current events, socio-cultural

James Soriano, his language and his little world

A certain James Soriano, an Ateneo de Manila University student and columnist of Manila Bulletin, wrote an essay titled “Language, learning, identity, privilege” for his James-Sorianocolumn. Apparently, it caused quite a storm among some Filipinos such that Manila Bulletin removed the piece in its website.

His first sentence is: “English is the language of learning.” Well, who can deny that? Surely, Filipino is not. There are simply no books on Science, Math, Engineering, Medicine, Law, etc. in Filipino except for some elementary school textbooks.

But English is the “language of learning” only in the Philippines and other English-speaking countries. The language of learning in the Arab world is primarily Arabic. In France, the language of learning is French and in Germany, it is German.

He bragged about having a mother who made his home “conducive to learning English.” He claimed that the story books and coloring books he had were all in English and he watched English-language cartoons and listened to English-language music. And that his dear mother even hired tutors to teach him English.

I don’t see anything extraordinary there. My mother couldn’t care less about my education but all my books, including coloring books, were in English. I belong to an earlier generation than Mr. Soriano and during my childhood, I don’t think there were coloring books in Filipino. And of course, all cartoons on TV then were in English. But we were allowed to speak any language we wanted. My mother spoke about a dozen Philippine languages – Mranao, Maguindanao, Tausug, Cebuano, Ilocano, Davawenyo, Tagalog, English, etc. (Oh yes, these are all languages, not dialects.)

And fortunately, I didn’t need any tutors. In our family, if one needs tutors other than the school teachers, then that means one is intellectually deficient. From where I come from, only failing pupils need tutors.

Mr. Soriano averred that he learned to think in English in school. Well, in schools where English is the medium of instruction, it would be easier for students to think in English. He proclaimed that he “learned about God in English” and that he “prayed to Him in English,” too. Hallelujah!

Would it really matter to God what language a mortal uses? I pray to God in Arabic because I’m a Muslim. Although, when I was a kid, my mother also taught me to pray: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray to God my soul to keep…” In high school, we were required to memorize a prayer in Spanish for our Spanish class. We recited that non-denominational Spanish prayer at the beginning of our Spanish period.


Mr. Soriano described Filipino as  “the ‘other’ subject — almost a special subject like PE or Home Economics”. He said that he and his classmates regarded Filipino as a “chore, like washing the dishes”. He then degraded Filipino as “not the language of learning.”

Even though a generation separates us from Mr. Soriano, my classmates (at least some of them) and I were not fond of Filipino, either. But it was not because it was “not the language of learning”. It was because formal Filipino is not the same (or at least it was not during our time) as colloquial Filipino. By the way, when I was in high school, the language was called Pilipino as per the 1973 Constitution.

In our time, Pilipino grammar was different. We studied the way Lope K. Santos wanted it to be learned. We still used the ABaKaDa. We had to write Pilipino with the proper diacritics — pahilís (acute accent), paiwà (grave),  and the pakupyâ (circumflex).  We had to know whether a word is mabilis, malumay, malumi or maragsa. We had to know the exact Pilipino or Tagalog equivalent of English words and spell them correctly. We could not just Filipinize English words like how it is done today.

I don’t know if the students of today even study Filipino grammar (balarila).

Reading the epic “Florante at Laura”, which was written in early 19th century Tagalog, is never an easy task. Like any poetry, Tagalog poems are not easily grasped, even by the native speakers.

Also, reading the 19th century novels of  Rizal in Tagalog is not easy. I remember that our books had glossaries at the end. The difficult Tagalog words were defined in English. And I remember my books were filled with marginal notes defining in English various Tagalog words.

But Rizal’s works are not only difficult because they are studied in Filipino. They are also difficult because they are literary novels that need to be analyzed and criticized according to several perspectives.

I remember I used to hate it every time I was called to read a passage in Filipino and that passage would include a year. I found it difficult to say aloud in Tagalog/Filipino the years. For example, 1955 would be isang libo’t siyam na raa’t limampu’t lima.  It would take me some time to formulate the correct Tagalog numbers. Usually, I would just blurt out the year in Spanish – mil nueve cientos cincuenta y cinco – to the annoyance of the teacher.

