Philippine Language from an ALG Perspective
By Antonio Graceffo
About my Exposure to Filipino Language
For four months I studied emergency medical technician (EMT) and volunteered on an ambulance crew in Quezon, City, Philippines. I was the only foreigner in my class, although the head instructor was Irish. On the ambulance crew I was the only foreigner. This was my third visit to the Republic. I had spent two months in the country, the previous year, giving me a total of six months of exposure to the language and culture. In the Philippines I completed my black belt in Philippine martial art and became a certified rescue swimmer. Once again, I was the only foreigner in any of these courses.
About the Language
The Philippines is a collection of some 7,000 islands, bordering on the China Sea. Countless dialects and languages are spoken by the 80 million inhabitants. The country was a Spanish colony for nearly 300 years, ending at the dawn of the 20th Century, when the country came under American rule for a period of approximately fifty years.
Sources I have read claim that under the Spanish, less than 3% of the population spoke the Spanish language. Education and even reading and writing were limited to the wealthy class. One of my Filipino classmates, Ben, told me “The Spanish wanted to keep us dumb so we would be easier to control.”
Under the Americans things changed. Schools were built. Nine years of school was made compulsory. English was widely taught. Estimates say that by the end of the American rule, just after World War II when the Republic of the Philippines becomes recognized as an independent country, nearly 80% of the population spoke English. The Americans were able to accomplish in 50 years what the Spanish could not do in 300.
Before the Spanish came, there was little connection between the many islands. During the American rule, a national identity was formed among Filipinos, as they saw themselves belonging o the greater Philippines, rather than as members of their own small tribes or clans. A national language was chosen, partly at the insistence of the Americans. The language chosen as the official language of the Philippines was Tagolog. Tagolo is a dialect spoken in Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines, where the capital, Manila is located.
Some Filipinos resisted the choice of Tagolog as they felt that it put Luzon in a position of dominance over the other islands. English, however, was seen as a politically neutral choice of languages. Up until the 1970s it was common that when groups of Filipino met all coming from different parts of the country, they would use English as their common language, rather than Tagolog. In schools, all courses were taught in English, with the exception of Filipino subjects: history, language, and culture.
Since the 1970s there has been a reversal, a movement towards the Tagologization of education, moving away from the use of English and towards promoting Tagolog. International Employers, and also the Philippine press, have reported that the overall level of English in the Philippines has been on the decline.
In my own experience, in most developed Asian countries, such as Taiwan and Korea, children tend to speak better English than their parents, as the teaching of English and the introduction of foreign teachers has steadily increased as the countries became more affluent. In the Philippines, however, I often found that people forty and over spoke better English because they grew up in an age when English was stressed at school.
My first few days at EMT school no on talked to me. Later, after I became friends with my classmates, they explained to me that they were shy about speaking English. Nearly all of them said that they had never had a foreign friend before. Most had never even had a conversation with a native speaker.
Ben was the first student to talk to me. Later, he told me why. “I come from Boholo. In my province, we speak our language. I wasn’t sure if I would feel comfortable speaking Togolog with all the other guys, so I was happy when I met you and I could speak English.”
While the overall English level of the Philippines is reported to be in decline, this type of thinking is still fairly common, particularly among educated young Filipinos. Strolling through the malls and expensive coffee shops you will often hear Filipinos talking to each other in English. One reason is because English is still seen as political neutral. Another reason is that people already speak their dialect, and see this as their culture. Instead of forcing the children to improve their Tagolog they could learn English
At the mall, I heard Filipino children speaking English with their parents. Paul, a Filipino friend who works as a manager at a call center told me, “Some parents send the children to a Montesory. The kids are exposed to English all day and they just continue speaking English when they come home.”
Filipino vs. Tagolog
At one point, the official language of the Republic was called “Filipino.” Today, it is called Tagolog. The name Filipino is more accurate than Tagolog. Togolog, in the strictest definition of the term, is a dialect spoken in Luzon. Tagolog, and many other Filipino dialects, are of Malay origin.
Filipino, on the other hand, is a mixture of Tagolog, English, and Spanish. If you listen to people speaking tagolog or lift pages out of newspapers or chatrooms on the internet, you ill find a mix of all three languages.
“but of course,kung sa food naman,mahirap ding tiisin ang mga hinayupak na yan.”
