Monday, September 25, 2006

Play host or take hostage

FOR the coming Southeast Asian summit in December, we are sweeping our streets clean of garbage and vendors.

To host the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing is letting hundreds of thousands of young professionals take a crash course in English.

What will lure the investors, planting shrubs or improving the facility to communicate?

Beautification and sanitation have, without doubt, some use for sprucing up the image of Cebu, jittery host of another international gathering.

But shouldn’t our hospitality extend also to less cosmetic housekeeping measures?

One morning found me cramming in a bookstore. The night before, my grade 2 son had asked me where the Asean was. I was hard put to explain to Juan who our neighbors were, how they lived, what they ate.

My finger was jumping off from Ujung Pandang, the southern lobe of Celebes, to Irian Jaya, the cowrie shell lovers of Indonesia, when someone nearby exploded, “But you claim to be the national store!”

In a huff, two Middle Eastern men walked away from the cashier and her assistant. The vexed-looking ladies told the retreating backs to try other branches.

What were they looking for, I asked.

Documentary stamps, the cashier replied, handing me my change and the worlds of Borobudur and Irrawaddy.

Before we can sell to anyone, we first have to understand them. My inarticulateness before my son’s question made me reflect that, despite a college course on Asian civilization, I hardly know what lies beyond the borderless, homogenized world of pop media.

We are Filipinos, a voice inside scoffs. We don’t have to understand foreigners because we can speak English.

But, according to the Social Weather Stations (SWS), we seemingly don’t.

Its March 2006 survey shows that the Filipinos’ “self-assessed proficiency in the English language has declined over the past twelve years.”

Fourteen percent of Filipino adults say they are “not competent” to understand, read, write or speak English. This is twice the number of Filipinos documented during the December 1993 and September 2000 SWS surveys.

In March 2006, 65 percent or two-thirds of Filipino adults said they understand spoken English. In September 2000, three-fourths or 77 percent did.

In September 2000, more than half (54 percent) spoke English; only a third (32 percent) claim they did in March 2006.

Those who read English also declined: 65 percent in March 2006, down from 76 percent in September 2000.

Less than half (48 percent) write in English, according to the March 2006 study. Six years ago, three out of five or 61 percent did.

Although I was not part of the 1,200 SWS respondents distributed equally in Metro Manila, Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, I count myself as not among the rarefied 27 percent, representing a fourth of the population, that think in English. (In September 2000, two-fifths or 42 percent said they had no need to think in the dialect first before translating a thought aloud in English).

Is Beijing right? Should we also cram in English?

Language, like communication, is learned. But it is intuitive, too.

On the steps of the skywalk connecting a Banilad mall and a university can be seen sometimes two grimy baskets containing moron. Passing coeds, dreaming of overseas nursing careers, barely glance at the delicacy wrapped in banana leaf.

The seller, a spaced-out young man who looks as if he’s harboring about a dozen rare tropical diseases, looks even more unappetizing than his merchandise.

But not the cardboard sign on the basket: “Factory prize: P5.”

You could argue that the phrasing violates diction and spelling, not to mention reality (who has heard of a factory of workers “assembling” moron?).

But when you first read the sign, you can’t keep down that smile. Or fail to notice that the errors leave a comic and smart flourish that puts what’s standard and proper in the pale.

And the fellow’s moron isn’t so bad either.

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