I say, Mr. Soriano found the Filipino subject a chore because it is a difficult subject as it involves both grammar and literature. He was probably just not intelligent enough to tackle it.

He dismissed Filipino as “not the language of learning” . Is that supposed to excuse his apparent failure at the subject? Well, it does not.

He boasted that he is proficient in Filipino because it is the language that he uses with his provincial relatives – uncles, cousins and grandparents. (He wrote that it was the language that he “used to speak with” his relatives. I suppose he still speaks with his provincial relatives in Filipino). Perhaps it is only his parents who managed to get out of the provinces and live in the city. Presumably, his provincial relatives do not speak English so he is forced to speak Filipino to them. And like a typical nouveau riche, I suppose he looks down on his provinciano relatives because, after all, they speak the same language as the tinderas, katulongs and manongs.

Despite his “proficiency with (sic) the language”, he disliked his Filipino school subject(s). “It was the reading and writing that was tedious and difficult”, he explained. The fact that he found reading and writing Filipino tedious and difficult means that he was not proficient in the Filipino language, at all. Just like any other language, speaking is not the same as reading and writing. I have met so many Americans, Canadians and Englishmen who speak the English language but are not proficient at all in reading and writing English.

This reminds me of a Filipino-Chinese I once met. I think he came from the same school as Mr. Soriano. He was so upset because he was not admitted to MIT ( the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). He spoke with a Chinese accent so I told him that perhaps it was because of his English. I commented that he must have failed the English part of the exam. He brusquely dismissed what I said with the assertion that his English was perfect.

I didn’t like his brusque dismissal of my opinion so I told him that I could give him a sentence in English where there would be at least three words whose meanings he would not know. He accepted the challenge. I gave him an English sentence which contained at least three words that he did not understand. He kept quiet for a while, then continued talking with our friend while ignoring me the whole time.

Mr. Soriano merely thinks he is proficient in Filipino just as the Filipino-Chinese guy thought that his English was perfect.


Mr. Soriano further degraded Filipino as “the language we used to speak to the people who washed our dishes.” He described Filipino as the “language of the world outside the classroom”, “the language of the streets”, the language of servants and “tinderas“, the language of jeepney passengers who would mug him if he spoke English inside the jeepney.

According to him, the Filipino language “skills were required to survive in the outside world, because we are forced to relate with the tinderas and the manongs and the katulongs of this world. If we wanted to communicate to these people — or otherwise avoid being mugged on the jeepney — we needed to learn Filipino.”

For Mr. Soriano, the Filipino language is needed to “survive the outside world” yet the outside world for him is peopled only with tinderas (salesgirls), manongs and katulongs (helpers). Poor guy, his world apparently consists only of his classroom and household and all the tinderas, manongs and katulongs of the “outside world”.

I don’t know exactly what he means by manongs. The word manong is an Ilocano honorific for older males, especially an older brother. In our family, we call our elder brother or cousins Manong. But the Cebuanos and Tagalogs use the term to refer to any male older than them.  Many of them address  jeepney drivers as Manong or ‘nong for short. I suppose for Mr. Soriano, manong refers to jeepney drivers and the like.

I suppose, by “outside world”, he meant only the sari-sari store next door or those outside his school where tinderas proliferate. And I suppose, he also goes to his classmates’ houses and meet their katulongs and the drivers or male servants whom he calls manong. Or probably, on weekends, he used to go to Luneta with his yaya (nanny) and so he got to see a lot of the katulongs of Metro Manila.

I agree with Mr. Soriano that Filipino is needed “to survive the outside world.” But my world (within the Philippines) is peopled not only by servants and salesgirls but also by businessmen, professors, students, writers, politicians – a cross-section of the Philippine population. In today’s world, the great majority of Filipinos (at least in Metro Manila and Tagalog areas) prefer to speak Filipino or Taglish.

