Monday, July 25, 2011

Twice Over, It’s Our Good Fortune That We Speak English

This is the introduction to the lecture I delivered as resource person during the “Refresher Course on English Grammar and the Basics of Responsible Journalism” held in Lucena City, Philippines, last July 23, 2011.

From a language standpoint, we Filipinos are such a lucky people. By a fortunate accident in our history, English has been our second language for almost 100 years now, and I think you’ll agree with me that it’s such a good thing.

Let me share with you what I wrote about this good fortune of ours in my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2003 or more than eight years ago: “Nearly 50 years of American colonization had deeply Anglicized the way we Filipinos think and run our lives—the way we name ourselves and our institutions, the way we consume, the way we educate ourselves, the way we inform and entertain ourselves, the way we do business, and the way we muddle through with our politics. English is in our soul, in our tongue, in our stomachs, in our scent, in our clothes, in our shoes, in our printed word, in our airwaves and bandwidths, in the very air we inhale and exhale. We can argue to death that this may not be exactly a good thing, but that is precisely what we Filipinos have become—Asian by geography, skin, and temperament but decidedly American by taste, inclination, and aspiration.”

Our other good fortune is that over the past half century or so, English has become the world’s global language. In a very real sense then, our English-language legacy has given us a strong competitive edge over many other nonnative-English-speaking nations in the world. It’s a built-in competitive edge that makes the Philippines the second largest labor exporter in the world today—second only to Mexico—and also today’s world leader in the call-center industry, eclipsing even India in size and growth. And the English language gives us this competitive edge at a time when most of our neighbors in Asia—South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, and lately China—have just started to appreciate the value of English and are now breaking their necks and spending fortunes just to learn its basics and make themselves more competitive global players.

This is why I think the Philippines must aggressively nurture its English-language legacy rather than sideline it ostensively in the name of nationalism. We should vigorously hone our English writing and speaking skills to protect and further strengthen this legacy. In short, we must make ourselves proficient in English not only in reputation but in reality, and I think the country’s leaders, educators, teachers, and civil servants should take the lead in this effort. And on the part of Filipino journalists, you must not be just passive participants in this undertaking. This is because aside from your work as disseminators of news and opinion, and whether you like it or not, you are actually de facto role models for good English grammar and usage in this country. You therefore shouldn’t set a bad example by being slipshod in the English of your news stories, feature stories, and commentary.  

This is why I’m delighted that you have invited me to conduct this refresher course on English grammar for journalism. I think it’s a clear indication that you are taking your English seriously and that you are truly desirous of polishing it to a good shine—to an English that’s demonstrably better than the English of our nonnative English-speaking counterparts elsewhere in Asia and in the rest of the world. (July 23, 2011)

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