Here you see the Englih word, food.
“kung yung mga hayop nga binibigyan natin ng importansya,tao pa kaya”
Here we find the Spanish word, importancia, but with the Filipino spelling. From the spellings of Spanish words in Filipino, I would have to guess that a transcription was done, from the sound, after the Latin alphabet was adopted and, my theory, AFTER English was being widely spoken. Many of the “misspellings” in Spanish look like spelling changes that would occur if they were done by a native English Speaker.
Here is a sample of typical chatter, common language, I picked up off of a Filipino group on Facebook.
“at least ang mga alaga ko dogs,pinatutuwa ako,ang ku kyut nila at bantay pa sa bahay at nabebenta ko puppies,kumikita na,nakakalibang pa…vet med student ang 1 anak ko noh..hehehe….eh those people,they never really appreciate what you did for them…like parasites they will seek for more.kumbaga,aaraw-arawin ka nila…but then, kung maluwag ang loob mo,tulungan mo…just like that”
Here we see not just words, but whole sentences and concepts borrowed from English, and then mixed with Spanish and Tagolog vocabulary.
This last example is indicative of the way most Filipinos speak, mixing all three languages.
How Did I Get Through School?
My schools, both medical and swim rescue, were officially taught in English. One of the many factors that plays a roll in language selection in the Philippines is poverty. There is a lack of information available in Filipino language. The Philippine government also does not conduct the same type of statistical surveys and subsequent publishing of information that the US government does. As a result, for most majors, the books and information all come from the US. In my course, for example, my Filipino classmates were made to memorize rates of heart attack and stroke in the US, as this data was unavailable for he Philippines.
Eighty percent of the population of the Philippines lives on less than two dollars per day. Those lucky enough to have professional jobs in Manila can count on a salary of 10 – 20,000 pesos (about $500 USD) per month. With the average family being quite large and the relative cost of living being quite high, the average Filipino has little or no disposable income.
Master Frank Aycocho, my principle martial arts instructor in the Philippines, told me. “If you have a salary of 20,000 and you have four kids, you can’t live. You will do something illegal, even if it is just stealing electricity.”
Police officers earn around 10,000 pesos per month. Many of them live in squatter villages, in temporary shelters made of cardboard.
As a result, there is little or no money left over to buy books. Most of the innovative instructors who I met, at the Philippine Red Cross, told me that they use their English ability to go on line and research teaching materials made available for free, by the Americans. They then print this material and use it for their classes. In at least one of my classes, our text book was a hodgepodge of materials printed off the internet, copied and stapled together.
This forces the medium of instruction to be English. On the one hand, it is good, because it gives students an opportunity to improve their English. On the other hand, it is bad, because it limits education to those people who have a high reading level in English.
Of course, the Philippines is still infinitely better off than other countries I work in, such as Cambodia and Thailand, where information and government studies may be equally as unavailable, but where neither the teachers, nor the students would possess the English language and computer ability to compose textbooks with materials taken off of the internet.
So, walking into class in the Philippines, I knew that I could count on all printed materials to be in English. The medium of instruction, officially, was English, but obviously, the teachers would sometimes forget themselves and begin lecturing in Filipino. Confused students often asked questions in Filipino, which triggered a Filipino language response from the teacher.
What is ALG?
ALG is a language acquisition theory which says that all learning is based on listening. The way the program works in the classroom is that teachers tell stories, give lectures, or act out scenes in the target language and students simply listen. The theory is based in part, on behavioral psychology research which says that 80% of human communication is non-verbal. If this is true, then living in an environment where you don’t speak the language at all, you should be able to understand 80% of communication.
The ALG method is being employed in the Thai language department, at AUA language school in Bangkok, and is being lead by David Long, the leading proponent of the theory.
Sitting in an ALG classroom, even the biggest skeptic will become a believer. Through body language, intonation, pictures, and context, students find that they can follow the stories and lecture, even when they have little or no knowledge of the language. Other components of ALG theory say that, although we learn by listening, mos of us don’t learn, because we don’t listen. When we her a foreign language that we don’t understand or when we hear something in our own language, which we think we already know, we tune out. We stop listening, and we stop learning.
