reprinted from South China Morning Post, August 24 2006
The audience applauds as the music starts, and into the spotlight dances a curvaceous young woman. Then she starts singing."Keys me", she warbles. "Silvimousse is barkley ... make the parflays dance." Or that's what it sounded like to someone who made a video clip of the performance and provided subtitles. The actual lyrics are: "Kiss me, the silver moon's sparkling ... make the fireflies dance."
"Keys me", as the headache-inducing video is known, has made its singer a minor celebrity on YouTube - and a source of hilarity. But instead of laughing, Filipinos should worry that the audience in the video clapped so enthusiastically.
The butchery of English probably wouldn't matter if this weren't the Philippines, which entertains the conceit that it's a major English-speaking nation. That was true years ago, but standards have plummeted. The Philippines has two official languages: English and Pilipino, which is based largely on Tagalog. Often, though, someone who speaks English well is mocked as mayabang - arrogant - while anybody spouting fluent Pilipino is derided as hampaslupa, a tramp. This must be why most people speak a mangled mixture of both languages.
The government is not much help. Over the years it has waffled between the two languages and, as a result, schools have produced graduates proficient in neither. It doesn't help that nationalists insist English is unnecessary: they favor a Pilipino based on a Tagalog so pure that only 19th century poets could manage it.
Then there's the complicating fact that the country actually has more than 170 languages, and many of them are spoken by people who resent Tagalog's predominance. This translates into a reluctance to learn Pilipino.
August is buwan ng wika - languages month - a good time for Filipinos to think about the issue ... if only they could decide which language they wanted to think in. We should finally acknowledge we are no longer native English speakers. English should be taught as a second language, with Pilipino as the medium of instruction. But this would require a colossal effort to translate books and school materials, something that hasn't even started.
Meanwhile, in the unkindest cut of all, the European Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines is sponsoring an education campaign called "English is Cool". The program is needed: a recent study found that only seven out of 100 university graduates knew enough English to qualify as call-center agents.
The issue of inarticulate job applicants was recently and eloquently expressed by a Filipino executive of a top corporation, when she said on a TV talk show: "The main problems is in terms of grammars." I couldn't have said it betterer.