Sunday, May 06, 2007

It's not just about language

This was my column last Wednesday, May 2. I was out of town starting last Tuesday and just got back to Manila today.

A group of concerned educators and some parents filed a petition last week requesting the Supreme Court to stop MalacaƱang and the Department of Education from implementing a policy designed to strengthen English as a second language in the Philippine educational system.

The group is of the strong opinion that MalacaƱan’s Executive Order 210 and Department of Education’s EO 36 do not merely promote the use of English as a second language, but actually strengthens the use of English as the main medium of instruction in the country’s educational system.

According to the group’s petition, both executive orders patently violate the Constitution, specifically, Article 14 Section VI which, they say, expressly prescribes that “the Government shall take steps to initiate and sustain the use of Filipino as a medium of official communication and as language of instruction in the educational system.”

The petition specifically points to three provisions in the executive orders that they say run counter to the constitutional mandate to propagate the use of Filipino as the main medium of instruction in the Philippine educational system. First, the mandate to use English as the primary medium of instruction for English, mathematics and science from at least the third grade level. Second, the use of the English language as the primary medium of instruction in all public and private institutions of learning in the secondary level. Third, encouraging the use of English as the primary medium of instruction in the tertiary level.

The petition cites a number of arguments that draw heavily from various empirical studies conducted locally and abroad. The gist of the argument is that most studies already validate that students do learn faster and better if they are taught using their mother tongue. In effect what our educators are saying is that the government is wrong: Using English as a medium of instruction does not promote learning at all, nor does it result in English proficiency. On the contrary, the move puts Filipino learners at a disadvantage.

The filing of the petition is just the most recent development in a long-drawn out debate that has been taking place in various fora as well as in cyberspace for sometime now. I first took note of the discussion when a paper written by Dr. Patricia Licuanan of Miriam College began making the rounds of various e-mail groups (Licuanan is one of the petitioners).

Unfortunately, the rhetoric of both Licuanan’s earlier paper and that of the current petition before the Supreme Court has been gleefully shot down by many pundits and hecklers with a rather simplistic, but persuasive rebuttal: Both are written in perfect English. If it is unconstitutional to promote English as a medium of instruction, what does that make of the Supreme Court, the legislative bodies, and all other institutions in this country including many academic institutions (and the petitioners themselves!) who use English as the main medium of communication?

Although the petitioners do not claim to speak for the whole Philippine academic community, it is safe to assume that academe is supportive of the perspective being forwarded by the group since no one from the community has come forward to present a contrary point of view. The petitioners anchor their arguments on pedagogical grounds, which implies that their position is fully supported by science.

On the other side of the debate are those who believe that the current (dismal) level of proficiency in English among graduates already requires drastic measures. It might also be important to note that no one in the business community has come forward to categorically express unqualified support for EO 210. Even my own professional organization, the People Management Association of the Philippines which, by virtue of its stature as the national organization of human resource management practitioners in the country should be a key participant in the discussion, still has to come up with an official position on the matter.

However, insinuations that the business community prompted this latest wrinkle are running thick. In particular, some fingers are pointing at the call center industry which has been experiencing difficulty in finding graduates that meet its English proficiency requirements.

GMA-7’s morning show Unang Hirit sought me out for an interview last week and while the feature was more about the call center industry, it was evident that the ongoing debate on the use of English as medium of instruction was part of the context. In that interview, I tried to clarify some misconceptions about the needs of the business sector in general, and about the call center industry, in particular.

Among other things, I clarified that while there are call centers that specifically require high levels of English proficiency as a pre-condition for hiring, this has never been a stand-alone dimension in the hiring process. Call centers or business in general, simply do not hire applicants on the basis of their ability to regurgitate grammatically correct and perfectly enunciated sentences.

English proficiency is important. But analytical thinking, problem solving, and interpersonal effectiveness skills are more important. And more often than not, the absence of these skills automatically translates into deficiency in English rather than the other way around. In short, someone who lacks analytical thinking skills or interpersonal effectiveness automatically flunks in the area of fluency. We find that the ability to articulate ideas is a function of poor thinking skills to begin with, and not necessarily due to lack of familiarity with English words and phrases.
In other words, it is wrong to assume that the business community is simply complaining about English deficiency. Yes, we bewail the generally declining levels of English proficiency, but we also rile against the generally dismal levels in other competency areas. So as far as we are concerned, the issue is not just about language, but about overall competitiveness of the output of academe.

If we are to address the mismatch between the needs of industry and the output of academe, we must get the context right. But as can be expected in a situation where emotions are running high, the tendency to polarize perspectives and categorize them into an either/or proposition becomes pre-dominant. This is self-defeating, particularly when the tendency to assert intellectual supremacy becomes the order of the day. What saddens me about the whole debate is that people seem to be forgetting that this is not just about who is right or wrong, this is about what is good for the country in the short and long-term.

Let me illustrate with a real story. At a tripartite forum held last year that sought to bring academe, industry, and government together to come to an agreement on how best to address the problem of the mismatch, many among us from industry were quite floored down by the scolding we got from a noted academic who accused industry of “dictating on academe” without considering pedagogical, social, cultural, even economic factors. The academic could have spared us the patronizing lecture if he kept an open mind and listened to where we were coming from, because clearly, we were not necessarily at opposite ends of an argument.

The current debate clearly needs to be situated within a wider context and requires a more enlightened and consultative approach. It is truly strange that while the main issue appears to be about language, we are forgetting that language is primarily a tool for communication. And on that aspect, we’re all failing. Dismally.

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