When I joined the first CCP Playwriting seminar/workshop, my play was chosen as one of the top three and therefore would be performed at the Bulwgang Ganitmpala. But I was told that I needed to translate my work to Filipino. I refused because a lot of nuances would be lost in the translation. Had I written it in Filipino, I would have had my play performed at the CCP. (I was of course pissed off because we were not told to write in Filipino. But I wrote my monologue in Filipino, which was adjudged as the best in the workshop.)

I was invited to a radio show where I was asked to speak in Filipino. On several occasions, I had to use Filipino in my lectures / seminars to be better understood. Once, I was invited to give an entire lecture in Filipino. My audience was a group of Fil-American students studying Filipino in American universities. While Mr. Soriano, who lives in the Philippines, disdains the Filipino language, these Fil-Americans, who live and study in the U.S., admire the Filipino language enough to take it as a course or even as an academic field of specialization.

All of these disprove Mr. Soriano’s thesis that Filipino is needed only for the katulongs of the world.


To counterbalance his obvious bias against the Filipino language, he wrote: “It was really only in (sic) university that I began to grasp Filipino in terms of language and not just dialect. Filipino was not merely a peculiar variety of language, derived and continuously borrowing from the English and Spanish alphabets; it was its own system, with its own grammar, semantics, sounds, even symbols.”

First of all, Filipino is a language. It was never a dialect. Even Tagalog is a language. Filipino is supposed to be a new language based on Tagalog. Second, I don’t understand what he means by “to grasp Filipino in terms of language.” Does he mean that he thought Filipino was not a language but a mere dialect? But even a dialect has “its own system, with its own grammar, semantics, sounds, even symbols”. Third, he still managed to deride Filipino as “a peculiar variety of language, derived and continuously borrowing from the English and Spanish alphabets.”

It is quite obvious that Mr. Soriano did not learn much in high school regarding the Filipino language. It was only in college that he learned some of the characteristics of Filipino. He should have been given a failing grade for Filipino in high school. Most probably, his Filipino subjects teachers just gave him “pasang-awa” or the lowest possible passing grades.

Perhaps to appease the Filipino readers, as a conseulo de bobo, he affirmed: “Filipino as the language of identity: the language of emotion, experience, and even of learning. ” To support that statement, he deprecated himself by comparing him to a “malansang isda” referring to Dr. Jose Rizal’s famous statement that he who doesn’t love his language is worse than a stale fish (malansang isda). He also regarded himself as a “split-level Filipino,” a term coined by Fr. Bulatao, perhaps one of his mentors.


The juvenile Soriano concluded his essay by totally lambasting not only the Filipino language but also Philippine society. He excused his being a malansang isda (stale fish) as simply appropriate in a “society of rotten beef and stinking fish”. He totally debased the Filipino language as “the language of the streets” and “NOT the language of the learned”. He says further, “It is neither the language of the classroom and the laboratory, nor the language of the boardroom, the court room (sic), or the operating room. It is not the language of privilege.”

As I mentioned earlier, the world of Mr. Soriano is limited only to his household and his school and perhaps the sari-sari store in their neighborhood. Ever since English was removed as the medium of instruction in public schools, Filipino is the language of all public elementary and secondary schools in the country. So it is the language of the (public) classroom.

As for boardrooms, I am certain that  while English is the language of corporate documents,  discussions in a great majority of the country’s boardrooms are done in Filipino or Taglish. As revealed in the Senate hearings these past weeks, Ms. Rowena del Rosario, the bookkeeper of Mike Arroyo’s firm, LTA, Inc. was appointed member of the board of Pag-Ibig Foundation. She only finished a 2-year computer secretarial course and could not be expected to speak English fluently. Some time ago, former President Arroyo appointed her manicurist and garderner to high government positions. The manicurist was also appointed as a Board Member of Pag-Ibig Housing Foundation.

Many of the country’s biggest companies have boards filled with people who can hardly speak English. There are many Filipino billionaires with names like Tan, Sy or Yu who can’t speak straight English.

