Thursday, March 13, 2008

Language and Economic Theory

Editor/publisher Kenneth Yu recently lobbed these two articles in his blog: the first is Myths About Languages in the Philippines while the second, a reaction to the first, is English Remains the Only Hope of the Philippines. Here's my thoughts on the matter.

I have no real complaints about the former, although some pro-Filipino language advocates might take the article to one extreme: that the country does not need English. Which isn't really the case because no matter how you look at it, proficiency in English is still an advantage. The point of the author is that English need not be the exclusive salvation to the country's ills (nor is that truly the case) and there is room for multilingual acceptance. Language in the country is not an either/or situation but rather there is room for plurality. What some zealous nationalists might even miss out is how the author mentions that English is a Philippine language, or that English and Filipino are not in opposition to each other. A few months back, there was a heated discussion in this blog and over at several other blogs over which speculative fiction story is "more Filipino" or better assuming everything else is equal: the one written in English or one written in a "native" language (and my answer is that it depends on context rather than determined by language alone).

Now the second article is more provoking. Again, the knee-jerk reaction of pro-Filipino advocates is to bash it down. Not that it doesn't deserve to get criticized but in defense of the author, he raises some good points. The qualification here is that it should be viewed from a specific context. Is English proficiency in the country less than optimal? Yes. Is mastery of the said language necessary for business success? Yes--that is, if you're running a call center empire catering to US customers which is supposedly the agenda of the author. In that sense, the author is more or less correct.

However, let us take a step back and look at the bigger picture. The first essay talks more about a a holistic concern for the nation. The second simply focuses on one part--that of business and economics, exports to be specific. For me, they are not necessarily talking about the same thing. The former is approaching language with a more general perspective. The latter is approaching English as as mere tool for financial success. What the two however are striving to attain is prosperity and I use that word in the most general of terms.

Unfortunately, prosperity requires a lot of elements. Language is definitely a factor but it is not the only factor. I think if the Philippines is to be truly successful, yes, languages both native and foreign (and not just American English or Standard Filipino English but perhaps something Firefly-esque such as Mandarin) needs to be mastered. But other things come into play as well such as ethics, mentality, and discipline. Language alone will not save the country but admittedly it is a start.

What the second article fails to see is that prosperity can be achieved in several ways. There is such a thing as cultural prosperity for example. Christianity conquered the world with it. The same goes for the Jews. Right now, countries like India, Japan, and Korea are spreading their own cultural seeds. The Philippines could possibly accomplish the same thing if only we had more political will and less of the prevailing colonialism.

The more direct way of course is through economics and everyone seems to be intimidated by the industrial production of China. The Philippines tries to match it with is own unique brand of human labor, that of the service industry. Is this the right way to go? For me, ultimately, it fails, not because it produces Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs) but because it trains us not to have an entrepreneurial mindset or pro-active sensibilities. As it is, there is a tendency to produce passive laborers constantly catering to the needs of others rather than us determining our situation. Instead of dictating and producing demand, our country is merely reactionary and ultimately our fates are decided by other countries. For me, the call center is lucrative to government and many Filipinos because it is the most familiar business model. For decades, we have been sending people out all over the world, whether to be their maids, their nurses, their servicemen, or even their engineers (and I'm not saying those professions aren't noble). The call center industry follows that line of work and the only advantage it has is that one doesn't actually need to leave the country. But other than that, we are still operating under the same stagnated business principle. It does not answer the problem of time consumption (and it is arguable that one of the biggest advantages of entrepreneurs is that they know how to leverage time). It does not solve the dilemma that other countries benefit most from such labor nor does it really foster national pride in our own products (because the products such industries produce is neither tangible or targeted at our market). OFWs and call centers, in my opinion, are short-term solutions but because our government also thinks in the short-term, no one is taking steps for a long term solution, especially when it is costs them the present (a necessary sacrifice in my opinion). Thus we perpetuate the cycle of OFWs and call center industries.

Another failing I think of the second article's paradigm is that Filipinos only need to cater to Americans, or Westerners for that matter. Japan for example has call centers of their own that attempt to teach English and many Koreans come to the Philippines to learn English. That is easily an industry in itself and our asset isn't in speaking with English accents but rather speaking in our own Standard Filipino English. And you know why? Because our linguistics are more similar to Asia's compared to America's. Take for example vowel sounds. Filipino has five vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and therefore five vowel sounds. The same goes for Japanese. American English, on the other hand, has five vowels but sixteen vowel sounds. The letter "a" can sound like an "ah", "ae", "aw", or some combination thereof. Standard Filipino English might not sound right to an American ear but it's more comprehensible when speaking with fellow Asians. I've heard stories of Asians wanting to learn English not from Americans but from Filipinos because our English is better understood. We're capitalizing on that fact to a certain extent but it hasn't matched the expansion of the Western call center culture we have in the country.

At the end of the day, what I'm advocating is to look at the bigger picture and not fall into the pit-trap of oversimplification. As I said before, I have no disagreements with the first article and I don't think anything I have mentioned here contradicts the author's thesis. However, we must also acknowledge that language is not the only element in the formula for success and while this is a part of the solution, it is not the only solution nor is it an absolute one. As for the second article, the argument nonetheless has value despite its limited scope and one should prepared to appropriate what applies and discard what doesn't*. Whoever said we can't build both a good English and Filipino backbone?

*This advice also applies to many other fields, such as writing.

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