Pick a Language & BE GOOD AT IT!

Something to digest for the general food & tech nerds out there who loathe the task of explaining their work to the rest of humanity. I’ve been there once, but realised how everyone should not just be fluent in a language (any language) but be very good at it. Its hard for people whose work doesn’t directly require being a good communicator to accept that they are also required to be one, as everyone should be able to share their thoughts & ideas effectively simply because they are part of society.

During my IELTS test many years ago, I wondered why I had to pay so much to get assessed for my English proficiency. English is after all, one of the two national languages of the Philippines. It is the language of the national newspapers and cable news, and it is being taught the moment you step into the halls of formal education. Or so I thought. I didn’t know how naive I was until the moment I entered the testing room. Rows and rows of people who were taking the test together with me weren’t taking it to get a piece of document to attach to their application for grad studies. They were obviously taking it as a requirement for a job application overseas. They were trying to speak to each other in English in the room, and I find it hard to digest the fact that these people might not make it to their minimum grade but they’ve paid just as much as I did. At that moment, I’ve accepted the reality that Filipinos DO need to pay for English proficiency exams such as IELTS & TOEFL because whatever education the majority is getting is apparently not enough. I understand that much.


Fast forward to 2013, and I imagine the IELTS testing rooms would be filled with the same nervous buzz of bad English if not worse. There is actually something much worse. The decline of Filipinos who speak and write good Filipino. I have wondered (yes, I wonder a lot) why, even after QWERTY keyboards and UnliText promos have pervaded the country and supposedly made it easier for people to avoid using “text speak” they still use it. Not only that, the “Jejemon language” make it even harder to spell out words than just using standard Filipino, but a lot of people prefer its use. Mind-boggling. I must say that I am not referring to “text speak”, as Jejemon language is entirely different from that. Many people have probably tried to write about this recent phenomenon of making-things-harder-for-yourself, and I try to dismiss this as human beings’ natural urge to find something to struggle with (of course this is not the case). It is as if people resist being understood, while at the same time crying out for understanding and pulling the victim card.

I have come to develop a strong bias against the Jejemon language, but still being piqued by its pervasiveness I continue to wonder what drives people to use it. One theory of mine is that the language does not have any solid rules, and therefore open to any changes by the whims of the user. Or is it really changed by the whims of the user? It must just be a convenient way to dismiss misspellings and grammatical errors and at the same time, maybe even appearing cool to their peers. I think its laziness mixed with a knack for embellishments (done in bad taste). Like I said, Jejemon is very different from text speak, and I can wholeheartedly forgive textspeak but never Jejemon. In fact, I can forgive most other things like wrong grammar and “Becky”(?) language, which is the language used by a lot of the gay and transwomen in the Philippines. Unlike the Becky language that is created, along with all its complicated rules and idioms, to be the identity of a specific community in both written and spoken mediums; as for grammatically incorrect Filipino or English, it might just be from a lack of language skills or just practise. There is this nagging feeling that the Jejemon language might have been created to create a community that identifies as the “victims of society”. As if saying “Look here! We have insufficient education and we won’t even try. In fact, this suffering is cool.” This is all from my head though, and I admittedly come from a time where elders taught kids to choose one language and speak it just as it is. Taglish was therefore looked down upon unlike today where it has become somewhat an entertaining trivia for foreigners.

I would not be so surprised if one day Malaysia would score higher in both written & spoken English than the Philippines. After all, the public school system is losing – too many kids to teach and too few qualified teachers. Some schools can only accommodate 4 hours of class each day because they lack classrooms and have to teach a second batch of students in the afternoon. Science and language education would of course suffer.

Interestingly enough, there are language-related peeves that I have a far greater animosity towards compared to the Jejemon. Mind you, I am not the person who goes around saying English is THE language to learn, nor am I nationalistic and preach the use of pure Filipino. The whole point of this post is to share my thoughts on why people these days can’t seem to pick a language, any language, and be good at it in order to be understood. I believe that no matter what language you use, especially in writing, as long as you are very good at it then you would be understood. If people believe that what you want to share is significant to them then they will find a way to bring it to a greater audience through translation and digital publication.

This part is a bit personal because I am sharing my peeves that hound me almost everyday. Two people in my family have very different problems when it comes to language, but both have had all the opportunity to be good in expressing themselves clearly. They just didn’t take it. So this is the part where people have no excuse not to be understood.

