Sunday, December 28, 2014

No earthly reason why the Philippine clergy should be bad in English grammar

On the eve of the visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines from January 15-19, 2015, I thought of reposting here an essay that I wrote way back in 2003 regarding the need to improve the English proficiency of the country’s Roman Catholic priests. I actually had that essay posted in Jose Carillo's English Forum in 2010 or over four years ago together with the preface below, but not being aware of any determined efforts taken by the church hierarchy regarding the matter, I believe that the forthcoming visit of Pope Francis to our predominantly Roman Catholic nation makes that essay even more relevant reading today. (December 28, 2014)

In their efforts at evangelization, should the major organized religions just rely on the momentum and stickiness of their respective belief systems? Or should they make a purposive and continuing effort to be better communicators and defenders of the faith, whether using English or any other language for that matter?

I have often pondered these questions over the years and even wrote an essay about the subject, “The Grammar of Clerics and Preachers,” sometime in 2003 after listening to a priest give his homily during a mass in Metro Manila. That priest had bungled his English grammar and had stumbled on his English phrases and idioms far too often for comfort, and I felt that this was an untenable state of affairs that needed the immediate action of the church leadership.

Within a few hours after my essay came out in the Internet edition of The Manila Times, however, I received the following e-mail from one of the faithful overseas: 

“Regarding your column on the grammar of preachers, let me say that none of us is perfect. I must admit that I’m not that great either when it comes to English grammar. We even have a Filipino priest who has been here in America for over 10 years, but who still finds it next to impossible to correctly pronounce just a simple English word; he also doesn’t know the difference between ‘she’ and ‘he,’ but of course I know what he means. However, if you listen closely to the message of God that he is trying to tell you through the homily, you will be surprised that all those grammar errors fade away. Let God’s message reach your heart and mind instead. And for their big and little imperfections, our priests need our prayers, too.”

I really wonder if the church hierarchy should follow the line of least resistance being advocated above and leave everything to God, or start being really proactive and make sure that its seminarians and even its full-fledged priests will get much more intensive, rigorous grounding in English grammar and usage from now on. (March 20, 2010)

The grammar of clerics and preachers

A few Sundays ago, my two sons and I attended Holy Mass in one of those improvised worship halls put up inside Metro Manila malls. The priest, in his late thirties or early forties, read the opening lines of the Eucharist in pleasantly modulated English, his voice rippling the familiar words and phrases like the chords of a well-tuned piano. His cadence and pronunciation reminded me of the late Fr. James Donelan, S.J., then chaplain of the Asian Institute of Management, who used to say morning mass at the institute in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He would regale the middle-aged management students with English-language homilies of simple beauty and depth, and then, in his formal humanities class, he would lecture them with delicious erudition about the cultural wealth of Western civilization. Now, listening to the young priest at the mall, I thought that here at last was one more man of the cloth of possibly the same weave. I thus settled down on my chair confident of hearing a well-delivered homily to strengthen my resolve as a believer for the week ahead.

That expectation was soon dashed to pieces, however, for as soon as the priest no longer read from the book and started speaking extemporaneously, it became clear that his command of English left a lot to be desired. He could not even make the form of his verbs agree with the number of his nouns and pronouns, and his grammar was so gender-blind as to be irritating (“The woman walked in the storm and go under the tree to deliver his baby.”). His command of the prepositions was likewise disturbingly inadequate, and he stumbled on his English phrases and idioms far too often for comfort.

I therefore listened to the rest of his homily with increasing distress. Of course, I couldn’t presume that the rest of the congregation shared my discomfort; perhaps I was just too exacting in my English grammar that I tended to magnify what could really be minor mistakes. But two weeks later, I asked one of my sons—then a high school senior—to validate my impressions of that homily. Having attended grade school in a Jesuit-run university, he would normally be squeamish about criticizing priests about anything, but he told me without batting an eyelash that he thought the priest’s English grammar was bad because he kept on messing up his noun-verb agreement and gender usage. I really needed no better confirmation of my impressions than that.

