Thursday, December 6, 2007

Do We Speak English Too Well for Our Own Good?

Conrado de Quiros shares an interesting thought on the role of language in development in his article in the Inquirer today. Is the failure of the Philippines to live up to its much-touted potential the result of our well-documented proficiency in English?

He writes, in part:

"...We speak better English than our Southeast Asian neighbors, but look at our Southeast Asian neighbors (including increasingly the former Indochinese ones) and you’ll see that nearly all of them have left us biting their dust. Singapore certainly has. Malaysia certainly has. Even Indonesia and Vietnam are so. Indeed, just look at this airport in Bangkok, as unabashed a display of prosperity as they come (you’d take a day traversing the expanse of it) and, well, what’s the feeling beyond depressed?

Maybe it has to do with language, with a grasp (or lack of it) of what it’s supposed to do. Those of us who keep emphasizing English as a way to communicate with tourists and to find jobs abroad ... may think we are saying the most commonsensical thing in the world. But other people would find that the battiest thing in the world.
The primary function of language is not for a people to communicate with foreigners, it is for a people to communicate with themselves. The primary function of language is not for a government to communicate with other governments, it is for a government to communicate with its citizens.

Maybe that’s the reason they are what they are now and we are what we are now..."

It's something to think about, but frankly, we think the message is flawed. The primary function of language is to communicate, period.

To limit it to communication by people "with themselves" or by a government "with its citizens" is dangerous and could lead to even more damaging close-mindedness at a time when, really, what is needed more is greater openness and communication between peoples and between nations.

And he sees a possible causation where we think there is none when he says,

"Maybe that’s the reason they are what they are now and we are what we are now. Maybe they’ve built airports like this because they have found a way to talk to one another and tell one another exactly what to do. Maybe we’ve been reduced to looking for menial jobs in foreign companies or foreign shores because we’ve found a way to talk only to our employers and masters. Maybe they’ve been invited to the gala because they have interpreters who can tell the other guests what they’re saying and so engage them in conversation. Maybe we serve as waiters in the same event because we know enough to offer them a glass of wine and a smile."

Some of those waiters that he talks about would probably even be thankful they know English well enough to have those jobs. Would they want to have better jobs, with more authority? Sure. But is language to blame for their not being qualified for such "higher" jobs? We don't think so.

So why, indeed, are our Southeast Asian neighbors seemingly doing better than we are? We all know why - it's their greater emphasis on education, and better governance. Some may even argue that they simply work harder than us.

But they're doing better not because they know less English than we do. Assuming they're doing better (and ever the optimist, CANVAS is not ready to concede this point), they're doing it despite the fact that they don't speak English as well as we do.

Our two cents.

"The Animals Laughed" (Limited Edition Digital Prints on Metallic Paper) by Plet Bolipata (2007).

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