Monday, September 25, 2006

Pocket full of Englishes

ONE INNOCENT modifier started the undoing. Instead of buying one “pocket” dictionary” for my son’s reading class, I gave him instead my old paperback reference.

Carlos wondered aloud if anyone besides giants wore pockets that could hold such a tome.

No one seriously depends on anorexic dictionaries, I wheedled. How could a lightweight reference compare with this veteran of 70,000 entries, specially when it came to defining such teacher favorites as “conundrum” and “homunculus”?

My son dropped my copy inside his bag, but not without insisting that he needed dictionaries on Filipino and Chinese—languages we didn’t speak at home—but not a third one on English.

By keeping English in its throne, what are we doing to Philippine education? A grade six pupil in my sons’ private school spends every week 40 minutes more learning reading and language in English and Chinese, compared to Filipino. English though keeps its edge over Chinese because of the pervasiveness of our English-based culture: television, books, films, music, conversations, texting.

The picture in public schools is different. For this reason, Education Secretary Florencio Abad is skeptical of a House move to make English the principal medium of instruction in public schools.

Abad believes it is more crucial for students to express themselves even in the dialect as public teachers themselves have difficulties communicating in English. This is less simple than it sounds.

According to the British Council, English is the official language (used in official documents and media) in at least 75 countries with a population of over two billion. The population speaking English as a second language (one learned because it is spoken officially in the country) will soon outstrip the 375 million native English speakers. There is another 750 million trying to speak English as a foreign language (one spoken abroad and which can be learned in school).

Should English be made optional when it secures survival in the academe and later, in the industry? According to the British Council, over two-thirds of the world's scientists read in English. Three quarters of the world's mail is written in English. Eighty per cent of the world's electronically stored information is in English. Of the estimated forty million users of the Internet, some eighty per cent communicate in English.

Though I have no great love for Filipino, I am not blind to the irony of a state-educated graduate like me perusing English dictionaries for more than an hour but choosing a Filipino dictionary for its compact size. I begrudge the space in Carlos’ bag used for words like humaluyhoy and ngumibit. If people have cause to “groan” and “grimace,” it is because of a national tongue so much stranger than one learned as a second language.

Invasion, war and colonialism indeed spread this Germanic extract of the Indo-European family of languages. From only 40,000 words in the year 1000, English will soon have its present universe of 500,000 terms included in the 2010 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

According to OED chief editor John Simpson, there is space for new strains, new variants. “There is no longer one English—there are many Englishes. Words are flooding into the language from all corners of the world.”

For while English was spread in the past because the colonized had to learn the language of conquerors, English is changed in turn by its many users, specially by the second- and foreign-language speakers who outnumber the natives three to one. Creative writers help to liberate English from its colonial moorings, but so do ad writers, journalists and plain folks just texting away.

Taglish is one of the forms of “global English,” according to Rita Raley of the University of California. It is one of the international dialects with ties to English, along with Arablish, Benglish, Chinglish, Japlish, Russlish, Spanglish and others.

Will I be wrangling with my sons over the need to bring a fourth dictionary in the future? More importantly, will the new strains of Englishes sweep away the old contradictions, bridge the gaps of our understanding? I can surely spare space for that. or 09173226131

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