Looking back to that incident, I think that the country’s priests and preachers—more than anybody else in our highly Anglicized society—need better than just average English-language skills to effectively practice their vocation. We expect TV and radio broadcasters to have good English so they can properly report or interpret the news for us; we expect classroom teachers to have good English so they can effectively instruct our children on well-established, often doctrinaire areas of learning; and we expect lawyers to have good English to ably defend us in our mundane civil entanglements or prosecute those who have criminally acted against us and against society. But priests and preachers have a much more difficult job than all of them, for their goal is to teach us modes of belief and behavior that are matters not of fact but of faith. They ask us to believe with hardly any proof. And whatever doctrine they espouse, their mission is to help us experience the sublime, to make us shape our lives according to the hallowed precepts of prophets or sages of a bygone age. This is a definitely a tall order even for one with the gift of tongue, for it demands not only the fire of belief but also good or excellent command of whatever language he or she uses to preach.

Since I was a child, my impression has always been that priests and preachers stay in school the longest—ten to eleven years if my memory serves me well—because they have to master the craft of language, suasion, and persuasion better than most everybody else. My understanding is that this is why seminarians study for the priesthood far longer than students pursuing a degree in medicine or law. I would think that those years of long study could give them a truly strong foundation in English grammar and usage, in listening skills, and in reading skills, then imbue them with a facility with the language that couldn’t be matched by lesser mortals. However, as shown by the fractured English of that priest delivering that homily at the mall and of so many other priests I have listened to over the years, that foundation has been resting on shaky ground indeed.

I therefore think it’s high time that the church hierarchy took steps to remedy this problem. This might be a tall order, but if nothing is done about this, I’m afraid that the established religious faiths would lose more and more of their flock to less virtuous but more English-savvy preachers—preachers who may have rickety or dubious religious platforms but who have honed their gift of tongue and powers of elocution to a much higher degree. I therefore suggest, for their own sake and for the long-term survival of the faith, that all seminarians and even full-fledged priests be given a much more rigorous grounding in English grammar and usage. They need to effectively smoothen out the grammatical and semantic kinks in their English to become more able promoters and defenders of the faith.

As the old saying goes, God helps only those who help themselves. (May 23, 2003)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, May 23, 2003, © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.


The Dangers of Overstatement

As a largely self-taught student of rhetoric, I watched and listened attentively to the homily that Sunday afternoon. The priest officiating the Mass exuded the verve and confidence of an experienced schoolmaster, speaking in fluent Tagalog interspersed with impeccable English. He obviously knew how to speak rhetorically, and I must say that at the start, his eloquence held me and the rest of the audience spellbound.

His elocution was classically Aristotelian. First, although a lector had already given him a suitable introduction, he restated his bonafides to more firmly establish his ethos, or the appeal of a speaker’s character (“Yes, I am a teacher, make no mistake about that.”). Then, for pathos, or the appeal to emotion, he used some academic-style humor that often drew laughter and half-smiles from the audience. I thus imagined that he was conversant with the Grecian flowers of rhetoric, so I naturally expected his homily to have a persuasive logos or appeal to reason as well.

To my bewilderment, however, he used a strange rhetorical device for the homily. What he did was to pick a native-language phrase—let’s just say “pinakamatalik kong kaibigan” (“my closest friend”)—then playfully ask everybody what each letter of the first word represented. Of course, there really was no way even the most intelligent person could have fathomed what those were. It was like telling a quiz show contestant this: “Give me the names of all the persons who perished in the Titanic.” A mind with total recall and steeped in trivia probably could have hazarded a guess if the priest had used a concrete noun instead, like “Doe, a deer, a female deer/Ray, a drop of golden sun…” in that delightful song of the Von Trapps in The Sound of Music. But the priest did it in the manner that people with nothing else to do will ask: “Ano ang kahulugan ng bawat letra sa katagang ‘San Miguel’? Sirit na? Ang hina mo naman! E, di ‘(S)a (a)ming (n)ayon (m)ay (is)ang (g)inoo (u)minom (e)h (l)asing.” (“In our village a gentleman got drunk.”)

The rhetorical device he used certainly was not a hyperbole, or an extravagant exaggeration used for emphasis or effect, as in “I ate so much that I must now be heavier than an elephant.” It could not have been a simile or metaphor, either, because no word was really compared or substituted with another. I had a fleeting feeling—soon gone—that it was some form of synecdoche, a variant of the metaphor that mentions the part to signify a whole, as in “I need six hands” to mean “I need six people.” In hindsight, I can see now that it was a weak fusion of metonymy and prosopopoeia, the first being a figure of speech that substitutes some suggestive word for what is actually meant, and the latter—also called “personification”—one that invests human qualities to abstractions or inanimate objects. In any case, his question was so nebulous that the priest, as might be expected, ended up providing all the answers himself.

