Critical Practice in the Language Classroom

23 March 2006 at 9:36 PM | Posted in News | 2 Comments

This is my keynote speech at the 35th Bi-annual Conference of the Ateneo Center for English Language Teaching (ACELT) on 11 February 2006:

Sometime in the second half of the last century, critical theory came and went, was born and died, flourished and became passé, all within a generation. Hardly anyone teaching the English language in the Philippines noticed. Had theory been nothing else but a passing fancy, we would not be the worse for not noticing. Unfortunately for English teachers, theory rocked the very foundation of language teaching. We proceed with teaching English in our own century at great risk, if we do not step back a couple of decades and check out what exactly critical theory, sometimes called critical practice, had to say about the language that we teach.

Today, allow me to provoke you into thinking about certain aspects of the English language itself and of the way we teach the English language that have become extremely problematic – that’s the critical theorist’s way of saying that we have a problem.

Let us begin with former Ateneo professor Bienvenido Lumbera’s advocacy of vernacular languages against the English language. Lumbera is the leading critical theorist of the last half of the last century. He taught practically every other critical theorist of any importance in our country. Basically, Lumbera, taking his cue from Renato Constantino, preached (I use the past tense because we are talking of the last century) that the English language was an instrument of American colonial oppression, rammed down our throats by the American invaders at the turn of the last century in order to make us, first, forget that we are Filipinos, and second, dream of becoming Americans. To counteract what African critics would later call the colonization of the mind, Lumbera proposed that we focus our research efforts on writings done in various vernacular languages, those spoken by more than 99% of our population, and ignore, if not forever then at least temporarily, those written in the English language.

After the death of theory and the birth of what critics call “internal brain drain,” referring to the phenomenon of our best students prostituting their minds and their tongues in call centers, we are less emotional than Lumbera about the English language, but we still should not forget the harm that the English language can actually do to us. If we use only English as the language of the classroom, for example, our elementary-grade children will forget that there are different types of rice (since English has only one word for rice, while any Philippine language has at least a dozen), the real nature of the rice terraces (which has a word in Cordillera languages), and the way we should relate to our brothers and sisters (since English calls everybody simply brother or sister or sibling, unlike our vernacular languages, which take the borrowed Chinese words for such relationships very, very seriously).

I shall, after mentioning each critical idea, immediately turn to the classroom to see if we can put our teaching tools where our minds are.

In the case of our miseducation due to the use of English in the classroom, we need not abandon the language while we are in the English period or subject (although, as many of you know, I have championed and will continue to champion the abandonment of English in non-English subjects). While teaching English, however, we should try very hard not to store cultural baggage in the minds of our students. How do we do this? Principally by using Philippine English. We have a dictionary of Philippine English, brought out by Anvil Publishing (sorry for the plug). Use this dictionary rather than some American dictionary. By making our children grow up knowing that hundreds of vernacular words are actually included in Standard International English, we will help them dissociate the language from the kind of American English forced on us by our once colonizers and still, at least as long as George Bush remains in power, our current colonizers.

Gemino Abad, now teaching also at the Ateneo, reacting to Lumbera, did not want to abandon English nor to return to his native Cebuano. Abad, however, realizing that Lumbera was right, did not also want merely to use English instead of Cebuano. Abad had a novel idea: using poems written in English by Filipinos, he proved that Filipinos had colonized the English language. He said that our poems were not written in English, but from English. You might recall that both N.V.M. Gonzalez and Bienvenido N. Santos – two of our major novelists last century – said pretty much the same thing. Gonzalez insisted that he wrote, in his own words, “in Tagalog using English words.” Similarly, Santos also insisted that he wrote, in his own words, “in Capampangan and Bicolano using English words.”

Abad’s idea may seem weird, but it is really quite simple. He was merely saying that our poets, who are our best writers in English, did not write the way American poets wrote, but wrote in a distinctly Filipino way. You have to read Abad’s three huge anthologies of poetry to understand exactly what he wanted to say, but we can summarize the idea. Filipinos use the English language in a way different from the way Americans use it. Abad was not talking only of grammar or idioms; he was not a linguist, prescriptive or descriptive. He was talking about the way Filipinos perceive words. Seen by a Filipino poet, the words in an American English dictionary cease to be American, but become Philippine. We have to be poets to grasp Abad’s full meaning, but we can see a little bit what he meant by giving an example he did not give.

Take the word bad. One of the definitions of this word in Merriam-Webster, which is the standard American dictionary, is this: bad, slang, good.” In the Philippines, we would never use the word bad to mean good. That’s not poetry, but just usage. If the word bad were used in poetry by a Filipino, however, the differences would be even clearer. The word, in an American poem, rhymes with mad but not with squad nor jihad, which use a different a. To a Filipino poet, however, all these words rhyme, not only because we have problems differentiating one a from another, but because madness, the military, and Islamic terrorists are all associated with, that’s right, badness, not goodness. This is a fanciful example, meant only to alert you to the interplay of sound and sense, so important in the teaching of poetry and, by extension, of words.

