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

Illustration: Karen Grace Quinzon.
Illustration: Karen Grace Quinzon.

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.

A Learning Library teacher with his students.

For a brighter future

Eliz Cacapit was not always comfortable speaking English. She told Coconuts Manila last month that back in school, she often second-guessed herself when reciting during English class.

“I had moments when I was shy to speak in English, because I was afraid of getting the grammar wrong [and people would] laugh at me,” she said in English and Filipino.

Now a mother of a 2-year-old girl, Eliz is determined to keep her daughter from experiencing the same discomfort.

“I don’t want her to feel, you know, that she’s inferior,” she said.

This is a common concern for parents in the Philippines, where English is still the preferred language of universities and corporate offices.

Garcia, the university professor, argues this mindset stems from a colonial mentality still common in Filipinos.

“The Spanish enslaved us physically, [but] the Americans enslaved us mentally and emotionally. That’s why until now, we still really love America. That’s why until now, our minds and hearts are still slaves to America,” he said.

The United States set up the public education system in the Philippines to teach English while instilling American values. Today, “good education” is often still associated with “good English,” a misconception Garcia wants to break.

“They think language is what will elevate you as an individual… [but] your language is not the basis of your intelligence,” he said. “Language is a medium to deliver ideas, it is not for elevating ideas.”

But like a lot of parents, Eliz still believes teaching her daughter English will better prepare her for when she starts school.

After their daughter was born, she and husband Marc Cacapit decided that they would each speak to their daughter in a different language. Marc would speak in Filipino, while Eliz would be in charge of English.

At just 2 years old, their daughter can already speak full sentences, but because she’s exposed to English media and spends more time with Eliz, whose job is more flexible, she’s ended up more fluent in English.

“I think she stammers more when speaking Filipino,” Eliz said. “I think she’s about an 8 [rating] in English, 6 in Filipino.”

This, even though Eliz, Marc, and the rest of their relatives generally speak to each other in Filipino.

“[We talk to each other] mostly in Filipino,” Marc told Coconuts Manila. “Then my daughter will say, ‘what?!’ because she did not understand what we said.”

Eliz, however, doesn’t see this as much of a problem, preferring to see the positive side of the language trend.

“Actually, we shouldn’t see it as a problem that [some kids are] forgetting Filipino. We should see it as us adding [another language], so [their skills are] balanced,” she said. “I don’t want to think of it as a problem. Actually, I believe it is an advantage.”

Rae Sanchez, a professor and mother of a 2-year-old boy has much the same set up with her son.

She and her husband speak to their son in not two, but three different languages: She’s assigned to Tagalog; her husband, who hails from Bohol, speaks to him in Visayan; while her parents and siblings use English.

While her approach is similar to Eliz and Marc’s, Sanchez’s philosophy is the polar opposite. Rather than prioritizing her son’s English proficiency, Sanchez first made sure he knew how to speak Filipino.

This decision stems from her experience as a theology professor at the Ateneo de Manila University, where she teaches classes in Filipino. She noticed that many of her students have a hard time when writing essays or reciting in class, something she hopes to avoid with her own son.

“I told myself I wouldn’t want my son to grow up that way when he is Filipino,” Sanchez said in English and Filipino. “I don’t want him to be uncomfortable with his own language.”

She noticed the same trend in kids closer in age to her son. She recalled going to a playground in their private subdivision and noticing that all his son’s playmates were speaking English.

“In other words, English is the norm,” Sanchez said. “I don’t know why that’s been normalized.”

A public school classroom in the Philippines. (Photo from ABS-CBN News)

The flip side

Outside the bubble of the country’s private schools is an entirely different story.

Maryann dela Cruz taught in a private school for six years but now teaches English to Grade 6 students in Fortune Elementary School, a public institution in Marikina City she’s been working at since 2010.

Unlike private schools, it’s English that public school students have a problem with, and dela Cruz noticed the gap immediately.

“Because public school students were brought up with Tagalog at home, they’re afraid [to speak in English],” she said in Filipino.

“When the teacher asks a question in English, they’re afraid to speak up, even when they know the answer, because their brain is still trying to find the right words to use.”

In February, Senator Grace Poe called for an inquiry on a reported decline in the English proficiency of Filipino students.

Poe cited a study by Hopkins International Partners, the official Philippine representative to the Test of English for International Communication, which found that a Filipino university graduate’s median test score is at the same level as the proficiency of Grade 5 and 6 students in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Dela Cruz’s observations in her own classes are similar.

According to the English teacher, only about 25 percent of her Grade 6 students are truly proficient in English. Most can read and write, but many don’t have a deeper understanding of class discussions.

“The problem with kids now is that most of them are low in comprehension, they have a difficult time with critical thinking skills,” she said.

To illustrate just how severe the problem is, dela Cruz said that some Grade 6 students are only able to construct Grade 1-level sentences.

“[For example], ‘My bag is blue,’ ‘My hair is black,’ those kinds,” she said. “There are only a few who are able to give Grade 6-level answers.”

This is alarming because English proficiency has always been the Philippines’ edge when compared to its Southeast Asian neighbors.

But now, the Philippines ranks just third in English proficiency in the region, behind Singapore and Malaysia, in a survey done by language training company EF.

The problem, dela Cruz believes, is exacerbated by the struggles their students face outside the classroom.

Her students come from impoverished communities and often go to class hungry. Many of them, she said, are dazed and distracted in school. Some also don’t attend classes regularly because they don’t have money to commute to school.

“I can see that they’re interested in English, just as long as the teacher is creative. That’s why it’s important for the teacher to be resourceful and patient,” dela Cruz said.

So while the privileged can opt to attend special tutorial centers to learn Filipino, public school English teachers must work doubly hard just to get their students to listen.

Bridging the gap

More than learning to read and speak Filipino, Bitancor, the teacher, believes that the value of learning the language is that it will allow her students to better understand all kinds of people, including public school students like those dela Cruz described.

For her, the responsibility of bridging the gap between rich and poor — between English and Filipino speakers — lies with her and her students, who have the resources to do so.

“We want [our students] to look out for other people… [but] how can you understand others, and when I say ‘others,’ I mean the great majority whose language is Filipino, if you can’t express [yourself] to them and speak Filipino?” Bitancor said.

She said that opening her students’ eyes to these social issues also makes it easier for them to acquire the language, because they’ll learn that Filipino goes beyond the four walls of the classroom.

“The focus of their studies should be on social issues, they should have relevance,” Bitancor said.

It’s a noble sentiment, but one wonders what kind of impact a handful of private schools can have on a problem you can see worsening by the day, a problem no one seems to be talking about.

And so, the language gap grows, and with it, the chasm between the Philippines’ “elite” and the majority left behind.

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