Mind the gap: In the Philippines, language isn’t about words, it’s about class

Photo credit: Coconuts
Photo credit: Coconuts

The Learning Library is different from other tutorial centers in Manila.

This isn’t immediately obvious upon entering its branch in Quezon City, an intimate space that includes students from nearby Ateneo de Manila University among it’s mostly upper middle class clientele.

But a quick glance at the titles on the brightly painted shelves that frame each side of the small room quickly clues you in.

A copy of Jose Rizal’s novel El Fili Busterismo sits beside Francisco Balagtas’ epic Florante at Laura. A row below them are books of Filipino rhymes and legends arranged one on top of another. There are also illustrated children’s books about cats, airplanes, and princes with both FIlipino and English text.

The Learning Library teaches Filipino as a second language. Not to foreigners, but to Filipino kids born and raised in the Philippines.

In recent years, more and more children, usually from well-to-do families, have struggled with speaking and understanding “Filipino,” the national language based on Tagalog, the most widely spoken of the country’s more than 100 languages and dialects.

Hang around any of Manila’s top-tier private schools and you’ll notice that recess play groups and lunchtime conversations take place almost entirely in English.

Dr. Lakangiting Garcia, an associate professor at De La Salle University told Coconuts Manila last month that he has noticed the decline in Filipino-language usage among his own students.

“[E]specially for millennials, it looks like the youth’s proficiency in their own language is rapidly declining,” he said in Filipino. “And you know, the sad part is, it’s like they don’t notice.”

It’s a problem many of Manila’s private schools have not been able to solve, and one that highlights an even bigger problem: the widening gap between rich and poor.

As private school students speak less Filipino, those in public schools have simultaneously declined in English proficiency.

Many Filipinos prefer to speak in their province’s native language, popularizing phrases like “nose bleed,” a joking colloquial term used to excuse oneself from English conversations — similar to calling something a “headache.”

They’ve got a high-profile role model in President Rodrigo Duterte, who has positioned himself as the voice of the masses in a world of elitist politicians, often holding speeches in a convoluted mix of Tagalog, Visayan, and English.

In February, he even told cabinet members to learn his mother tongue, Cebuano, in order to properly participate in meetings, while in the same breath teasing a former foreign affairs secretary for speaking English.

Unlike economic differences that divide the rich and the poor all over the world, the language divide here often goes unnoticed. Not because it’s insignificant, but because it is so deeply entrenched in society, the predictable consequence of class hierarchy, prevailing colonial mentalities, and a badly uneven educational system.

The Learning Library classroom.

Rich people problems

Six elementary school-aged students had just begun their tutorial session when Coconuts Manila visited The Learning Library on a warm Thursday morning last month.

One of the teachers was dividing his time between a pair of students who sat on either side of him.

To his right, a boy of about 10 years old, was tasked with writing three sentences in Filipino that contained adjectives. The boy stared at the page for a solid minute before putting pen on paper.

After gently encouraging his student to “just try,” the teacher, without missing a beat, turned to his left, where a girl, about 8 years old, was sitting.

She was a bit more engaged, answering her teacher’s questions and reacting to scenes from the book Ang Tatay kong Nagpapalit-palit ng Hugis (My Father the Shapeshifter) as they read together.

“Children are encouraged when you teach them through a story, because they want to know how it ends,” Vanessa Bicomong, president of the Learning Library, explained in a mix of Filipino and English.

Bicomong has been at the frontlines of the growing language divide for a long time, having managed the tutorial center for close to 10 years.

They originally taught only English reading skills, but began offering Filipino-language classes after requests from concerned parents became increasingly difficult to ignore.

“There was no ‘aha’ [moment]… but there was a ‘yes’ moment on our part,” she said. “[P]arents were requesting that of us. That’s why we know there’s a real need, because we did not set out to create this.”

Today, The Learning Library has 10 branches in Metro Manila, most located near the city’s most exclusive private schools, where the absence of Filipino is most glaring.

In 2013, the Department of Education (DepEd), through the Enhanced Basic Education Act, mandated that classes, teaching materials, and tests from kindergarten up to the first three years of elementary school should be done in the students’ mother tongue.

But given that English is an officially recognized language by the government and the first language of most private school students, that means many of them are barely required to speak Filipino at all.

Emy Bitancor, a Filipino teacher who has taught at the all-girls private school Assumption College for 17 years, said that apart from the required Filipino subject, all of their classes are in English.

“In other words, we (Filipino teachers) are the only ones responsible for teaching students to embrace and use the Filipino language,” Bitancor said in Filipino.

That’s proven to be a problem.

Bitancor described a situation in which many of their students misunderstand instructions from teachers and have trouble translating between the two languages.

“When they translate, they translate literally and don’t read the entire text. So when they translate, it comes out wrong, you know? [They do it] word for word,” she said.

Bicomong of The Learning Library noticed the same problem in her students’ vocabulary. Many don’t know the Filipino translation for even simple words, she said.

“For example, nobody gets gripo (faucet). That’s my favorite. All my years here [no one has gotten it right],” Bicomong said with a look that suggested she still marvels at it.

She chalked it up to a lack of exposure to Filipino, something she believes has only worsened in recent years as the internet has made it possible to stream Western entertainment popular with Filipinos.

“You don’t realize that because of cable, because of Spotify … they can actually go through a whole day [without hearing] any Filipino,” Bicomong said.

According to Fred Genesee, a professor of psycholinguistics at McGill University in Montreal, a child needs to be exposed to a language at least 30 percent of his or her waking hours to fully acquire it.

This wasn’t a problem in past generations, when even those from higher-income families had little choice but to watch shows like Batibot, the Philippines’ version of Sesame Street.

The language problem, Bicomong said, is difficult to spot early on, because children can usually get by with the little Filipino they do know.

Further, English is so widely spoken in the Philippines that parents often feel no sense of urgency when it comes to teaching their kids Filipino.

Even those who have enrolled their children at The Learning Library don’t necessarily believe it’s important that their kids be fluent in the national language.

“[I]f not for school and grades, they wouldn’t come here. There’s so many international school kids who cannot speak Filipino, but [those kids] don’t come, because they’re not failing,” she said.

Bitancor, the Filipino teacher, meanwhile, seems to have accepted that most of her students are simply better in English.

“That’s what they’ve grown up with since they were young… and whether we admit it or not, our clients here are from the A and B class, right? There are prominent families, too,” she said.

“So [you] expect that they’d be good in English, that they’re first language at home is English.”

This is precisely why Bitancor regularly requests parents during school orientations to speak to their children in Filipino. For her, the solution must start at home.

“The parents’ role is important here, because the school and the home are a partnership… [the two] should support each other in encouraging the child to embrace using the Filipino language,” she said.

But that’s not an easy sell for parents, for whom traditional notions of success in the Philippines are usually tied to English proficiency.

text THERESE REYES

Read the rest of the article on COCONUTS where it was originally published.


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