Foreign critics are less perceptive than Filipino critics when it comes to the nuances of language. The reason is simple: rare is the foreigner that learns more than three languages at birth, but in our country, rare is the Filipino that knows only one language. At the very least, a Filipino knows Tagalog and English. A Filipino living outside the Tagalog region, however, knows a number of languages from childhood: Fookien Chinese and Mandarin Chinese (if she or he has Chinese blood), the language of the region (such as Capampangan or Tausug), the lingua franca of the region (namely, Cebuano, Ilocano, or Tagalog), the national language Filipino, English, and if we are talking of the southern side of Mindanao with its thriving trade with Indonesia, Bahasa Indonesia and perhaps even Bahasa Melayu.

Michel Foucault, for instance, who thought only in French, simplistically declared that “language is power.” This is true, if we take a simple example. Let’s say that I go to one of you right now, any one of you, someone I have never met before, and say, “I love you.” What will happen? When that person goes out of this room, everybody will suddenly pay attention to her or him. When I walk out of this room, that person will avoid me, for sure. I have, in other words, merely through the words “I love you,” which of course I do not mean, affected the behavior of one person, and of the rest of you when you meet that person. Language, in itself, divorced from the intentions of the one using the language, is power.

Why is Foucault’s idea important in the classroom? Obviously, because anything we say as teachers can be held against us. We have to be extra careful when we use English, because we are supposed to be the models of language use. Feminism (I mean that second phase of it that focused on what feminists call “man-made language,” that is, language of men that was made by men and for men), called our attention to the way language has disempowered women, one half of the world’s population. If we consistently use male pronouns or nouns to exclude females, we are drumming into our students’ heads that men are more important than women.

Today, we call this “political correctness” or “non-exclusive language”; we used to call it simply “sexist language.” For example, if you say “woman poet,” you imply that poets are supposed to be male, and poets that are female are only exceptions to the rule. If you say chairman, you imply that chairs should be male; changing chairman to chairperson merely calls attention to the change in gender, thereby reinforcing what you mean to downplay. The word chair is sufficient, because it is an old word, used in Congress when someone stands up to say, “May I address the chair?”

Foucault’s contemporary Jacques Derrida has been unjustly ridiculed by linguists for his infamous statement that “writing precedes speech.” Like all forms of ridicule, this one is based on a complete misunderstanding. Derrida did not mean that babies learn to write before they speak; that would be stupid, and while he was clearly crazy, Derrida was far from stupid. Of course, babies speak before they write, if only because their fingers develop later than their tongues, but the language that babies speak is not considered language unless it is written down. Try writing down the sound that all newborn babies utter when they get slapped by the doctor or midwife: waaaahhhh. That is not a word, but what does the doctor or midwife say about what happens: “The baby cried.” The words the, baby, and cried are in the dictionary, printed, written down. Language, said Derrida, is what you find in a dictionary, which is writing. Outside the dictionary, there is nothing.

Was there ever a time in history when people spoke but did not write? If there was, we certainly will never be able to prove it. This is a variant of the classic question: if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Philosophers have written volumes about this question, but the answer is very simple: who cares? We certainly don’t care because we are not in those woods. The tree doesn’t care. The woods don’t care. In fact, as Albert Einstein so cleverly showed at the beginning of the last century, we should not even care if the earth were standing still or running at incredible speed, because the laws of physics would all still hold. Derrida’s point was simple: if we base our conclusions only on what we know, not on, as O. D. Corpuz likes to say, the facts that we invent (he says, “these are the conclusions upon which I base my facts”), all we have of language are written examples of it, etchings on stone or bamboo, not to mention the testimony of the Old Testament, a written document.

We don’t have a problem with Derrida’s insight in the Philippines, because Filipinos speak the way they write. This is a feature of Philippine English identified by Andrew Gonzalez. For example, we would never answer the question “How are you?” the way an American would, that is, with “I’m good.” We would say, “I’m fine, thank you,” because we would never ungrammatically use an adjective where an adverb should be. On second thought, we do have a problem with this, because anywhere else in the world, nobody speaks the way they write. Nobody says things like, “The president lies, cheats, and steals,” not only because their presidents most likely do not lie, cheat, nor steal, but because oral English is not so grammatical. At most, Winston Churchill said, “blood, sweat, and tears,” but he said that so that he would be quoted by all the newspapers of the time; every politician knows what is meant by the phrase “sound bite,” spelled either b-i-t-e or b-y-t-e.

