English and The Nation’s Memory

by Jonathan Best

Sitting at my desk at the Ortigas Foundation Library in Pasig, surrounded by 16,000 books and periodicals relating to Philippine history, culture and the arts, I realize over ninety percent are in English with maybe another five hundred vintage titles in Spanish and very few in Filipino. This break down is probably not unlike many other major reference libraries in Manila.

Amid all the discussion in the press, academic circles and the political sector, as to whether or not English should be the primary language for education in this country, one of the greatest advantages of an English language education for Filipinos is almost always overlooked. The ability to read and comprehend English makes vast amounts of Philippine history and heritage, along with East Asian and world history, accessible to Filipinos. Constantly promoting English, as a means for contract workers to find jobs abroad or in domestic call centers, perpetuates a colonial mentality and degrades an important academic discipline.

English should be regarded primarily as an educational tool which enhances a student’s or the general public’s knowledge of the Philippines, builds up national intellectual capabilities and enriches national culture and identity. Books in English also open up vast reservoirs of collective human knowledge regarding world history, science, religion, political theory, literature and the arts. Works originally written in English or translated into modern English over the last several centuries make up the largest repository of printed information. Despite the marvels of the Internet, I still believe reading full length printed books is the best way to absorb complex information.

Spend a few hours in a library or in any of the new bookstores opening in the malls around Manila and you will be surrounded by a overwhelming number of fascinating publications for all ages and all interests. There are illustrated books and magazines ranging in topic from art to architecture, biology to biography, cooking to crime, erotica, the environment, finance, fiction, gardening, philosophy, sports, travel and on and on. This phenomenon of big, full service bookstore chains, many connected to international publishers, is blossoming in Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong and in upscale malls around the world. For harder to find or out of print books just click Amazon or ABE books on the Internet and search by title, author or subject.

If the Philippines loses its college level English language skills, which seems to be happening at present, it will be losing access to much of its own indigenous history and national memory. Some parochial nationalists argue that this is just fine with them; let the nation build its future on a local Malay based language such as Tagalog. What they overlook is that the majority of educated Filipinos have been writing in English or have been translated into English from Spanish for well over a century. Despite the fact that many Filipinos were reported to be literate in various dialects at the time of the Spanish conquest in 1565 there is virtually no evidence of a substantial canon of work written in native Filipino languages.

In the Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries there were travel accounts of the Philippines in Spanish, French and English, voluminous reports to Spain by officials and friars, and Spanish dictionaries of Filipino languages phonetically spelled out in the Roman alphabet. Many Filipinos were writing eloquently in Spanish in the nineteenth century, Jose Rizal, Pedro Paterno, Graciano Lopez Jaena, Marcelo H. Del Pilar, Apollinario Mabini, and other leaders of the Philippine Revolution and Wenceslao E. Retana the great bibliographer. During the first years of American occupation of the country, American scholars translated thousands of Spanish books and documents into English and added a tremendous amounts of new sociological, cultural and scientific information in their lengthy reports. Emma Blair and James A. Robertson’s fifty-five volume, annotated set of Philippine historical material is an outstanding example of the American dedication to written documentation.

By the 1920s and onwards Filipinos such as, Maximo M. Kalaw, Claro M. Recto, Manuel Quezon,  Camilo Osias and Rafael Palma were writing in both Spanish and English. After the Second World War major Filipino writers wrote mostly in English, including National Artists for Literature, Nick Joaquin, F. Sionil Jose and Bien Lumbrera. Political theorists like Renato Constantino and eminent historian O. D. Corpuz, Resil B. Mojares, also choose English. These are just a few of the distinguished Filipino thinkers and writers who wrote almost all their work in Spanish and later in English. Today the large majority of Filipino writers, historians, scholars, and journalists are working almost entirely in English. English is very much part and parcel of the Philippine’s national birthright.

Unfortunately for the ardent nationalists the sheer practicality of trying to acquire a college graduate level education in the humanities solely in Filipino is not feasible. Young people in third world countries, especially in the case of the Philippines, can spurn the serious study of foreign languages in the name of national sovereignty but ironically they will end up sacrificing a large portion of their own national memory and individual heritage. A nation that forgets its past identity and place in world history is ill prepared for the inevitable challenges of future colonial pressures. Pop culture flooding the Philippines from other Asian countries is as shallow as anything Hollywood churned out in the 1950’s. The serious thinking arriving here from our East Asian neighbors is almost all in the form of books published in English in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Filipino regional languages and their many spoken dialects are beautiful and deeply expressive of local cultures and the modern Philippine nation. They represent ancient and modern oral and written traditions which capture the finest nuances of the Filipino character and the Filipino world. However, as is true in all parts of the world, local languages are dying off or being hybridized at a rapidly increasing rate. Much is being done to try to record and save these linguistic traditions but the loss is an inevitable result of high speed, electronic, global communication. The positive side of this phenomenon is that greater and greater numbers of people across the globe are now able to communicate with each other in the remaining international languages and can share massive amounts of knowledge and information, stored in the collective libraries and archives of the world.

The current government policy seems to be to give every poor Filipino a bit of fractured English and send them on their way abroad, hopefully to earn foreign exchange. No class of people should be groomed to be overseas workers; they need jobs here at home, near their families, in the country they love. The high social cost of this public policy is broken homes, not to mention that intelligent and motivated citizens are being forced overseas when they should be home mentoring their children. Working the graveyard shift at call centers catering to foreign clients, is not much more desirable.

Tremendous resources, local and foreign, are now being spent on teaching English to impoverished elementary school kids. The current mantra being that English is one’s passport out of the Philippines to high paying jobs. It would be better to strongly promote English for high school and college students, especially reading and writing skills, so they can build a strong new nation from within, on their own terms. Rich Filipinos automatically provide their children with this type of English instruction. It should be available to all who want it.

High quality text books, instructional material, libraries and reading centers should be available in every high school  and college with standardized testing and mandatory reading assignments. Not only English but Chinese and Spanish should be promoted by the Board of Education. For the evolving Philippine middle class this would create a new generation of highly articulate readers and writers with excellent abilities to access information and form critical opinions and thoughtful  analysis of their society and leaders.