james soriano on language and identity

It seems the debate on Filipino language and identity remains hot as ever, the flames stoked higher recently with the posting last August 24 at Manila Bulletin Online of Ateneo de Manila student James Soriano’s essay “Language, Learning, Identity, Privilege”.

It was incendiary and touched off a flurry of comments pro- and -anti on the Internet. I first read it at the MB website on Thursday, the 25th. By next day, Friday (perhaps even earlier), it had been yanked off the site.

Good thing it was retrievable via Google cache and posted here at Citizen Media Blogwatch. I repost here in full:

Language, learning, identity, privilege

Ithink
By JAMES SORIANO
August 24, 2011, 4:06am

MANILA, Philippines — English is the language of learning. I’ve known this since before I could go to school. As a toddler, my first study materials were a set of flash cards that my mother used to teach me the English alphabet.

My mother made home conducive to learning English: all my storybooks and coloring books were in English, and so were the cartoons I watched and the music I listened to. She required me to speak English at home. She even hired tutors to help me learn to read and write in English.

In school I learned to think in English. We used English to learn about numbers, equations and variables. With it we learned about observation and inference, the moon and the stars, monsoons and photosynthesis. With it we learned about shapes and colors, about meter and rhythm. I learned about God in English, and I prayed to Him in English.

Filipino, on the other hand, was always the ‘other’ subject — almost a special subject like PE or Home Economics, except that it was graded the same way as Science, Math, Religion, and English. My classmates and I used to complain about Filipino all the time. Filipino was a chore, like washing the dishes; it was not the language of learning. It was the language we used to speak to the people who washed our dishes.

We used to think learning Filipino was important because it was practical: Filipino was the language of the world outside the classroom. It was the language of the streets: it was how you spoke to the tindera when you went to the tindahan, what you used to tell your katulong that you had an utos, and how you texted manong when you needed “sundo na.”

These skills were required to survive in the outside world, because we are forced to relate with the tinderas and the manongs and the katulongs of this world. If we wanted to communicate to these people — or otherwise avoid being mugged on the jeepney — we needed to learn Filipino.

That being said though, I was proud of my proficiency with the language. Filipino was the language I used to speak with my cousins and uncles and grandparents in the province, so I never had much trouble reciting.

It was the reading and writing that was tedious and difficult. I spoke Filipino, but only when I was in a different world like the streets or the province; it did not come naturally to me. English was more natural; I read, wrote and thought in English. And so, in much of the same way that I learned German later on, I learned Filipino in terms of English. In this way I survived Filipino in high school, albeit with too many sentences that had the preposition ‘ay.’

It was really only in university that I began to grasp Filipino in terms of language and not just dialect. Filipino was not merely a peculiar variety of language, derived and continuously borrowing from the English and Spanish alphabets; it was its own system, with its own grammar, semantics, sounds, even symbols.

But more significantly, it was its own way of reading, writing, and thinking. There are ideas and concepts unique to Filipino that can never be translated into another. Try translating bayanihan, tagay, kilig or diskarte.

Only recently have I begun to grasp Filipino as the language of identity: the language of emotion, experience, and even of learning. And with this comes the realization that I do, in fact, smell worse than a malansang isda. My own language is foreign to me: I speak, think, read and write primarily in English. To borrow the terminology of Fr. Bulatao, I am a split-level Filipino.

But perhaps this is not so bad in a society of rotten beef and stinking fish. For while Filipino may be the language of identity, it is the language of the streets. It might have the capacity to be the language of learning, but it is not the language of the learned.

It is neither the language of the classroom and the laboratory, nor the language of the boardroom, the court room, or the operating room. It is not the language of privilege. I may be disconnected from my being Filipino, but with a tongue of privilege I will always have my connections.

So I have my education to thank for making English my mother language. ***

I was stunned. I too have issues with language and identity, but Soriano’s essay on the surface stank of the arrogance of privilege and caste. But wait – read again, and what jumps out is an unformed, immature personality that somehow reminds me of nothing more than a social climber.