The words he assigned to the letters of the word “pinakamatalik” are no longer relevant, so I will not dwell on them here. They formed the core of his logos, however, and from sheer repetition, they ultimately brought home the message of the beneficence, love, and invitation to the communion that God extends to us all. There was no question about that. The problem was that the priest didn’t know when to stop. Ever the taskmaster giving pupils a grammar drill to the very end, he dunned his listeners many times to repeat each word; when they balked, he would browbeat them until they relented and blurted out the words. Then he asked everyone to do what I thought bordered on the absurd: to say “Ikaw ang pinakamatalik kong kaibigan” (“You are my closest friend.”) to his seatmate. He sternly badgered the listeners until he was satisfied that their collective voice was loud enough.

That was where, I think, the logic of his logos snapped; the liberties he took with the language simply became too embarrassing. Perhaps “Ikaw ay aking kaibigan” would have been acceptable rhetorically, but to ask someone to tell a total stranger that he is “your closest friend”? This gave you the feeling that the priest was more interested in testing his power to elicit the blind obedience of his flock than in planting a divine message in their minds.

In his classic book Rhetoric, Aristotle argues that persuasion by argument is best achieved when the speaker’s chain of argumentation is not too hard to follow and not too long: “The links in the chain must be few.” I have this feeling that the priest, in coercing his listeners to be party to his convoluted rhetoric, had seriously violated that role on both counts. This is the danger in overstatement that all public speakers must always guard against to keep their persuasiveness intact.

From the book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language, Copyright © 2004 by Jose A. Carillo, Copyright © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Open secrets to writing prose that leaps out from the page

If you are simply writing a memo to your manager, a job application letter to a prospective employer, or an accomplishment report to a socio-civic or professional organization, your best bet will always be plain and simple English—simple words, concise and uncomplicated phrasing, short and straightforward sentences, expositions with not a trace of embellishment. But if you are a professional writer doing nonfiction feature stories or opinion pieces; a literary writer doing short fiction, novels, or stage plays; or a public speaker who ply the lecture circuit for a living or do a lot of social advocacy or political speeches, it definitely won’t do to depend on plain and simple English alone. You need to discover, learn, and practice the open secrets of writing English that leaps out from the page, English that engages and keeps your readers or listeners enthralled until you’re done with what you have to tell them. In short, you need to acquire ample skills in rhetorical writing and speaking in English.

In “Playing Boldly with Sentences,” an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column of The Manila Times in the early 2000s, I related my thrill of discovery in coming across Lucille Vaughan Payne’s The Lively Art of Writing, a reference book that methodically but delightfully describes the nuts-and-bolts of writing sentences and expositions with the power to hold readers and listeners by their lapels. I am sure that Forum members and guests can greatly benefit from that book’s writing prescriptions, so I have posted that essay about them here. (December 16, 2014)

Playing Boldly with Sentences

One of the most lucid and delightful books I’ve read about writing is Lucille Vaughan Payne’s The Lively Art of Writing. The slim volume, which I discovered many years ago when I was still very self-consciously grappling with writing technique, taught me one unforgettable truth about doing a sentence: it’s all a matter of developing a basic idea. No matter how complex our thoughts are, we can actually boil down each of them to a few words that capture its essential meaning. The emotional turmoil that seizes a love struck person, for instance, can normally be whittled down to this deadpan statement: “I’m in love and I don’t know what to do.” The righteous anger that a manager feels when a subordinate violates a time-honored corporate rule usually culminates in two words: “You’re fired!” And the feeling of certainty of a religious convert usually gets affirmed in these words: “I believe.” They are all that simple.

It is only when we ask ourselves—or when other people ask us—to support and justify those simple ideas that we have to elaborate on them with more words. Who are involved? Why? Where? When? How? And so what? To answer these questions, we begin to build our sentences. We make them long and complex to the extent that will make our thoughts clear, not only to ourselves but also to anyone who would care to read or listen to us.
Building those sentences can actually become much easier once we understand clearly that any sentence falls under either of three patterns: loose sentenceperiodic sentence, or combination sentence. As delightfully discussed by Ms. Vaughan Payne in her book, every sentence begins with a basic idea or statement: “The doves flew.” “Ana lost her temper.” “The manager burst into laughter.” It is how we build structures upon these basic ideas that determines how good a writer or speaker we are.