We might have a problem with Derrida’s other great insight, which is that all language is self-contradictory. Every word or phrase, said Derrida, appears to mean something but actually means something else, most likely the opposite. The manifest meaning of a sentence hides its latent meaning. We must, he said, realize that a sentence is merely constructed and therefore, can be deconstructed.

Take the simple word English as in “English language.” English is defined simply as “the speech of England.” That seems simple enough, until we look back at the time the term was invented by Alfred the Great as a catch-all term for the different languages of the Germanic invaders, the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes. At that time, he called it Englisc, with a c instead of an h, and pronounced en rather than in. Here we see immediately what Derrida meant: the English language does not really exist by itself, but is a mere label for languages existing before it. It is a classification, a group, rather than one thing. It is like labelling as Bisayan any and all the languages of the Visayas, such as Cebuano, Ilonggo, Kinaray-a, and so on. We can already see a contradiction: if English is merely a conglomeration of distinct languages, how can English have its own identity? How can it impose its own rules?

The manifest meaning of the word English, in other words, is that it is a distinct language. Its hidden meaning, found through etymology, is that it is only a convenient label for a group of languages. There is a contradiction there that cannot be explained away, especially when, in the classroom, the teacher is faced with the need to correct the grammar of a student.

We can imagine a similar situation when the Philippines becomes federal. How can there be a Philippines if Bangsa Moro will use Arabic as its medium of instruction, the Diliman Republic will declare as persona non grata anyone defending Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and Cebu will ban the use of Cebuano in all its schools? How can English teachers impose any kind of grammatical uniformity if each student will say, with reason, that the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, not to mention Americans, British, Australians, Singaporeans, and of course Filipinos, have their own ways of using the English language and, therefore, that there is not and cannot be one correct way of using the language?

In literary theory, there is a similar misreading of hermeneutics or reader-response theory. Some teachers, intimidated by the dropping of Western names (and I mean droppings in its pigeon sense), give in to students that claim that any interpretation of a poem is as valid as any other interpretation because, after all, all readers are created equal. Deconstruction, as Abad once admitted, makes agnostics of us all; to regain our faith, we must deconstruct our own deconstructions.

We could deconstruct the word English in another way, if we are fans of pool or, as we say in Philippine English, billiards. One meaning of the word in any standard dictionary since 1860 is “spin imparted to a ball.” This meaning comes from the French word anglé, meaning “angled” or, as we say every day we see a pronouncement from Malacañang, “spin.” The word English carries within itself the latent meaning of “lying, cheating, and stealing,” which is the Philippine English way of saying spin. We can see all kinds of implications in the insistence by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo that we use English as our sole medium of instruction in all our public schools.

How does this translate into everyday practice in the classroom? Very simply, we as teachers must constantly be aware that we are living contradictions. I mean that positively, although it sounds negative. In reality, if we were to adopt Derrida’s theories, we would find no difference between positives and negatives, which are mere interchangeable poles on a binary stick. Let me cite just a few of the contradictions we display inside our classrooms.

We ask them to write all kinds of paragraphs that we ourselves would not be able to write. We ask our students to write a term paper, but we do not write a term paper with them. We ask our students to do book reports, but how many new books have we actually read in the past term? We ask students to pronounce English properly, but can we pass a test at a call center? We ask students to write a poem or a short story, but can we write one in the time we allow them? I have said again and again, ad nauseam, that we cannot give what we do not have, we cannot ask our students to do what we ourselves cannot do. If there is one thing you will get out of this keynote speech, I hope it is this: that all of you, without exception, will not ask any student to write anything that you yourself cannot or will not write. If you ask them to write a term paper, for heaven’s sake, please write a term paper yourself. If you ask your students to read a new novel every term, please read a new novel yourself every term. In fact, if you are a real English teacher, you should be reading a new novel every week. And please, please, do not ask your students to write poems or short stories if you cannot write a poem or a short story yourself. There is one classroom practice that I strongly suggest you do, and it derives from Derrida’s deconstructive theory: at the end of a class session where you ask students to write, say, a haiku, read to them the haiku that you wrote while waiting for them to finish.

Let’s return to Lumbera, Abad, Foucault, and Derrida. There is a way to put together all of their ideas into one word: english, spelled not with a capital E but with a small initial letter e.