But wait, there’s more. The lad was born this way. He’s had that attitude for years. Our Daily Bore found this piece also by Soriano, dating back three years ago.

Filipino as a Second Language

By James Soriano

 2008.12.03

The eve of Bonifacio Day brings back memories of my first days as a freshman in high school, particularly the one where I was sitting in Filipino class listening to my then-teacher, Mr. Pioquid, give an introduction to the course.

I especially remember that the reason it wasn’t boring was because he made a lot of noise by dropping his empty tin can onto the cement floor, and then proceeded to liken our young minds to tin cans which must be empty in order to be capable of receiving new and valuable knowledge. Back then, it struck me as very profound.

But there is one other thing that I remember from that first Filipino session, and that is a small parenthetical remark he made while glossing over the more boring (and unfortunately, the more important) parts of the syllabus.

He mentioned something about us taking an Honors course in Filipino by the time we got to sophomore year. I remember that this struck me as very strange: I could understand taking an Honors course in Math or Science or English, like most other gifted students would in other schools. But why would we have an advanced course in Filipino?

Looking back, maybe I was asking the wrong question. What I ask now is: why don’t most other schools have advanced courses in Filipino?

Oops, dumb question. There are a number of good reasons why we don’t.

For one thing, what is the Filipino language in the first place? Is it Tagalog? Is it Tagalog with tidbits of regional dialects? Or is it a genuine halo-halo of all of our major tongues?

As for me, I really don’t know. Members of the academe are still debating these questions as we speak. Therefore, maybe Filipino is just our cop-out: it allows us to say that we have a national language, even if in reality, we don’t.

Besides, it’s not very wise to master a language that isn’t utilized very often in politics or trade. Our laws, for example, aren’t written in Filipino, and neither are our court rulings and executive orders. They are all written in English. That’s why our lawyers take the bar examinations in English, and those who come out on top, more often than not, are people who are very well-versed in the English language.

The same is true with the language of education. In what language are we taught Science, Math, and Religion? Heck, we can even go beyond that: what is the language of the educated and the elite?

It really isn’t a surprise, then, that people who belong on the upper limits of society, like many of the people I come into contact with everyday, like to laugh at people who don’t speak English very well. English is the language of the man in the mansion, while Filipino is the language of the man on the street.

Besides, English is the language of the professional. It is the key to getting employed. This is especially true nowadays, when the trend is to go abroad where all the lucrative jobs are. If your employers can’t understand you, how can you expect them to hire you? In fact, this is also true with jobs here at home. Do you think call center agents are paid to speak in Filipino?

Hence, maybe I should be thankful that I’ve been trained to value the English language ever since I was a young boy. I should be thankful that I was exposed early to English cartoons and stories, for without them I don’t think I would have developed affection for the language. I should also be grateful that I was sent to schools that put a premium on being able to express yourself effectively in English; otherwise my skills as a student would never have been recognized.

Finally, I should be grateful that I was born in a society that never fails to remind me why that’s important.

After all, you don’t need to love your language to be able to love your country. Right? ***

Reactions ran the gamut from “Sunugin!” to “Hahaha!”

Here’s my favorite so far – a translation by Singapore-based writer Kat Nisperos of Soriano’s MB piece into Bekimon, a speech code said to combine “baklese” (gayspeak) and Jejemon. Nisperos, a graduate of University of the Philippines-Baguio, posted this faaahbulous essay on her Facebook Notes last Friday, August 26, and it has been Shared many times at FB.

Dear James Soriano: Bekimon is the True Language of Learning

by KAT NISPEROS on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 5:15pm

Bekimon ang kuda ng mga brainybells. Knowsline ko na ites even before nyumorsok si watashi sa school. Nung litol gurl pa lang akechiwa, acting teacheraka si mudak with flash cards effect malearning ko lang ang jolfabet in Bekimon. More ng in Bekimon ang mga storybookells at coloringbookells kes, pati cartoonella and songlalus more in Bekimon din! Pati ang piyok sa ballure, Bekimon pa din! Pumaylor pa si madu ng tutorlina para may I train si watashi to kyorsa and kyeme in Bekimon.