ALG would say that simply living in a foreign country, being surrounded by the language doesn’t actually mean that we are immersed or that we could learn, because we would tune out. ALG works in the classroom, however, because the teachers establish a context. The students have an infinitely higher probability of understanding if they know what the story is about. Next, teachers use pictures and actions to help students understand difficult words and concepts. The important aspect of ALG teaching is to keep the students tuned in, to keep them listening. David Long often uses the word “guessing.” If we already believe that we understand something, we stop guessing or we stop listening. For this reason, a single ALG classroom could accommodate learners at varying levels. While novice learners would be guessing at context and meaning, advanced learners would b guessing a higher concepts, implications and advanced language.
Keep them guessing. In an ALG setting we never want the learner to feel he understands everything, as he does in his native language, because then he will tune out.
One more important aspect of ALG is that ALG does not give translations. My own background is in applied linguistics, which i a fancy name for a university trained translator. Many of the new translation theories we learned at university set out to prove that there is no such thing as a translation. Words have a variety of meanings to people of a certain culture, which could never be 100% translated to another culture. To illustrate this, walk into a native classroom in Alaska, rural Thailand, Cambodia, Tokyo and suburban Ohio and ask children to draw a picture of a house. All of th drawings would look completely different. They wouldn’t be wrong, just different, appropriate for each culture.
When we believe we are translating what we are actually doing is guessing, matching the closest concept of language to a concept in another, but we can never be 100% right. The English word “notary” is translated in German as “Notar.” But, where anyone in America with a permanent address, good credit and no criminal record can be a notary, a Notar in Germany has to graduate law school. Most notaries in America charge between zero and $2.50 for a stamp. In German, the fee could be $50 or more. So, is Notar an accurate translation of notary? Do the two words co notate the same job in the two countries?
ALG tells students to steer away from concentrating on individual words, telling them instead to focus on understanding communication. This is sound advice when we consider the purpose of language is communication. And, language existed for thousands of years before their was grammar. If a student doesn’t understand a word in the target language and insists on an explanation, the explanation is given in the target language. Th benefit to this method is that a Thai word can only be exactly and 100% correctly explained in Thai. And two, nearly all language acquisition theories tell students to think in the target language rather than to translate. If the teachers refuse to give translations, then they are setting a good example for students.
Speaking L1 in an L2 classroom breaks the spell. Introducing English into a Thai classroom takes students out of the Thai mind set. It frustrated students who were having no difficulty understanding. It robs all of the students of several minutes of learning. So, th explanations are kept in Thai.
My Relationship to ALG
I studied in the AUA Thai program for several months and then participated in a number of field workshops and in depth discussions with David Long, regarding the program and the theory. I left Bangkok and went out “into the field,” looking for real life applications of ALG. Since we know that simply living in a foreign country is not an effective way of learning language, I had to discover real-life situations, where I could be with a native speaker, who would talk to me for hours at a time, using context, pictures, body language, and other forms of non-verbal communication, while never translating to English, but rather always explaining in the target language.
In most countries, I found that practicing martial art was an excellent way to apply ALG. The teachers couldn’t speak English and their demonstrations and our practice served as non-verbal communication and body language to help me understand. An other good learning opportunity was when I went to study with monks in a temple on the Cambodian border. The monks told me lengthy stories and Buddhist parables, using hand motions, pictures, facial expressions, and tone of voice to help bring life to the words and concepts I did not yet know.
An added bonus in the temple in Surin was that there were a number of Khmer monks also learning Thai for the first time. So, we were in a combined learning environment, where we had no choice but to communicate in the target language, as none of them spoke English.
Later, I crossed into Shan State, Burma, with the Shan State Army rebels, to document human rights abuses in the genocide there. The Shan language is quite similar to, although not exactly the same as, the Thai language. Conducting filed interviews with villagers, victims of torture and rape, I already had a context, and had some intuition about the kinds of things they would be telling me. When words appeared that were strange to me, I was able to guess at their meaning. When the same words reoccurred in other interviews, they would either confirm my suppositions or cause me to reevaluate my theories about their meaning.
Not knowing Shan language kept me guessing. Context and intuition helped me to understand. And my learning, as is the way with ALG, was such that, after a few months I could sometimes be trusted to do interviews on m own, without a translator, but I still could not speak Shan. I spoke to people in Thai, and they answered in Shan.