CASE 1 : The Expectation of TELEPATHY
At almost every encounter there would be an instance of the misuse of a word or phrase, a loss for words, or just an outburst of emotion without explanation. Every time other people in the family try to correct the mistake or offer a definition to the wrongly used word or phrase, she would dismiss it as unproductive at best and at worst get mad and play victim. On most occasions of when the three situations come up, she justifies her error as our failing to understand her because apparently we should know what she is talking about all the time. No, people don’t read minds, and no one should expect others to understand them if they haven’t expressed themselves clear enough.

I do not know of any other person with this kind of problem but there should be some out there. This behaviour only comes up in a family setting or in the presence of her subordinates, and I don’t see this defensive reaction when she is with her friends. It might be because of familiarity that she feels able to express this defensiveness and throw tantrums. Most friends just won’t have the guts to reprimand faulty language in public. I also suspect that this stems from thinking that she should be accepted as she is hence her aversion to any kind of criticism. It doesn’t help that she doesn’t like reading, reasoning that she doesn’t have time for it, yet she watches a lot of television. No books, no newspapers, no online articles, for days on end, and no writing or composition for, I suspect, years. Even if you have a degree from a reputable university you’re mind would go dull… especially when you don’t even try at the simple task of speaking.

CASE 2 : Being Proud of Your Mediocrity
This other case I have encountered in many forms. Let me give a background of this specific case first : She gets the opportunity to spend a lot of time in our hometown in her last years of university. Being an archipelago, the Philippines has around 70 languages, and being raised in the capital, she speaks only Tagalog and English. Whilst in the province, we expected her to learn the local language of the region, after all it would be easier for her since the elders in the family and house help spoke it and she could understand it a bit. But after a year and even a romantic relationship there, she came back speaking Tagalog and English… but with the local language’s heavy accent. It was very strange. She not only made no effort of speaking the language, but spoke her two remaining languages like she wasn’t a native of that language. Now it is as if she has no native language, if that is even possible!

There was also one instance where, she had mentioned that she liked the Filipino accent in speaking English. This was before the provincial “accentization” of her native languages. What she did was bastardised her once-good English and pronounced all the first syllables with a short “i” into a prolonged “ee”. To give an example, there’s the word “chicken”, now pronouce it as “cheecken”, or “tissue” as “tee-shoo”, “pillow” as “pee-low”, and so forth. It is indeed very Tagalog-sounding, and she practised this until she was a pro at it. Now it is her natural way of speaking.

I feel that this is an insult to all the languages that she has victimised, which is basically all of her languages including the provincial language that she did not bother to learn except the accent. I don’t know how I should feel about this, but I feel that any form of insult that is uncalled for should be condemned. From her perspective it might be the opposite – she might think that by applying the Tagalog’s prolonged “i”s to English words and the provincial accent to Tagalog and English, she is making Tagalog & the provincial accent respectively become more appreciated. How can you come to that conclusion though, when you end up speaking another language in a more decrepit state?

Other forms of this I encounter from foreigners living for extended periods of time in a place without learning even the basic conversational skills in order to interact with the locals. I know of expats living in China & HongKong for more than a decade without ever bothering with Mandarin or Cantonese, and I wonder how much effort it would be for them to shield themselves from the locals everywhere. When I ask them about this refusal to learn they shrug it off proudly saying they never really needed it. It seems impossible to not be able to pick up the basics of a language after being exposed to it for more than a month. It must be a different level of obliviousness to be able to accomplish such a feat, gifted or not in languages.

Then there are people who speak only one language and suck at it too. Those people are beyond me. I wouldn’t even attempt to try to understand how they became the way they are given that they are exposed to their language’s standard on television & print media.

There was once a time when I felt that it was really no use being good at languages because it would never really convey EXACTLY how you feel nor would it communicate an idea exactly as it is from your mind. Questions such as “How would you differentiate the subtle differences in characteristics one chocolate chip cookie against another, or one stout is from another?” brewed in my head, and during my time in university I had almost given up. There’s just this realisation that I am able to appreciate other people’s thoughts through their efforts of writing about it or making videos about it, risking misinterpretation and narrow minds. You just have to make the effort, and it doesn’t matter which field or industry you are in. If you want to participate in human society then this is a fundamental part of it.

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