Saturday, March 15, 2008

Close encounters with English

You know that scene in sci-fi movies when outer space invaders abduct an Earthling to study?

As a child watching the Saturday UFO feature on our black-and-white TV, I felt that the background music peaked in sympathy with my fear: what will the monsters do to the poor fellow?

When I got older, my fear took on another dimension: if the aliens picked the wrong person—a drunk or politician perhaps—wouldn’t they look down on us as an inferior, weaker species?

Reasoning that any alien experiment on a specimen whose brains were fried by alcohol, drugs or worse would come up with an invasion strategy that would underestimate and thus be unprepared for human intelligence and spirit, I decided that it was a good thing then if the UFO conducted their research on the “lowest common denominator.”

Unfortunately, a different logic rules beauty contests. To compete globally with other aspirants for titles representing the world, universe, ecosystem or galaxy, the honor should go to the fairest and, it has been argued, the most gifted.

Stopping to buy oranges one evening, I overheard the spirited discussion at a neighborhood fruit stand. The pretty but English-challenged winner of Binibining Pilipinas World 2008 was being dissected. When I had my 20 oranges, plus a free one, in my green bag, I peered at the young woman in the front-page photo, which my neighbors were raking with their eyes.

She looked very nice. Few women are kind to the eyes in a bikini and high heels. Later, after sitting through another TV rerun of the scene where the beauty tilt winner answers in her fractured English, I thought that even fewer women can dazzle while their foot is in their mouth.

I hope if she is serious about winning that world title, though, she will treat her English with the same discipline she has kept those young limbs sculpted. Misbehaving pronunciation and missing parts of speech can be a phase she can grow out of.

What takes a little more repairing is the spirit.

Unlike the blotchy complexion that peaks and wanes during adolescence, speaking, writing and, yes, thinking in a language that’s not our own requires more than pre-pageant cramming.

But a 17-year-old should have a lot of time to learn and polish. If she wants to, she can.

And since there’s too much advice going around for one young person to absorb, we might as well make use of some of our own industrious kibitzing.

For instance, we could get out and have a life, instead of camping in front of our TV sets or endlessly downloading the massacre of English in YouTube.

Days after I get emailed links to the Bb. Pilipinas incident, three friends send the YouTube link to a so-called Bulgarian singer interpreting Mariah Carey’s “Without You” into her version of “Ken Lee.”

Is this YouTube hit authentic? If the singer really did dislocate the lyrics, should we think all Bulgarians speak like this?

Even without the bikini-and-high-heels thing, a beauty contest is worlds apart from life. Who’s going to jump to the conclusion that a 17-year-old represents 45 million, the estimated number of Filipinas living in the country today?

Only alien researchers on the prowl. And only on TV.,, 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 16, 2008 issue

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