ALG is about listening and understanding. Speaking comes after your listening is already exceptional. David Long says that once you start speaking, you stop listening. So, speaking should be delayed as long as possible.
My experience with Lao language was similar to that of Shan. Lao, Thai, and Shan all belong to the Tai language group, so they are similar, but not exactly the same. Going in the field in Lao, conducting interview and also studying Muay Lao (Lao kick boxing) i was exposed to a foreign language, with context, body language and intuition.
With Khmer language, I tried a unique experiment. I already spoke Khmer but wanted to improve my skills, by using an ALG type concept. I already had a basic reading knowledge of Korean language, so I enrolled in a Korean language course, taught by a Khmer. All of my classmates would also be Khmer. The course was taught in a format of grammar translation. This is an old teaching method, whereby students read a sentence in the target langaug, then translate to the L1 and then do gammar exercises or manipulations.
Example in Spanish:
Teacher (speaking English): Bob, read sentence one.
Bob: Yo voy a la escuela.
Teacher: Class, what does that mean?
Class: I go to school.
Teacher: Good. Sally, what if i wanted to say, WE go to school?
Sally: Nosotros vamos a la escuela.
This is probably the method whereby 90% o Americans were taught Spanish at school, and why most of them can’t speak any Spanish at all.
At a glance, you can see that the English talk time is higher than the Spanish talk time. The sentences, words and phrases have no meaning at all,. There is no context. The students are actually going to school or telling a story about going to school. They are simply concentrating on words and translating them. This lesson is less about communication and more about covering a certain number of pages at each meeting.
The Korean class was taught exactly the same way, except that all of th English was replaced by Khmer. This was perfect for me because, although I would like to improve my Korean, i was there to improve my Khmer.
From a Khmer language standpoint, we had context. We had communication. When the teacher said “open your book,” “read”, “write”, or translate, he really wanted you to do those things. Because the Korean language texts we were reading were so basic, the translations did not exceed my knowledge of Khmer language. The translations were good because I could sit back and let other native speakers translate and see how their translations compare to mine.
The Korean class was interesting to me because I was the only one in the class who had ever been to or studied in Korea. As a result, i often disagreed with the translations prepared by the teacher or the other students. Those disagreements reinforced my belief in ALG, as they proved that language was a living, breathing thing, based on the culture and the psyche of th people who speak it. I you through the communication or cultural understanding out the window, you could never master a foreign langauge.
As predicted, my Khmer improved a lot. My Korean probably slipped a few notches.
Attending EMT Emergency Medical Technician training in the Philippines
The Filipino Classroom was a perfect laboratory to apply Automatic Language Growth (ALG).
I had memorize less than fifty Filipino words and phrases before I entered class for the first time. I am however, a native speaker of English and near native speaker of Spanish. Although our class was supposed to have been taught in English, teachers and students often lapsed into Filipino.
The teacher was giving a lecture about internal bleeding, resulting from trauma, a car accident. She slipped into Filipino, but, all of the medical terms were in English. The Tagolog language is extremely old, and lacks words for modern concepts such as medicine and science. These words were all borrowed from the American much later in Philippine history. Many of the verbs were Spanish. In Filipino, the days of the week, time, and basic household concepts like chairs, tables, plates, and cups are all expressed with Spanish words.
At times, I found that i recognized more than 40% of the words as loan words from English or Spanish. Combine this with the obvious context of lesson, intuition about the meanings of questions and answers, and I was almost never lost in class. By the end of the course I could understand questions well enough to give explanations to my classmates. I gave the answers in English, however, as I sill hadn’t learned to speak Filipino. In the street, when people chatted me up in Filipino, if there was a significant context, i was able to understand and respond in English. If someone caught me off guard, and there were no Spanish or English words and or no context, I was at a complete loss.
In the end, I passed the course. Along the way, I became good friends with several of my classmates. When people asked me how got through listening to hours of medical lectures in a foreign language which I didn’t speak, i said simply, “The key to mastering a foreign language is to just force yourself to listen and understand.”
Antonio Graceffo is an adventure ravel autor living in Asia. He has four books on amazon.com His martial arts videos, as well as th series of videos he shot inside of the war zone of Burma can be seen on youtube.com
His website is speakingadventure.com
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org