 Bekimon din akes mag-jisip, nalearning kes ang style na itembang sa schooliber. Bekimon lahat ng nyobject, numeraka, shorkulation, the works mga teh! Jobservation, jinference, moonsalugells, dancing with the stars, monsoonella, kyorthosynthesis, still in Bekimon! Nahearding din ni watashi ang word of the Lord in Bekimon, thus more ng I say a little prayer in Bekimon din.

Pero ang Filipino, imbey! Imbey to death! More ng imbyernakells kamos ng mga tita kes with Filipino! Aneng, jugas jugas ng shinggan? Wass itong kuda ng learnsalugells. Kuda itembang ng mga jugasera ng shinggan! Kuda iteng sa elm street! Kinukuda lang ites pag babaylor sa mga ateng, pag best in jutos kay yayabell, and textsalugells sa driveraka to fetch galore na si watashi.

More ng survivor in the wild ang drama ng bakla in the real world, and wass akembang magegetget ng mga atengs and manongs and chimi-aas kung wass ko knows ang Filipino. Wass ko namang bet majoldap ang beauty ko sa jeepney! Wazelei! Wizzlebomb!

Cry cry, pero keriboomboomlei kasi smarties ang ate nyes and more ng naging proficient din si watashi sa Filipno. Out in the wilderness (i.e. province lolololol) Filipino ang kuda nga mga cousinboom and titobang and lolobells so best in nakikibagay naman ang beauty kes.

Pero teh, ang jirap jirap jirap.. jirap kyorsahin, jirap kyorlatin, imbey! Wititit na nyortural ang Filipino to me, kumukuda lang akesang ng Filipino sa nyorvince and sa.. ugh, lansangan. (Kyorho ng term!!!) Eh Bekimong neng? Kyorsa, kyorlat, jisip, all in Bekimon bet na bet!  Pero like I pyoked earlybird, smarties akesang so nalearning ko din ang Filipino (in Bekimon!) and for more Gumegermany din akes! Ganda lang!

Pagnyorsok ni watashi sa juniversity nagetrakells kes na languagebells din ang Filipino, wass itong shoryalect! Wass lang itong may I steal from Spanish and Bekimon jolfabets, may systembells, may grammarlyn, may semanticles, fireworks and cartwheels! For more, best in original ang pagkyorsa, pagkyorlat, at pag-jisip ng kudang iteng! Which explains kung ketketloo wass makronslate ang ibang pyok, like shupatembangan, nomo-mes-bakla, baklang nagwawater, at digahan/kyemehan!

Knows ko mga teh, more ng makyorho pa akechiwa sa baklang isda. Filipino daw ang main celebrant sa kudahan, pero carebears mga teh; best in Bekimon akes, sa kuda, jisip, kyorsa, kyorlat, kahit anong kyeme pa yan Bekimon akes!

So I say keriboomboomlei, carebearina lang coz way better itembaloo in a societybells na more pang makyorho sa julok na shorne and fishing pond. Ang Filipino ay kuda sa lansangan (zomg), wass itong kuda ng mga brainybells at edukadang becky.

Sa schooliber, sa la-burat-ory, sa boardroomina, sa joferating room.. wass namang Filipino ang kuda, coz wass itong kuda ng mga mutya ng lipunan (pak!). Best in wit akong signal and na-DC ang beauty ni watashi when it comes to being a Filipino, pero keri lang! Bekimon ang tabas ng dila ng ate nyes and I therefore conclude na forevermore connected na akes everywhere else.

Bet mes? Bet na bet! I have my beckys and parlor gays and beauconessas (whether top, bottom, or versa!) to thank, kung wass kayes wass din akes chechembolin ng ganitells in Bekimon. ***

Amen, sisteraka!

This is the first time I have posted other people’s works in full – I do this only to preserve the texts and to provide a springboard for further discussion for those who are unable to access these works otherwise.