We come up with a loose sentence every time we add a string of details to the tail end of a basic statement: “The doves flew, flapping their wings in the still air, breaking the morning stillness with their shrill cries, warning their kindred of the approach of the deadly hawks.” On the other hand, we produce a periodic sentence when we place additional details before or inside the basic statement: “The imperturbable Ana, ever the patient one, the girl who never got angry even with the worst provocation, lost her temper.” In a combination sentence, of course, we add details before, inside, and after the basic statement, freely combining the elements of both the loose and periodic sentence: “The morose and demanding manager, with an ax to grind against anything and everything, was so pleased with the quarterly sales that he burst into laughter, the first time in so many years in his beleaguered company.”

You must have already noticed that periodic sentence structures usually expand the subject or verb, while loose structures expand the verb or object. The usual methods of expanding the subject in a periodic sentence are, of course, description and the use of appositives, adjectives, prepositional phrase, and participles. In her book, Ms. Vaughan Payne suggests that the easiest way to make details flow in a periodic sentence is to think of the subject as being followed by a pause.

It is, she says, the same kind of pause that occurs in conversations every day, as in these sentences: “My friend [pause] a Political Science graduate [pause] wants to run for town mayor.” “That volcano [pause] sheer and high as it is [pause] is not really that hard to climb.” “The school [pause] in keeping with tradition [pause] required graduates to wear togas and gowns.” “Annabelle [pause] grown tired of her boyfriend [pause] broke off with him last night.”

In the case of verbs, whether in periodic or loose sentences, we can expand them by showing how their action progresses. We can use adverbs and adverbial phrases to do the expanding: “The interviewer listened, attentively at first, but distractedly and impatiently towards the end.” “The soldiers paused at the road junction, wearily scanning the horizon for jet bombers, fearfully spying the buildings for snipers.”

As in the case of subjects, we can likewise expand objects to form loose sentence structures by using appositives, adjectives, prepositional phrase, and participles: “Today I am seeing Miss Jennifer Cruz, the human resources manager.” “The newlyweds took the bus, a rickety affair that perilously transported the mountainfolk and their produce to the nearest lowland town.”

There’s actually no limit to how much we can expand subjects, verbs, and objects in our sentences—except, of course, good sense and a keen awareness of how much our readers and audiences can take. In the end, the good writer is one who exercises restraint: not saying too little as to be irritatingly cryptic, nor saying too much as to be a big, tiresome bore.

This essay is Chapter 80 of Give Your English the Winning Edge by Jose A. Carillo © 2009 by Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Supply of English-capable Filipinos falls short of call-center demand

Way back in 2003, in an essay that I wrote for my English-usage in The Manila Times, I wrote about the special circumstance of the Philippines as a major exporter of English-capable manpower. I observed that the English acquired by Filipinos after being colonized by the United States for half a century was making a great life-saving difference for some 8 million Filipinos who had to work overseas for lack of gainful employment in their homeland. I argued then that barring any major reverses in the global labor market, the Philippines would be running out of its English-proficient labor exports in a few years. I then suggested that to stave off depletion of this supply, the country must undertake an intensive, no-nonsense training program to build the English proficiency of its labor pool and to assiduously improve it over the long term.

I wrote that essay at a time when the Philippines was just starting to nurture its fledgling call-center industry—a special employment variation in which modern communications technology makes it it possible for the country to export its English skills while physically keeping the manpower in the homeland. Last year or a decade later, fueled by the abundance of low-cost but highly-skilled English-speaking Filipinos, the Philippines became the top call-center country in the world—even overtaking India in the process.

But now a serious systemic problem has cropped up—the supply of qualified English-speaking Filipinos can no longer keep up with the growing call-center demand. Today, it looks like only one out of every 100 English-capable applicants interviewed by the leading call-center companies are actually hired, and that only 3 to 5 out of every 20 trainees survive the typical intensive one-month training. Clearly, as I suggested in that 2003 essay of mine, the Philippine government more than ever needs to put up an efficient, stable mechanism for replenishing its much-in-demand but depleted marketable English-speaking stock.

