August 12, 2011

Dear Mr. Soriano

This was written in response to Soriano’s infamous, now-Google-cached-because-Manila-Bulletin-removed-it opinion piece on his perceived expertise of English.

I grew up on a diet of English, Mr. Soriano, just like you did.

Speaking, reading, writing, and thinking in English were as commonplace in our household as eating dinner. Tagalog was banned. Even my mother’s native Hiligaynon was banned. I was banned from watching Tagalog shows. I was confined to books in English, shows in English, movies in English, conversations in English.

I was taught very early on to think that I was better than everybody else. For years, I thought that I was the expert on anything because nearly every class in school was taught in English. I was still nationalistic, I told myself, because I could still love my country without knowing its language – without having to love its language.

Language is just words strung together, I told myself, as I wrote my novels and poems, crafted my lab reports and papers, gave my speeches, debated until my heart sang – language is just a thing.

I prided myself on being a communicator who had years of training in molecular biology under her belt. I went to the U.S., armed with my English, ready to go on the quest for my PhD.

Oh, how fast my misconceptions crumbled! How hard I fell!

True, my English allowed me to write what my professors called “wonderful” papers – but English was not simply a language. Tagalog was not simply a language. Languages were not simply things to be peddled, taught, learned in, spoken, or played with. They were keys to a culture.

Have you ever read on the social construction of knowledge, Mr. Soriano? Ever come across Berger and Luckmann? Social construction posits that there exists no single reality that can be measured or defined. Reality is only as vivid, as colorful, as well-defined as you can make it. Reality is constructed in your head, made real to you by your culture, by your language.

The claim is controversial, and the constructivist worldview, in its most radical form, is almost – pardon the pun – unreal. But its take on the importance of language, and the link between culture and one’s perceptions, cannot be denied.

We who were taught in English, Mr. Soriano, reason, write, and speak in English. We live in an English-imbued bubble. We can see the world through the limits of the English language. When you appreciate the limits of English, you can appreciate how little you know of the world.

That was how I learned, Mr. Soriano, and in the way that only graduate school can make you learn. You do not emerge from graduate school pumping your chest with pride at all the things that you know. You know that you have truly learned when you can emerge from graduate school with enough wisdom to admit that there is so much that you have yet to know…

…that you are but human, limited in your perception, held back by your filters. That you know nothing.

In my 4 years in the United States, I learned to appreciate the native language that I had not grown up with. I learned to hear its cadences, listen to its song, find where it could fill in my limitations with English. I wished I had learned it better and deeper, so that I could speak it with fluency.

I also learned that teaching a child several languages does not confuse a child. The part of the brain that facilitates language learning also contributes to memory and math skills. Teaching a child several languages develops a child’s brain even faster.

I am not bitter toward my parents. They did what they believed was best, but they, too, were products of their own generation. They had been raised to buy into the Western culture, to see the Philippines as inferior to the U.S. They had been taught in English. They had been taught that English was the weapon of the learned.

I now know better. I used to think the way that you do, Mr. Soriano. But 4 years, and a PhD later, I find that I am wiser. I can draw from my strengths, but my greatest weapon is an awareness of my own shortcomings.

I admit that I still have much to learn. I still laugh when people make horrendous mistakes in English grammar. I still cringe when I have to edit poorly-written English papers. I have learned, however, that I have no right to laugh at people who do their best to speak English. I have no right to laugh at those who are struggling to learn any language, because I, too, took years to learn English. I, too, struggled to learn Filipino.

I admit that I still have to learn to be humble. I have much to learn, indeed.

You do not need to speak a language to love it. I write in English because I am most comfortable with it, but I do not feel as though I am better than anybody else because I speak and write in English, and not in Filipino. I wish I could write novels in Filipino, poetry in Filipino, songs in both Hiligaynon and Tagalog.

No language or native tongue is better than another. Languages are simply different, with their own melodies and manners, and the ways they provide glimpses into the cultures from which they arise.

Your opinion piece did not raise Filipino or English to any level whatsoever. It only showed your readers that you brought Filipino down to the level of admonitions, a language of mere orders, a means of communication with those whom you perceive to be beneath you.

Your opinion piece was not satirical, ironic, or sarcastic. You once wrote a blog entry on English as a second language. I fail to see how belittling your fellow Filipinos is satirical, much less humorous.

Can you not see what you have done? English is not a language for you, Mr. Soriano. It is your weapon to wield so that you can reassert your perceived superiority over everyone else.

You are not learned. You are simply arrogant. And you are not smart, sir. You simply want to feel that you stand higher than everybody else.

You are insecure.

And, most important of all, you are wrong. English is not the language of the learned. In my years as a graduate student, and looking back at my years as a scholar, I have found that language has little to do with it. To be learned, you need to admit that you know nothing.

Humility, Mr. Soriano – humility is the language of the learned.

Why place a premium on being “learned” anyway? Is it your means of reasserting your supposed superiority over those whom you believe are lesser mortals? Is being “learned” simply equal to speaking a language, earning a piece of paper from a reputable university, quoting from scholars and philosophers, memorizing formulae?

Is that all that being “learned” is?

I refuse to see scholarship as being so mundane. I see scholarship and being learned as the ability to see how limited you are in your knowledge. Being learned means wanting to learn more, to know more. Being learned means using your gifts and sharing them, so that all will benefit.

The language of the learned is humility. The language of the learned is silence, the willingness to simply get to work and change the system. The language of the learned is questioning, asking, learning.

I can see you now, Mr. Soriano. You are snickering at the writers rallying to the cause of their mother tongues. You are laughing at your self-defined hoi polloi, whom you perceive to be idiots because they cannot speak or write English as well as you can.

So Mr. Soriano, I won’t tell you to read more Tagalog, speak more Tagalog, or learn all the 160+ living languages of the Philippines. You wouldn’t want to, and I can’t force you to change your language of choice.

Just grow up, Mr. Soriano. That’s all I ask. That’s what everyone else asks. Be humble. Know your limits. Be wise enough to see that you do not know everything. Be smart enough to keep quiet and stop claiming that you are an expert.

The language of the learned is wisdom, and maturity. No expertise in language can ever teach you that.


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