Eat My English
No, I’m not talking about one of my favorite drinking spots at Metrowalk (never mind that it’s noisy and queer, but they have cheap beer… and the best sisig in the city of Pasig… hey, that rhymed). I’m talking about the English language.
I do remember that almost a year ago, I participated in a certain blog writing contest which won me this domain… which begs a revisit.
I remember a piece at the Baguio Midland Courier written by a schoolmate of mine back in high school – Conviron Altatis, if I’m not mistaken – where the youth were exhorted to learn and master the English language. While I could hold my own in written English, I have problems with spoken English. I still have something called tardive dyskinesia. While I can speak straight English without a hitch, my speech is still pretty much slurred at some parts, so I can’t hold my own at a call center.
As usual, it takes a worse problem than mine to put things into perspective.
Owing to some financial setbacks, a friend of mine had to apply for a job at a call center. The problem was that she had an accent problem, and she admits that she doesn’t have a good command of the English language. In a call center, you’re paid as much for the quality of your English as you are paid to take bullshit from anonymous customers half a world away.
So she didn’t get the job.
I’m not a very introspective person; I don’t ruminate over the many grand and profound implications of something. Besides, I only have one stomach. Yet it kind of makes me think a lot about language. If I remember my linguistics correctly (and here we go…), the linguistic tradition exemplified by Ferdinand de Saussure puts primacy on spoken language (la parole) above written language (la langue). Later on, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf put forward two corollaries to this assumption:
- For something to have a rudimentary linguistic significance, it has to be grounded on experience.
- Any experience can be committed to speech, whether it’s an utterance or a word.
Jacques Derrida argued that the question here is not a matter of primacy but of difference, but I think that I’ve already invoked one too many theories off the top of my head. What I do need to point out is that in the real world, nobody gives a rat’s ass about what takes primacy and precedence over the other. It’s all about utility, sensibility, and practicality.
Like a lot of things in life, things can be summarized in two simple bullet-points:
- If you’re paid to write, written language is more important than spoken language.
- If you’re paid to speak, spoken language is more important than written language.
Well thank you, Mr. Stating-the-Obvious.
Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against the necessity of mastering the English language. While it is the language of imperialist capitalist predators that prey upon the oppressed proletariat (…yeah…), it is the language that pays bills for your typical call center agent. English is no longer a language that gives you a competitive edge: it is a language of survival. Yet it is not kikay-coffee-shop-I’ll-drink-absinthe-even-if-reminds-me-of-urinal-cakes English that makes this survival possible, but proper English. American English.
Do I have a problem with it? Yes. It’s not because we should enforce nationalistic fervor by speaking in Filipino, but because the imperative of English does not produce people who are competent with the language. Learning English cannot be rushed; you’d be surprised at how many call center agents speak in a kind of English that grates on the inner membranes of your spinal cord, or write in a kind of English that will stop short of reducing your brain into a throbbing medulla. Instead of learning the language, most people who work at the call center industry are forced to learn mechanical phrases for sales and tech support.
“Globally competitive?” I don’t think so. What we need is a comprehensive, “down-there” study of the applications of proper English, whether it’s conversational or formal. It’s not the call center agent’s fault that the word “actually” is mispronounced, much less abused as a conjunction and an interjection. This task must be shouldered by the Philippine educational system; not for the sake of making more call center agents, but for the sake of being truly globally competitive. Or heck, even for the sake of propriety.
I know it sucks, but that’s the way the world works. You don’t blame the agents, much less engage in a blame game. You go after the weaknesses of the structure.
Suffice to say, the suckiness of it can be summed up not in bullet points, but in three words: English, or perish.