I remember when President Arroyo signed an order making (again) English the country’s medium of instruction, media people asked the tycoon Lucio Tan for his thoughts on the matter. Mr. Tan owns University of the East. I found it so funny to ask Mr. Tan’s opinion on the matter when he himself could speak neither good English nor good Filipino.

I am sure that Mr. Soriano has not visited any government agency. It would be extremely difficult to find two or more Filipino bureaucrats, up to the highest level, conversing in English.

In my experience, university professors do not speak English among themselves. They speak English in class, but as a rule, never outside classes. In fact, some professors would rather speak Filipino even in their classes. When I was pursuing my Masters degree at UP Diliman, I thanked my two foreign classmates – a Chinese and an Indian, for just being in the same class with me. Because of their presence, the professors were forced to speak English.


Finally, with the greatest of exuberance, Mr. Soriano concluded that with English as the “tongue of privilege,” he “will always have” his social elite “connections”. And so he gave thanks to his “education…for making English” his “mother language.”

“The tongue of privilege”, how medieval! In this day and age, how could a supposedly intelligent college student say that! Former President Joseph Estrada, who went to the same Ateneo for his elementary and high school education, is not fluent in English at all. The same can be said for his son Jinggoy, another Ateneo alumnus and a Senator of the Republic. Jinggoy got the same education as Mr. Soriano but nobody can say that English is Senator Estrada’s mother tongue.

There are many other senators and congressmen, and even a former Vice President who are not proficient in the “tongue of privilege” yet find themselves very privileged indeed.

Many of the Chinoy billionaires are / were not blessed with fluency in the “tongue of privilege”. But they nevertheless had the right connections (mainly to then Dictator Marcos). There are thousands of Filipinos who do not have this “tongue of privilege” but who are quite good at using their tongues in other ways (like licking a**&*) and so they enjoy many privileges.


At the latter part of his essay, Mr. Soriano conceded that Filipino “might have the capacity to be the language of learning”. But again, he didn’t want to leave it at that. He continued: “but it is not the language of the learned.”

Mr. Soriano did not insult only the language but also the people who speak the language. Surely, Francisco Baltazar a.k.a. Balagtas was a learned man. I would say he was a more learned man than Mr. Soriano. There are many Tagalogs who were learned men like Jose Rizal or Manuel L. Quezon but Mr. Soriano would insist that these gentlemen obtained their learning through other languages.

Mr. Soriano implied that English is the language of the learned. Does that mean all or most English-speaking people are learned? Well, I beg to differ. There are just so many morons who speak English, whether in the US, UK or the Philippines. I very much doubt if any intelligent person would describe former President George W. Bush as learned.


I love English – the language of Shakespeare and  Capote and Vidal, etc. But I do not hate or look down upon any language. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.” Through language, one learns about the culture of a people. A people’s greatness can be best expressed through its language.

The Filipino language, or even the Tagalog language of which it is based, has nothing to be ashamed of. The poetry of Francisco Baltazar and Jose Corazon de Jesus has withstood the test of time. The kundimans, the balagtasan and other artistic expressions using the Tagalog language are worthy of study and respect.

As a Moro and one who advocates Bangsa Moro self-determination, I do not subscribe to a so-called national language, be they Pilipino or Filipino. But I am proud of being able to read and write the Filipino language with adequate proficiency.

And I am aghast that this naive juvenile whose world presumably revolves only around his house and his school is invited to write a regular column for a national publication like the Manila Bulletin. And he had the gall to malign a people’s language – his own people. Shame on him!


The irony of it is that excellence in English will take one nowhere in this country. Just listen to the way most politicians speak, including senators and congressmen, but especially mayors and governors. Just listen to the way many government officials speak, including top executives and board members of government corporations. Just listen to our military and police generals speak. One can go on and on. Listening to these people speak will convince anyone that English is NOT the “tongue of privilege” in this country.

In politics, in bureaucracy, in business, and especially in the media, Filipino is now the primary tongue.

Although English is the medium of instruction in universities, we find heads of universities who can’t speak good English or write grammatically-correct essays; CEOs of conglomerates who can’t speak or write good English; columnists who write colloquial or ungrammatical English; journalists who can’t speak English fluently, etc.

