Opinion

No, Senator Cayetano, the Philippines Isn’t Kawawa Because of Our Declining English Proficiency

Senator Pia Cayetano was wrong to say that our level of English proficiency is nakakahiya.
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During a Senate hearing on Monday, Senator Pia Cayetano demanded to know why some broadcasters choose to air children’s programs dubbed in Filipino instead of their original versions in English. She wants kids to learn how to speak English as early as possible in order for them to speak it proficiently later in life. 

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"Can we start showing a lot of cartoons and family-friendly materials on our government stations,” GMA News quoted the senator during the hearing. “Bakit ba kailangan i-dub? (Why do we need to dub it?) “A language is learned earliest at their youngest. The earlier you are exposed to a language, the earlier you can pick it up."

The senator certainly has a point. Multiple studies have confirmed that, when it comes to learning a second language, the earlier in life you start, the better.

“If you want to have native-like knowledge of English grammar you should start by about 10 years old,” says Joshua Hartshorne, an assistant professor of psychology at Boston College, who conducted this study as a postdoc at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology in ZMEScience. “We don’t see very much difference between people who start at birth and people who start at 10, but we start seeing a decline after that.”

However, it’s what the good senator said after that’s got me all hot and bothered.

"Just by looking at the data, the English proficiency of our college students are the same as Malaysian Grade 6 students and Japan taxi drivers. Nakakahiya, nakakaawa tayo," she added.

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Well wait just a moment.

Since when did it become embarrassing or pitiful for the citizens of any country to proudly speak their own languange? And for that matter, why compare the English proficiency of a group of people to another from a different country?

For years, the Philippines has enjoyed an enviable status as one of the world’s top English-speaking countries. Various studies have placed the country in the top five or top 10 in the world not just in the sheer number of people who can speak the language, but also in terms of proficiency in speaking it. The Business Process Outsourcing industry is a direct beneficiary of this, with hundreds of companies choosing to base their operations here and citing Filipino’s excellent command of the language as one their primary reasons for doing so. 

It's true also that we are seeing a decline in English proficiency in the country. Last year, the Philippines fell from 14th to 20th place in the worldwide English Proficiency Index (EPI) ranking. The Philippines country score was 60.14, down from the previous year's 61.84, but still under the “high proficiency” level.

But if Filipinos’ general proficiency in English is something to be proud of, those who can’t speak the language or can’t speak it well is no reason to be shameful or disparage them in any way. By that logic, do you think the citizens of our neighbors in the region like Thailand, Vietnam, or Indonesia are embarrassed that English isn’t widely spoken at all in their countries?

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And while we’re at it, I don’t believe people in Japan, South Korea or even China—countries far more advanced than the Philippines—consider it tragic that a vast majority of their populations aren’t particularly adept at English at all. I’m sure some people in those countries would think that the ability to communicate in a second language is advantageous for a variety of reasons, especially in today’s globalized world, but as far as I know, most local media in those countries are still broadcast in their own local languages. 

I understand what the good senator is trying to say. I grew up with shows like Sesame Street and Saturday morning cartoons all broadcast in their original English and that certainly helped me develop my own English skills and I can say that I’m all the better for it. But I would never claim to be better than anyone else just because of this ability.

For many years, the country has promoted the use of both Filipino and English as the country’s official languages. The constitution itself provides that “The national language of the Philippines is Filipino. For purposes of communication and instruction, the official languages of the Philippines are Filipino and, until otherwise provided by law, English (Article XIV, Section 6 and 7).” But advocates of both Filipino and English have tussled in recent years, arguing how best to teach both to students in order to balance the realities of professional life, where English is widely used, with a deep sense of nationalism and love for our own national language.

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But, with all due respect to the good senator, I find it outrageous that she would see the perceived decline of English usage in the country as something disgraceful. Privilege, for one, affords some the benefits of learning English as something that is given or assumed. But many more children do not have the same resources, and so we cannot hope to compare the two groups’ English proficiency. Senator Cayetano’s suggestion of airing children’s shows in their original language is admirable and noteworthy, and may yet contribute to raising children with a more solid foundation to learning English as a second language. Perhaps we can augment this with programming in Filipino, thereby inculcating a sense of pride for our own language.

Either way, we can only hope the senator chooses her words carefully next time.

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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