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erlinda b. sialongo
erlinda b sialongo ENGLISH IN the Philippines today is described as bad or worse than it was a few decades ago. A few reasons justify it, they say. One, as far as usage is concerned, is the use of Taglish, a uniquely Filipino invention. Then, recently, there is technology, which means the use of cell phones and the language of texting. Historically though, this deterioration of Filipino English started in the 60s when activism was at its height (Marcos used this as a justification for Martial Law, remember?). The activists cried for nationalism and condemned anything that smacked of imperialism. Speaking English as closely as a native speaker does, then, was considered anti-nationalistic and, therefore, imperialistic. So, starting from the government down, the use of English was degraded and presently this deterioration seems irreversible—unless another government can help it. After criticism about Filipino English from international sources, there is now a turnaround and no less than Her Excellency Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has asked Filipinos to "go back" to English. To go back to English, one would probably do well going back to a few points about English.

One point has to do with accent. The activists in the 60s severely criticized Filipinos who spoke with a non-Filipino accent and the culprit for this was the elitist private schools. Ateneo, for instance, was known for its "Arreneow" accent and was among those severely criticized. There is nothing wrong with Filipino accent, of course. Nobody minds—until there are criticisms, and there are criticisms now. However, accent is not an easy thing to turn around, not even for teachers of English. Besides, native speakers themselves do not speak with the same accent. Also, many Filipinos seem to have "a thing" against Filipinos speaking with a non-Filipino accent. However, with the trend now being globalization, there is a need to turn things around. Where's a good place to start? A top-to-bottom overhaul seems the urgent need of the moment.

On a macro level, a directive from the government is a good place to start and President Arroyo has started with a statement many people are taking seriously. After all, it bruises the Filipino ego, for decades proud that the Philippines has been the bastion of English in Asia, to now hear that the Vietnamese, studying a foreign language in addition to English, are fast taking over the Filipinos in international marketability. But a good name is a good name. This is something the Filipino overseas has, although with a little chink here and there, particularly that Filipino English is not as globally competitive as it once was.

On a micro level, it will help for learners/teachers of English to come up with a goal regarding accent. For instance, one can have the goal of developing an accent that may be Filipino but at the same time, unique and understandable to both native and non-native speakers of English. There are no hard and fast rules for this especially outside the classroom. The Philippines, luckily, is a good place for this as almost everything here is in English. For a good place to start, one can always listen to Cable News Network (CNN). The accent of Veronica Pedrosa is not an easy one to imitate. Larry King's or Jim Clancy's may be easier but not Richard Quest's. However, 15 minutes a day of listening to English spoken by natives' tongues can enable one to pick up an accent.

A second point has nothing to do with accent but diction. This is where a Filipino can have problems, especially when he/she enters the global scene. A simple example: A Filipino student asks an American friend, "Did you bring your guitar?" and the American friend answers, "Should I have?" Usually, a Filipino student has no ready rejoinder for this—a mere "Not really" will do perfectly. Another example: A Filipino student says to a British tourist, "How was your trip to Boracay?" and the British tourist answers, "It was brilliant!" This Filipino student, understandably, may not readily accept this as the reply expected but "brilliant," like "smashing," is the equivalent of the American "Great!" and can be used for anything and everything. Sunshine is brilliant, test is brilliant, and food is brilliant. Yet another example: A foreigner is asked, "Someone said that you like to keep pigs inside your house. Is it true?" and the foreigner replies, "If anyone should be arrested for rumor-mongering, this someone should be the first." What is the best reply for a Filipino student? To laugh, of course.

Then there is the additional point of grammar. Many Filipinos still interchange the use of "he" and "she." This is an easy one to understand for a teacher of language—there is no such thing in many Filipino languages, so a Filipino learner cannot unlearn overnight the use of "siya" which is either he or she in English. The use of "did" is another problem for Filipino learners. They cannot at once get this because a native language such as Filipino does not have an equivalent rule. To change "kain" to "kumain" is much easier to get.

What are helpful points for a Filipino learner or teacher then?

First, English is so global now that there are as many kinds of it as there are people speaking it. So, there is nothing wrong in speaking English with a Filipino accent. However, to be globally competitive, one must speak it with uniqueness. The Indians and the French have been doing this for years and nobody's laughing at them like Filipinos are laughing at themselves. On a personal note, one develops an accent successfully depending on one's motivation. If one wants to, one can. It's as simple as that.

Second, there is usage of English by native speakers that other native speakers accept although it is not standard. For example, the use if "It's me." Grammatically, this is supposed to be wrong—the rule states that a predicate noun (or pronoun) takes on the case of the subject which is, of course, subjective, so the correct usage is "It is I"—but this has been so widely accepted and used that practically nobody bothers with it, and if someone does bother, it is most likely to remind people that Shakespeare happens to be the most famous user of "It is I." The point here is that second/first language learners tend to be more strict when it comes to obeying grammar rules, consequently taking energy and time away to really learning a language and using it. It is not above a Filipino to say something like "We know grammar better than native speakers." Be that as it may, there is no reason why non-native speakers should quibble. As for the "I'll be the one" response to a statement such as "Who will do it?", this is perfectly English but does not sound English simply because a native speaker might simply say "I'll do it." A good explanation for this usage is translation. A non-native speaker of English, a first or second language learner, tends to think in the native language before translating into, then speaking in English. Thus, many Filipinos say "Chicken' or "Chicken feed" to mean "Easy" because there is an expression "Sisiw" in Tagalog or Filipino. A native speaker might simply say "Piece o' (of) cake," "It was a breeze," or "There was nothing to it." But is there anything wrong with saying "Easy?" Nothing.