So here again is that 2003 essay of mine to put things in clearer perspective. (November 30, 2014)

Priming up our English exports

The special circumstance of the Philippines as a major exporter of English-capable manpower is a strategic advantage and strength for which we should be truly grateful. In truth, only God knows where our country’s economy would be right now if not for the English we have acquired after almost a half-century of colonization by the United States. We can rant and rave forever against this colonization from an ideological or geopolitical standpoint, but one fortunate fact will be indisputable: our passable English has made the great life-saving difference for some 8 million Filipinos who work overseas for lack of gainful employment in their homeland, as well as for their 40 million or more dependents back home who subsist on their $8 billion to $10 billion (400 to 500 billion Philippine pesos) in annual foreign exchange remittances. This happy accident of history as well as saving grace is something we share with only one other major English-capable country in the Asian region, India, and whether we like it or not, how we will deal with it in the next several years will largely shape our national destiny.

As with any other national resource, however, our English-proficient pool of professionals, health care and social workers, teachers, entertainers, househelps, and laborers is fast being depleted by the relentless waves of our labor diaspora. Barring any major reverses in the global labor market, we will run out of our English-proficient labor exports in a few years if we make no serious effort now to replenish them. The day will come when we will begin scrounging around for our English-speaking runts, or those who have achieved only a pitiful smattering of spoken English and cannot even write a decent English sentence. This will happen because although the Philippine economy has become so terribly dependent on overseas labor exports for economic survival, the government has not bothered to set up an efficient, stable mechanism for replenishing its depleted English-speaking stock. On the contrary, it has actually de-emphasized the teaching of English in favor of Pilipino in the primary and secondary schools. It has blithely ignored the fact that it is the English of its labor exports that has been saving its skin all this time, propping up the battered and faltering economy. This is like cutting the only rope that prevents us from falling headlong into the precipice of economic ruin.

It is high time the government finally recognized both the danger and opportunity in our current overseas labor situation. To put it even more bluntly, we must make sure that our English-capable labor exports are not only deployable but also the preferred choice of the overseas labor markets. The demand side is growing but our supply side is now on “low bat” after so many years running, so to speak. The only way to stave off depletion of this supply is to conduct an intensive, no-nonsense training program to build our English proficiency as a people and to assiduously improve it over the long term. We have already lost out by default to many of our Asian neighbors in the areas of technology, manufacturing, and agriculture, but the fact is that we are still miles and decades ahead of them in English proficiency, no matter how low its levels may have sunk in recent years. English is our only highly viable and competitive export product remaining today. Let us not lose out on this one; let us nurture and not neglect it.

One immediate course of action the government can take is to train a highly professional, high-performing corps of teachers with a strong English-language orientation. It can create a highly selective scholarship program for this purpose, similar to the National Science Development Board (NSDB) program in the 1960s. The program can aim for an annual quota of, say, 10,000 to 20,000 high school seniors with excellent English, science, and mathematics skills as well as outstanding aptitude for teaching; prequalify them through a rigorous state-conducted exam; and put them in a special, highly intensive teaching degree course as state-sponsored scholars. The best and brightest of our young people can be attracted to this program by guaranteeing them highly competitive salaries and privileges upon graduation. After all, their work will be truly radical and missionary: to teach English and the basic academic disciplines not simply for domestic needs but for international competitiveness in the foreign labor markets. The long-term goal, of course, is to spearhead the liberation of our educational system from mediocrity and to spark a Renaissance in the teaching and learning of English, science, and mathematics in both the public and private schools.

In perhaps five to six years’ time, this elite group of teachers can be deployed to strategic points of the country to do two very crucial tasks: to take leadership positions in the regional or provincial educational hierarchies, and to set up and run local retraining programs in English, science, and mathematics for primary and secondary teachers. They will also set the mechanism for replacing or retiring teachers who do not meet the much higher teaching standards that will be pursued in all levels. Only through a well-focused, purposive, and long-term initiative like this can we ensure the continuity of our overseas labor exports as a source of badly needed foreign exchange, and ensure that the products of our school system are superior to those supplied by other labor exporting countries.

The formation of this elite group of English-oriented educators and teachers will not only be a pragmatic move but a symbolic one as well. It will announce in no uncertain terms the government’s strong and earnest desire to build a much stronger educational system that is fully in tune with the needs of the modern-day world economy. It can in fact become the launching pad for the long-dreamed overhaul of the educational system that government officials and educators had only been paying lip service to all these years. On top of this, it will serve notice to the world that the Philippines is finally taking its primacy in the English language very seriously, and that it intends to dearly keep and improve its 100-year lead in English as a matter of national pride and survival. (2003)
From the book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language by Jose A. Carillo © 2004 by the author, © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.