Saturday, January 21, 2012

Language Barrier


Last November, when an unscrupulous landlady of mine decided to raise my rent 60%, I did a little research into Philippine rent laws and discovered one - conveniently published in English - that prohibited landlords from raising their tenants' rent more that 7% per year. Known as the "Rent Control Act of 2009", the law included, in section 14, a provision for "a continuing information drive" that called for it to be "translated and be made available in major regional dialects and ... posted in conspicuous public places, including barangay halls."

I printed a copy of the Act and handed it to my landlady the next time she showed up to collect my rent. Since I had heard she was college educated, I made the honest mistake of expecting her to be able to read the English in which the Act had been written. The look on her face when she looked at the first page and then looked up at me made me realize my mistake. She would probably need a lawyer, I thought, to make sense of it for her.

Filipinos are taught English from grade one through their fourth year of high school. This is actually typical of many countries, including Japan, where I had lived for three years in the 1990s. But, like everything else in a person's education that has no practical application in their lives (like algebra) , even the best students have few opportunities in their lives to use the English that they spent ten years learning. One of the reasons why the Filipino Department of Education makes the instruction of English mandatory in public schools is because of the many dialects spoken throughout the Philippine archipelago - Ilocano, Pampangan, Waray, Visayan, Cebuano. For the same reason, DepEd has directed the schools to teach Tagalog, which is the official language of the country, a common dialect that can be used and understood all over the country. National television broadcasts and all Filipino movies use Tagalog. This guarantees that the greatest number of people who watch TV and movies can follow what is being spoken.

English is reserved - inexplicably - as the language of national government and of higher education. When I visited my local barangay hall and asked, in Tagalog of course, if a copy of the Rent Control Act had been posted there, translated into the local dialect, I was told that they had heard of neither the Act nor the information drive for its dissemination.

This week I watched on national TV the Senate impeachment trial of the standing Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, conducted exclusively in English, and I wondered how many Filipinos could follow what was going on. And then it occurred to me that, perhaps, this was the whole point. The exclusive use of English in government proceedings meant that a majority of Filipinos would understand nothing of what was going on. Just as it didn't matter that the Philippine government had passed the Rent Control Act, when few Filipinos would know of its existence or it meaning as long as it was drafted in English. As long as the Philippines is ruled in this way, with a majority of the people having no knowledge of the substance of laws enacted, a government could rule with impunity.

Recently, when a question regarding the "constitutionality" of a particular measure under debate in the Philippine Senate was raised, a certain senator noted for her outrageous remarks announced that no one who was not a law school graduate like her was qualified to interpret the Philippine constitution. When I heard this, I was flummoxed. If an American senator had made such a remark, he would've been pilloried. If what she said were true, I thought, then such a constitution should immediately be burned. (Incidentally, this same Philippine senator - Miriam Defensor-Santiago - has been elected as a judge at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.)

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