Author Topic: The rocky road to idiomatic English  (Read 13077 times)

Joe Carillo

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The rocky road to idiomatic English
« on: August 21, 2018, 08:43:45 AM »
Going over the digital files of my English-usage columns in my first decade of writing them for The Manila Times, I stumbled on this 2008 essay that I don’t recall having already posted here in the Forum. I believe that the essay remains as relevant and as timely as ever to Filipino learners of the English language, so I am posting it in retrospective for the benefit of Forum members and my friends on Facebook.
                                      IMAGE CREDIT: LEARNENGLISH.BRITISHCOUNCIL.ORG

A United States-based reader, Frank A. Tucker, sent me an online clipping of a newspaper article that carried this provocative title: “Who’s afraid of Philippine English?” (“Educators Speak,” Manila Bulletin, June 15, 2008). The article by Ma. Lourdes S. Bautista, professor emeritus of the De La Salle University-Manila, discussed Philippine English pronunciation and vocabulary in the context of a monograph published by Dr. Teodoro Llamzon in 1969.

The monograph considered the English spoken in the Philippines as a distinct dialect of English and gave it the name “Standard Filipino English.”* It also provided a list of what Dr. Llamzon called “Filipinisms,” which he defined as “English expressions (that) are neither American nor British, (that) are acceptable and used in Filipino educated circles, and (that) are similar to expression patterns in Tagalog.”

Then Mr. Tucker posed this question to me: “What is your opinion of Philippine English?”

Here’s my open reply to that question:

Dear Frank,

I don’t normally allow myself to be drawn into an academic discussion of English grammar and usage, for I always try to go for the jugular when it comes to the subject of good English. After all, I have always believed that a no-nonsense, no-frills approach is the most effective way of teaching it.

As to your question, however, I am willing to say this much: I’m not very sure if categorizing certain ways of saying things in English as “Filipino English” and legitimizing them by academic fiat is conducive to teaching and learning good English. My feeling is that regardless of nationality, all nonnative English speakers will begin to learn English by attempting to translate their native-language thoughts into English using the expression patterns of their respective languages. Such a learning process will, of course, inevitably give rise to some of the stilted and unidiomatic constructions that Dr. Llamzon had listed in his monograph.

Still, I must point out that there’s really nothing functionally wrong or intrinsically objectionable with, say, the expressions “I will go ahead of you” (instead of the American English “I’m going ahead”), “I was the one who called the ice-cream vendor” (instead of “I called the ice-cream vendor”), and “My head is painful” (instead of “I have a headache”). Although unidiomatic, all three are grammatically, semantically, and structurally correct English in much the same way as their indicated idiomatic English counterparts. And they are not necessarily “Filipino English” either; they are very likely simply transient forms of expression that many nonnative English speakers—regardless of nationality—will initially use while learning to speak and write English.

My feeling therefore is that these expressions are not something that Filipino learners of English should be embarrassed about, and that there’s also no compelling need to academically validate those expressions for posterity as acceptable English. Indeed, we don’t have to tell people that, “Hey! Your English is not Standard American English, but since almost 50 percent of you are using that kind of English anyway, we might as well legitimize it as acceptable Filipino English.” This looks to me like a self-defeating prescription for learning English the way that it’s spoken or written by its native speakers.

Instead of legitimizing “Filipino English,” I would rather that we encourage Filipino learners of English to make a stronger effort to transcend their non-idiomatic ways of speaking or writing in English. They can do this by taking every opportunity to read excellent writing by native English writers and to talk with excellent English speakers and to listen to them more often; after all, there is no dearth of media or occasions that provide such learning opportunities.

By doing this, the conscientious Filipino learner of English should be able to outgrow his or her “Filipino English,” which is likely only the groping, tentative English of a nonnative English speaker on the sometimes long and rocky road to learning idiomatic English.

With my best wishes,
Joe Carillo

This essay first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the July 5, 2008 issue of The Manila Times, © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
*Standard Filipino English (Language research series) by Teodoro A. Llamzon (Hardcover, 92 pages, Ateneo University Press, 1969)
« Last Edit: July 18, 2022, 09:06:46 PM by Joe Carillo »