Third, there are usages of English that distinguish people. One is the use of the perfect tenses. Rarely, if at all, is this heard from a Filipino student—"I haven't had breakfast yet." Usually, "I did not have breakfast yet" is more commonly used. Considered the most difficult perfect tense is the past perfect tense especially when used with a verb in the past simple. The rule to make this usage easier is to remember that when two verbs are both in the past tense, the first tense should be in the past perfect tense, the second in the past simple. For example, "The play had already started by the time we arrived at the theater." Another usage is that of the subjunctive mood, which is fast disappearing from the speech of even native speakers of English (Whitcut ad Greenbaum, 1988). For example the sentence "It is urgent that he leave at once" can sound confusing. The rule states that a verb in the present simple used in the third person takes an "s." British English settles this with "should" and a paraphrase—"It is urgent that he should leave at once." Then there are the conditional sentences with "if" and "unless." There are easy-to-remember rules for these too. Like the rest of nature, rules for verbs are easier when taken as pairs, and there are three basic combinations for verbs in the use of if and unless: (1) present simple and future simple—example is "If I have the time, I will go"; (2) conditional/modal past and past simple—example is "He would stay home stay today, unless he was ill"; (3) Past perfect and conditional perfect—example is "If she had not been angry, she would not have shouted." A variant of this sentence is "If she had been angry, she would have shouted." Yet another variant is "Had she been angry, she would have shouted" or "Had she not been angry, she would not have shouted."

Fourth, the point of whether the "best" English is British or American is not a big issue in the Philippines because the country is more "American" than "British." However, there are times when this issue can confuse. It is not uncommon for one to think that another's English is wrong when actually the English in question is simply another variant. For example, "I write my mother" may sound funny to someone—Pardon me? You write what?—and insist that the correct way is to say "I write to my mother." Is it on the street or in the street? One another or each other? On behalf or in behalf? To my mind or I think? The Longman Guide to English Usage (1988) says some of these distinctions are "mere superstition." It depends on which English is used, American or British. One needs only to be consistent in using a variant of English.

Here's a partial comparative list of British and American expressions:
British / American

barrister, solicitor / attorney, lawyer
casualty department / emergency room/ward
closet, lavatory, toilet / rest room, ladies' room
crisps / French fries
engaged (phone) / busy
fortnight / two weeks
full stop (punctuation) / period
honour / honor
hotchpotch / hodgepodge
maths / math
minced beef / hamburger
postponement / raincheck/rain check
pyjamas / pajamas
shop / store
spilt milk / spilled milk
town center / downtown
But, which English is better, British or American? Good English, spoken by His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, John F. Kennedy, a Filipino or an Eskimo, sounds good. If one considers numbers though, there are more speakers of American English. If one considers accent, the British accent sounds more arresting although American accent is generally more understandable to the Filipino ear. So, it really depends on which ocean one is nearer to.

The great Manuel L. Quezon had reportedly thundered: "I would rather have a government run like hell by Filipinos than a government run like heaven by Americans!" He could not have had anything against globalization. He was simply being true to the time when national fervor was igniting everyone, after the havoc of World War II. Now, with English being the global language, if Quezon were still alive, would he thunder differently, like "I would rather have English spoken like heaven by Americans!"? Probably not. He would probably thunder something like this: "I would rather have Filipinos speaking English like heaven, than Americans speaking Filipino like hell!"

Moss, Anne and Church, Nancy. 1983. How to Survive in the U.S.A. Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge/Seidel, Jennifer and Swan, Michael. 1995. Basic English Usage Exercises. London: Oxford University Press/Whitcut, Janet and Greenbaum, Sidney. 1988. Longman Guide to English Usage. London: Longman Group UK Limited.

[About the author. Erlinda "Linny" B. Sialongo has been teaching English and literature subjects for 33 years. She has a BSE in English from the Ateneo de Davao, an M.A.Ed degree, major in English, and a Ph.D in Educational Management from the Angeles University Foundation, Angeles City, and a certificate of special training (Family Planning and Responsible Parenthood, Public Administration, Production of Instructional Materials) from Xavier University, Cagayan de Oro City. She also has special training on journalism. She taught English as a Foreign Language in Severobaikalsk, Russia, for seven years and authored a book, 'Personally Yours,' about her life in Russia. She is author of various articles and researches, and has co-authored and edited four textbooks. She has traveled to Mongolia, China, South Korea, Kazahkstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgistan, India, Vietnam, and has been to Hong Kong, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, and Amsterdam.]

-Posted: 9:10 AM 2/25/07 | More of this author on eK!