TV news programs prefer Filipino language news. TV entertainment shows are done in Filipino, with rare exceptions. In general, TV programs are made to target Filipino-speaking audience. Films are done in Filipino, not English. And the Filipino-language tabloids outsell the English-language broadsheets. AM radio programs are in Filipino. Practically the whole media industry is open to Filipino speakers. Proficiency in Filipino can open doors in the media industry.

Even Google, especially Google+, insists that the language of internet users in the Philippines is Filipino. One needs to constantly have the page be translated into English from Filipino if one doesn’t want to navigate the web in Filipino.

Poor Mr Soriano. After he graduates from college, he will realize that perhaps the only places where proficiency in English is welcome are call centers.

=========     ===========   =========

Below is Mr. Soriano’s original article:

Language, learning, identity, privilege

August 24, 2011, 4:06am

MANILA, Philippines — English is the language of learning. I’ve known this since before I could go to school. As a toddler, my first study materials were a set of flash cards that my mother used to teach me the English alphabet.

My mother made home conducive to learning English: all my storybooks and coloring books were in English, and so were the cartoons I watched and the music I listened to. She required me to speak English at home. She even hired tutors to help me learn to read and write in English.

In school I learned to think in English. We used English to learn about numbers, equations and variables. With it we learned about observation and inference, the moon and the stars, monsoons and photosynthesis. With it we learned about shapes and colors, about meter and rhythm. I learned about God in English, and I prayed to Him in English.

Filipino, on the other hand, was always the ‘other’ subject — almost a special subject like PE or Home Economics, except that it was graded the same way as Science, Math, Religion, and English. My classmates and I used to complain about Filipino all the time. Filipino was a chore, like washing the dishes; it was not the language of learning. It was the language we used to speak to the people who washed our dishes.

We used to think learning Filipino was important because it was practical: Filipino was the language of the world outside the classroom. It was the language of the streets: it was how you spoke to the tindera when you went to the tindahan, what you used to tell your katulong that you had an utos, and how you texted manong when you needed “sundo na.”

These skills were required to survive in the outside world, because we are forced to relate with the tinderas and the manongs and the katulongs of this world. If we wanted to communicate to these people — or otherwise avoid being mugged on the jeepney — we needed to learn Filipino.

That being said though, I was proud of my proficiency with the language. Filipino was the language I used to speak with my cousins and uncles and grandparents in the province, so I never had much trouble reciting.

It was the reading and writing that was tedious and difficult. I spoke Filipino, but only when I was in a different world like the streets or the province; it did not come naturally to me. English was more natural; I read, wrote and thought in English. And so, in much of the same way that I learned German later on, I learned Filipino in terms of English. In this way I survived Filipino in high school, albeit with too many sentences that had the preposition ‘ay.’

It was really only in university that I began to grasp Filipino in terms of language and not just dialect. Filipino was not merely a peculiar variety of language, derived and continuously borrowing from the English and Spanish alphabets; it was its own system, with its own grammar, semantics, sounds, even symbols.

But more significantly, it was its own way of reading, writing, and thinking. There are ideas and concepts unique to Filipino that can never be translated into another. Try translating bayanihan, tagay, kilig or diskarte.

Only recently have I begun to grasp Filipino as the language of identity: the language of emotion, experience, and even of learning. And with this comes the realization that I do, in fact, smell worse than a malansang isda. My own language is foreign to me: I speak, think, read and write primarily in English. To borrow the terminology of Fr. Bulatao, I am a split-level Filipino.

But perhaps this is not so bad in a society of rotten beef and stinking fish. For while Filipino may be the language of identity, it is the language of the streets. It might have the capacity to be the language of learning, but it is not the language of the learned.

It is neither the language of the classroom and the laboratory, nor the language of the boardroom, the court room, or the operating room. It is not the language of privilege. I may be disconnected from my being Filipino, but with a tongue of privilege I will always have my connections.

So I have my education to thank for making English my mother language.


P.S.: also published Mr.Soriano’s article and up to now, it is still available at

James-Soriano inq article

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