Friday, August 26, 2011

The Bibliophile Stalker Deals With An Essay On Language

There's an essay written by a certain James Soriano going viral right now (just search for "James Soriano" on Twitter). It has incensed quite a number of people because of its approach to its topic as well as its tone. The Bibliophile Stalker tackles the issue the essay talks about in a much better way than James Soriano did, in my opinion.

An excerpt from Soriano's piece:

It was the reading and writing that was tedious and difficult. I spoke Filipino, but only when I was in a different world like the streets or the province; it did not come naturally to me. English was more natural; I read, wrote and thought in English. And so, in much of the same way that I learned German later on, I learned Filipino in terms of English. In this way I survived Filipino in high school, albeit with too many sentences that had the preposition ‘ay.’

It was really only in university that I began to grasp Filipino in terms of language and not just dialect. Filipino was not merely a peculiar variety of language, derived and continuously borrowing from the English and Spanish alphabets; it was its own system, with its own grammar, semantics, sounds, even symbols.

But more significantly, it was its own way of reading, writing, and thinking. There are ideas and concepts unique to Filipino that can never be translated into another. Try translating bayanihan, tagay, kilig or diskarte.

Only recently have I begun to grasp Filipino as the language of identity: the language of emotion, experience, and even of learning. And with this comes the realization that I do, in fact, smell worse than a malansang isda. My own language is foreign to me: I speak, think, read and write primarily in English. To borrow the terminology of Fr. Bulatao, I am a split-level Filipino.

But perhaps this is not so bad in a society of rotten beef and stinking fish. For while Filipino may be the language of identity, it is the language of the streets. It might have the capacity to be the language of learning, but it is not the language of the learned.

It is neither the language of the classroom and the laboratory, nor the language of the boardroom, the court room, or the operating room. It is not the language of privilege. I may be disconnected from my being Filipino, but with a tongue of privilege I will always have my connections.

So I have my education to thank for making English my mother language.

An excerpt from The Bibliophile Stalker's essay:

One of the essays circulating recently is "Language, learning, identity, privilege" by James Soriano (Edit 2: it's inaccessible now but you can check the Google Cache). It's not an original or even fresh opinion: it's a never-ending debate that's plagued by the Philippines for the past few decades (and I'm sure it's an issue in other, multilingual countries as well).

Whenever someone raises the English vs. Filipino argument, they often miss two significant points.

The first point is context and this is very important. A lot of people assume that Filipino is the de facto language of the country when it's not: it's transitioned from Spanish to English to Filipino (and sometimes, switching back to one or simultaneously having two national languages). Just look at the country's iconic (if not contentiously important) novels: Noli Me Tangere by Jose Rizal was written in Spanish, The Woman Who Had Two Navels by Nick Joaquin was written in English, and Bata, Bata... Pa'no Ka Ginawa? by Luwalhati Bautista was written in Filipino.

There is the belief that one language is "more Filipino" than the other but we have to understand that history is dynamic and constantly changing.

The other point, and is perhaps the bigger problem, is our subscription to the ideology of dichotomies: something is either black or white, good or evil, positive or negative. It's a tempting paradigm, just as the concept of Schrödinger's cat at the very least gives pause to many people.

For example, as a personal experience, there's this belief that funerals and wakes should be depressing. The relatives of the deceased should be crying and mournful. While there is an atmosphere of sadness, for some family members, this is also a time of camaraderie, of seeing, talking, and empathizing with friends and relatives whom you don't often see. That's not to say you don't feel a sense of loss during a wake, but it's not the only emotion you're capable of experiencing. Both positive and negative emotions can take place simultaneously and the existence of one does not invalidate the other.

My difficulty with essays that frame the Filipino vs. English debate is that it becomes a zero-sum game where there is no room for co-existence.


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