Lumbera was one of the first, if not the first, critics in the whole world to do what today is known as Postcolonial Theory. Lumbera did not know at the time he did his now classic speeches (theorists like to call them “interventions,” if you want to use a bigger word) that he was a postcolonial theorist; in fact, at that time, which was the late 1960s, the word “postcolonial” was not yet fashionable. It even referred to the end of the series “pre-colonial, colonial, post-colonial,” meaning the last or most recent of developments in time. Postcolonial now refers to the first taste of colonization; in our case, we became postcolonial in 1521. Postcoloniality is, thus, the condition of being under a colonial master, whether in cannon or stone in the sense that we found ourselves on the wrong end of the barrel of a Spanish rifle. Lumbera said pretty much the same thing as the foreign idols of the end of the last century when he said that our literature either accepted or rejected colonial influences.

The postcolonial theorists of Australia eventually caught up with Lumbera and started to call the English language english (with the small letter e), to foreground (foreground is the word theorists use to mean call attention to) the undeniable reality that, first, the English language is the world’s lingua franca or international medium of communication, and second, that every country has a different way of using the language. Linguists like to call this phenomenon Englishes, or less concisely, varieties of English. Theorists liked to use the small letter to distinguish the language that Australians and other postcolonials use from that used in Britain.

We can immediately see that Abad’s “poetry from English” runs along the same idea: the English as used by Filipino poets is different from the English as used by Hong Kong poets, Nigerian poets, South African poets, Native American poets, and so on, not to mention British or American poets. Foucault’s implied advocacy that users of language should use the language of the oppressors itself to subvert the power of colonizers, men, politicians, and the like finds practical application in the way the small letter e was harnessed as a weapon by postcolonial critics to ensure, as the Australians put it, plagiarizing from Salman Rushdie, that “the Empire writes back.” Derrida’s demand that writing precede speech is clearly satisfied by uncapitalizing the letter e. In order to understand what the postcolonial critics were talking about, we have to read the word english [uncapitalized], not just listen to it. Writing clearly takes precedence over speech.

What are we teaching in the classroom, then, capitalized or non-capitalized E/english? (If you read my speech, you will see that I spell that word capital E slash small letter e. The slash was the favorite punctuation mark of theorists, because it is unpronounceable.) What should we teach? The answer should by now be obvious: we should be teaching [uncapitalized] english. We should be teaching the language as it is used by Filipinos, not as it is used by Americans or Brits or Australians or whoever else. Do we have the tools to teach our english and not those of others? Yes, we do. And to show you that, now that I am a senior citizen, I am claiming the right not to be modest anymore, I shall recommend to you my own book, which I did with the leading authority on Philippine English, Maria Lourdes Bautista; the book was published by Anvil, is available at all National Bookstores, and is entitled A Dictionary of Philippine English. In that book, which by the way is a joke book, the word yes is defined as “maybe,” and word maybe is defined as “no.”

The moment of critical theory has gone, and we are the better for it, but to deny that there once was a Camelot of critical theory is to return to the dark ages before we were forced to reexamine our assumptions, our practices, our lives. Exactly as Socrates predicted, the unexamined life is not worth living. The uncritical class is not worth teaching. The untheoretical teacher is not worth hiring. It is one thing to say that we should no longer be teaching theory; it is quite another thing to say that we should teach language as though there had never been theory.

Let me give an analogy. Some of us, maybe many of us, have had a love affair that went sour. To say now, after the traumatic event, that we never loved the person anyway is to deny ourselves the pleasure of memory that Alfred Lord Tennyson, plagiarizing from St. Augustine, immortalized in the lines “’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.” We loved theory when it was around, but now that theory has left us, we should not deny the intensity of our love. We were mesmerized by the words theory invented to capture our minds, the convoluted sentences that gave us – after we deciphered them – the joy of discovery that Aristotle already identified, the names we dropped to make our students open their mouths in awe. Let us not deny that critical theory has outlived its usefulness, but it was useful. It made us realize that, both in our taste as readers and our behavior as teachers, we were sleepwalking, unaware of the damage we were doing to our students because of our inability to see ourselves for what we really were, and perhaps still are.

The conference today will focus on critical practices in the language classroom, on teaching students to think. You will have a chance to study the power relations in a classroom, the issues of class and gender as they relate to various texts, the practice itself of criticism, the hidden assumptions of arguments, and several other topics that relate critical theory to classroom practice. Do not lose sight of the woods because of the trees. We may not have snowy evenings in the Philippines, but we do stop to watch the trees fill up if not with snow then with rain.

It is much too easy to do two things: first, to get so enamored of critical theory that we start teaching theory rather than literary or linguistic texts themselves, pretty much like going to a museum and reading only the labels and signs or the tourist guidebook, but not looking at the artifacts; second, to get so annoyed by critical theory that we start teaching as though theory never mattered, which it did, or that it does not matter now, which it does. Students do know how to think, as Socrates knew a long time ago; it is only a matter of helping them think. But we teachers cannot help our students to think if we do not think first. We exist because we think. (serialized in The Philippine Star, 16 February – 23 March 2006)



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