way that I learned German later on, I learned Filipino in terms of English. In this way I survived Filipino in high school, albeit with too many sentences that had the preposition “ay.”

It was really only in university that I began to grasp Filipino in terms of language and not just dialect. Filipino was not merely a peculiar variety of language, derived and continuously borrowing from the English and Spanish alphabets; it was its own system, with its own grammar, semantics, sounds, even symbols.

But more significantly, it was its own way of reading, writing and thinking. There are ideas and concepts unique to Filipino that can never be translated into another. Try translating bayanihan, tagay, kilig or diskarte.

Only recently have I begun to grasp Filipino as the language of identity: the language of emotion, experience, and even of learning. And with this comes the realization that I do, in fact, smell worse than a malansang isda. My own language is foreign to me: I speak, think, read and write primarily in English. To borrow the terminology of Fr. Bulatao, I am a split-level Filipino.

But perhaps this is not so bad in a society of rotten beef and stinking fish. For while Filipino may be the language of identity, it is the language of the streets. It might have the capacity to be the language of learning, but it is not the language of the learned.

It is neither the language of the classroom and the laboratory, nor the language of the boardroom, the court room, or the operating room. It is not the language of privilege. I may be disconnected from my being Filipino, but with a tongue of privilege I will always have my connections.

So I have my education to thank for making English my mother language.

(Soriano is a senior BS Management student at Ateneo de Manila University. He has a weekly column, Ithink, in the Students & Campuses section of Manila Bulletin.)

One thought on “Language, learning, identity, privilege

  1. Here’s a follow-up article written by Paterno Esmaquel II published by GMA News 25 Aug 2011:

    Filipino ‘not the language of the learned,’ says columnist

    Filipino is the “language of the streets” – “how you spoke to the tindera when you went to the tindahan, what you used to tell your katulong that you had an utos, and how you texted manong when you needed sundo na.”

    These lines, found in a “Manila Bulletin” column now circulating on social media, aroused sentiments that champion the Filipino language Thursday as the nation winds down its commemoration of August as the National Language Month.

    James Soriano, who wrote the column titled “Language, Learning, Identity, Privilege,” contextualized his piece in his experience of learning English as his “mother language.” Soriano said he was required to speak English at home, had all his books in English, and even prayed in English.

    “Filipino, on the other hand, was always the ‘other’ subject — almost a special subject like PE or Home Economics, except that it was graded the same way as Science, Math, Religion, and English,” he said in his column originally posted Wednesday.

    “My classmates and I used to complain about Filipino all the time. Filipino was a chore, like washing the dishes; it was not the language of learning. It was the language we used to speak to the people who washed our dishes,” Soriano added.

    ‘Proud’ of Filipino proficiency but…

    Halfway through the column, Soriano qualified that he was “proud” of his proficiency in Filipino, but “it was the reading and writing that was tedious and difficult.”

    “I spoke Filipino, but only when I was in a different world like the streets or the province; it did not come naturally to me. English was more natural; I read, wrote and thought in English,” he said.

    Soriano noted that it was only in the university that he “began to grasp Filipino in terms of language and not just dialect.”

    “Only recently have I begun to grasp Filipino as the language of identity: the language of emotion, experience, and even of learning. And with this comes the realization that I do, in fact, smell worse than a malansang isda, ” he added.

    “But perhaps this is not so bad in a society of rotten beef and stinking fish. For while Filipino may be the language of identity, it is the language of the streets. It might have the capacity to be the language of learning, but it is not the language of the learned,” Soriano said.

    Soriano’s piece generated a mix of reactions on social networking sites.

    Miguel Lizada, assistant instructor at the Ateneo de Manila University English Department, urged the public to re-read Soriano’s piece for better understanding.

    “I’m becoming more and more convinced that he is not an elitist, matapobre bastard. Do close reading. Look at the way he begins and ends his article. Look at the way he suddenly switches to konyo in the middle of the article,” Lizada said in a Facebook post.

    Filipino subject becoming a bane

    In a related story on Wednesday, GMA News TV’s “State of the Nation” newscast explained that Filipino, as an academic subject, is becoming a bane to a number of Filipino students.

    Interest in Soriano’s column came a day after another language-related concern sidetracked debates on the Reproductive Health (RH) bill at the House of Representatives.

    During the RH bill debates Wednesday, Leyte Rep. Sergio Apostol said he could not continue with the interpellation if Akbayan Rep. Arlene Bag-ao would answer his questions, which were asked in English, in the Tagalog language.

    “The official language is English and Filipino… I insist that there should be interpreter… Tagalog is not an official language. If she wants to speak in Tagalog, then there should be an interpreter,” Apostol said at the House plenary.

    Bag-ao, however, insisted that she is using the official Filipino language and must be allowed to do so throughout the interpellation.

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