MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING FOR ASEAN
THROUGH TRANSLATION (Philippine Setting)
(Speech delivered during the ABPA Meeting on March 29, 2006,
Ballroom of Queen Sirikit National Convention Center, Bangkok, Thailand)
Fellow Asians, Ladies and Gentlemen;
I have been given a topic that is highly complicated, considering the complexity of national and international languages. I do not pretend to provide an answer to the question how we in ASEAN can talk about our plans, problems, and solutions – in what language, that is. Sometimes we forget that one of the features or simply, facts, of this world is that each nation has its own language. In France, they speak and write French, in Italy, Italian, in Germany, German, in Russia, Russian, in England, English. On the one hand there are some that have no language of their own or those that have more than one. The Americans have no language of their own. They have only a variety of the English language which they share with their motherland, England and many former colonies, the Philippines being a good example. India has fourteen official languages, one of which is Hindi, which is their national language, but English, the language of India’s former masters, is still the most widely used in official communications. In the Philippine experience, we have 89 – with 9 major ones and 80 dialects some of which are almost like languages. Filipino is our national language and this is Tagalog-based.
The Philippine constitution provides a bilingual language policy and that is that Filipino is our national language and should be taught in schools all over the country and that English is also taught in schools, from Grades 1-6 in the elementary schools, Years 1-4 in high school and 12 units of college English.
The most dominant thing about the language situation in the world is its tremendous complexity. The problem is the extremely unequal distribution of man’s languages, estimated at 3,000 or more languages in the world, the vast majority are spoken by tiny groups scattered in remote places. The Biblical story which told the story of the Tower of Babel excited God’s intervention made a good story but it is also true that the process itself is quite undramatic. Those who do not communicate in the language simply lose it. Language changes with time and circumstances and with the movement of goods and people, large populations share a language instead of falling apart into dialects.
This is the process that creates language that we now refer to as national or international language. They are steps on the way to national or international languages, a step on the path to a universal world language. This is everywhere the result of a concentration of a political power, which establishes dominion over an area in which it is convenient for that power to have a single language. For example, we have French control over Vietnam or what was then French Indo-China, the Dutch in East Indies, the English in India, the Americans in the Philippines. This is also true in ancient history. Latin continued to be the language of government and culture in Europe long after the fall of the Roman Empire.
But this is taking me away from my topic which is about how we in ASEAN can have an efficient discussion of our problems and/or plans for ASEAN growth and prosperity. There seems to be a language barrier as we all know. There are suggestions that we use the “translation method” of teaching the various Asian languages so we can understand one another. I think we all can see that that would be a long haul, to use an idiom in English. This is not an overnight solution. Learning a second language is never easy. Filipino students learn English formally from Grades 1-6 in elementary school, levels I-IV in high school, and 12 units of English courses in tertiary or college education plus other courses taught in English like science and mathematics. Waiting time for the mastery of any language takes time and before we can master whatever language we decide upon, ASEAN shall have outlived all of us. Besides, wherever there is human speech, there are differing pronunciations, disagreements on grammatical forms, and different opinions on the names of things. English did not become what it is today until close to the end of the 16th century, when men of learning and culture had worked for some centuries on it to make it useful for all kinds of writing as Latin had been.
And that brings me to the last part of my talk, as to my position, and it is this. Why all this importance in learning effective communication in English in this time and age? Because English is widespread and spoken in all six continents of the world. In fact, the Philippines’ best ever legacy from America is English. Why? Where would we be as a nation without it? The political activists might go to the barricades in favor of Filipino but this time, this 21st century reestablishes the dominance of English in the world, in this global village, we oftentimes now say. Even French which at one time was running neck to neck with English for world dominance has given way to English.
The most formidable argument in favor of English is that it has become international lingua franca. It is the language of world commerce, the language of cross-continental diplomacy. And while other countries, notably China, are now scrambling to learn English, we should not diminish its value. It would be a step backwards if we do. President Jiang of China is overly proud of the fact that he speaks English. (It is said he can recite the Gettysburg Address from memory.) His two sons study in American universities. We Filipinos are lucky to have gone this far.
As Teddy Benigno, perhaps one of our best newspaper columnists, said in his column “Firing Line”, “let us not disturb the peaceful coexistence of English and Filipino… How can we cope if English should droop in our country or disappear? How do you translate into Tagalog these words and expressions? Stock market, bearish and bullish, longitude and latitude, current account, fiscal deficit, balance of payment, balance of trade, majority and minority political parties, jeans, T-shirts, restaurant, hotel, menu, highway, traffic, bulldozer, elevator, hospital, the law of diminishing returns, the law of supply and demand, press conference, media, free trade and free market, bonds, currency turmoil, summit conference, not to mention knockdown and knockout, and yes, what is Filipino for sexy?”
In Singapore and Malaysia, and yes, the Philippines, English formidably remains the official language and language of interaction. So it is in several African countries that fell under British rule.
Considering the economic realities in the Philippines today, one can readily see the importance of English in the Philippines. There are lots of overseas jobs available for the Filipino college graduates or even simply blue collar jobs overseas. The consideration always, aside from their job-related skills is, how good is he/she at communicating in English?
Finally, my suggestion is to offer instead Machine Translation like the United Nations Machine Translation System. Many sentences in one language can be readily translated as entire units into another language. Technical language especially – descriptions of experiments, reports of scientific research – uses many conventional constructions, and the question of translating scientific work by machine was raised shortly after the development of the first computer. Since then, the necessary procedures for machine translation have been studied and materials are already being translated by machines.
At the United Nations General Assembly machine translation system, all manner of languages are translated. The promise of immediate access to foreign languages is an adequate reason for machine translation of discussions in an ASEAN meeting. If the United Nations can do it, why can’t we in ASEAN.