Why English should be the medium of instruction

by Bernardo Villegas
Manila Bulletin 26 May 2000

FEW can surpass the Japanese in nationalistic fervor. It is instructive to learn, therefore, that some Japanese leaders and opinion-makers have been advocating that English be adopted as a second official language. The Japanese are accepting the pragmatic view that Japan's future as a leading industrial nation will critically hinge on its population mastering the English language.

A similar awakening is happening in other Asian countries like South Korea, Taiwan and China. Among especially the youth, there is a keen interest in learning how to speak English reasonably well. As in Japan, the youth in these East Asian countries spend anywhere from six to ten years in secondary schools and universities studying the English language. As some Korean students told me when they recently visited the University of Asia and the Pacific, even ten years of studying English do not lead to their speaking English well because of the emphasis on rote memorization and the concentration on drilling arcane grammar rules. The following lament of a Japanese student should be familiar to those of us who took 24 units of Spanish in the fifties and sixties but never managed to speak Spanish: "We read and write English a lot in school, but we don't have a chance to speak and listen to English.

Teaching English has become a billion-dollar industry in Japan. The same thing is happening in other East Asian countries. The pressure is getting more intense as young professional people appreciate the value of the Internet in advancing their professional status. There is a very high correlation between the mastery of English and Internet usage.

The opportunity to practice speaking English is maximized in countries where the language is used as the medium of instruction, such as in Singapore and the Philippines. In Hong Kong, the decision of Beijing officials to remove English as a medium of instruction in most schools is already leading to the deterioration of English among the common workers. It is increasingly possible to call an office in Hong Kong and be answered by an employe who only speaks Cantonese or Mandarin. Some expatriates in Hong Kong fear that the deterioration of English could seriously jeopardize Hong Kong's role as the financial capital of Asia.

These developments around us should knock some sense into those who would like to remove English as a medium of instruction in our schools. They may have an important point. Children of low-income households find a great deal of difficulty learning the different subjects in their school's curricula because they are faced to learn them in a foreign language, English. I do sympathize with the concern that the children of lower-income households may be prejudiced by the insistence on using English as a medium of instruction because of the possible slowdown in their intellectual development as they are forced to learn in a foreign language.

The other side of the coin, however, is even more threatening to the poor. If we remove English as a medium of instruction in our schools, it is a certainty that the lower-income students will never learn to speak English well. The children of the well-to-do will find alternative means of education and of being exposed to English in their daily lives (at home, with their peers, through television and video programs, etc.) Then we shall worsen the inequity in economic opportunities because there is no doubt that those who are fluent in English in this shrinking world of Internet and free trade will have wider employment and entrepreneurial opportunities.

The compromise I propose is to continue with the present policy of using Filipino (or the vernacular) as the medium of instruction in the primary and even intermediate schools. Starting first year high school and all throughout college, English should be the medium of instruction in all subjects, except Filipino. The youth have all the chances to speak and listen to Filipino in their day-to-day lives: conversation with members of their families and friends, going to movies in Filipino, watching television programs in Filipino, etc. The vast majority of the youth, however, do not have enough occasions in their normal lives to speak and listen to English. The classroom is the only place where they can be obliged to speak nothing but English. That, as the Japanese and Koreans are realizing, is the only way for the students to actually learn how to speak English.

One last observation on this issue. There are those who point out that such countries as Japan, Korea and Taiwan have become economic powerhouses even if their populations have spoken only their respective national languages. They didn't need English to reach heights of economic development. Why can't we just speak Filipino and attain economic success without having to learn English?

The answer can be found in what happened during the last 40 years. When the tiger economies of East Asia succeeded in lifting themselves by the bootstraps, national economies were not as globally integrated and interrelated as they are now. Tariff barriers and other ways of protecting local producers from foreign competition still proliferated. During the past 10 to 15 years, however, the world has been moving towards more globally integrated markets (NAFTA, AFTA, APEC, WTO). Local producers must integrate into international or at least regional markets that go beyond domestic boundaries. Thus, even small entrepreneurs and farmers must use international channels of communication in order to prosper. Whether we like it or not, English is the most useful language a businessman in any part of the world employs to have access to markets, technology, capital, and training from the outside world.

We cannot turn back the hands of time. Serious errors in economic policy in the past have saddled us with more than 20 million of our fellow citizens living in dehumanizing poverty. We have to find jobs for these marginalized Filipinos by giving them the widest options, including being integrated into the global economy. Thus, we have to facilitate the learning of English for everyone, not only for the high-income families. We can be fluent in Filipino, without sacrificing English. The only practical way to preserve English is to continue making it the medium of instruction in high schools and colleges. For comments, my e-mail address is bmvillegas@mailstation.net.

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