As a communication scholar, one of my major academic interests is language and speech code, therefore my curiosity about this. For now, I shall marshall my thoughts to write a “Pop Goes the World” piece on this issue for next Thursday on Manila Standard-Today. Meanwhile, mga teh, feel free to discuss in whatever language you like. ***

James Soriano image from his Multiply site.

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6 Comments on james soriano on language and identity

  1. Chito Limson
    27 August 2011 at 8:59 pm (2279 days ago)

    I remember my grandma talked to me in Spanish if she didn’t want the maid to eavesdrop on our conversation. My mom talked to me in English to train me to think and speak in that tongue. My dad talked to me in Pampango so that I would learn it. The Tagalog came by way of Mars Ravelo, songs of Ric Manrique, the dramas in DZRH and the usual discourse in the street when I played jolens, tex and spider fights with the neighbors.

    In school, more English (private school all the way) and many of us never truly liked Filipino (as it was spelled then). We simply learned the lessons by rote just so we can get by. In high school, I was more enthralled parsing Shakespeare and Marlowe than Balagtas.

    Fast forward to my son of 14 who has always spoken, thought and framed ideas in English, the paradigm of learning passed on by my wife and I who grew up in the same mode of communication and thus, learning. What is remarkable is that in Zobel, 50% of students did not speak Pilipino or Tagalog as the native tongue, despite being mostly full-blooded Filipinos. In literature, the school allows students to answer in English even if the questions are in Tagalog – the objective being less of the language itself but more of the process of learning to understand, analyze and project what one reads.

    In a sense, I agree with the writer’s POV. What use is Pilipino in MBA (think Porter, Senge, management math, production processes, Robert Anthony, Mark Jackson’s micro-economics, Kotler)???? What use is Pilipino for a doctor friend who’s prsently seconded in Columbia Hospital, NYC, learning under the world’s authority in a medical specialty. While we’re on the subject, can somebody translate “seconded” in Tagalog?

    The writer’s essay is vicious, brutal and leaves bloodstains and scars. But there is a kernel, no, probably more than a bushel, of truth in it.

    Even English is not the true language of learning per se. If you were to specialize in doctrinal philosophy, you have to learn to read and think in the ancient tongue, Latin and Greek, to avoid errors in translation.

  2. Fight D Bigots
    28 August 2011 at 1:56 pm (2279 days ago)

    English is the language of commerce and the law in our country, you’re right James. But most of your friends and classmates who grew up using any of the Philippine languages now have the mastery too of the English language. And probably some of them fared better than you do in your English-dominated classes.

    So what made you exceptional for making your life revolve around the English language, which by the way is also the language of the domestic helpers as well? Obviously, none. A lot of people I know who grew up speaking their native tongue can now write and speak really well in English.

    I pity you actually. Your case is no different from a child brought by their Filipino migrant parents to Saudi Arabia, sent to an international school and probably learned a few Arabic. But that makes the child isolated. He will never know fully the society where he or she lives. The child will grow up with too many wrong perceptions about the people around him or her. And not because they are wrong, but because the child does not understand them.

  3. OurDailyBore
    1 September 2011 at 2:54 am (2275 days ago)

    JENNYO, thank u for mentioning my blog :)

  4. MrsF
    3 September 2011 at 6:12 am (2273 days ago)

    Bilib na sana ako (sa essay) kaso I spotted some wrong grammar. :-D

    I am working in the medical profession at ang tanda ko eh sa hospital/operating room/delivery room, Filipino ang gamit namin kapag nagtatrabaho hindi English. Here in the States, you can get huge discounts and nice upgrades in restaurants or hotels if you speak Filipino.

  5. Lynn
    5 September 2011 at 5:31 am (2271 days ago)

    James has a good point with English being the language of the learned. Can’t expect to use the Filipino language to do business with corporations and international companies. I agree with James in regards to Tagalog being the language of the streets. Unless the whole country is prepared to isolate itself from the rest of the world, English will have to be the main language used for communication.

  6. BlogusVox
    5 September 2011 at 6:17 pm (2270 days ago)

    I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon. But Kat Nisperos parody blow my brains out. I don’t understand a single word of what she wrote (just put two-and-two together) and it was hilarious. : D

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