23 March 2007

Sonia Roco on Language

Roco on Language

When I asked her what her stand was on the medium of instruction, candidate (for the Philippine Senate) Sonia Roco of Aksyon Demokratiko answered simply, “The Bilingual Education Policy is fine. There is no need to change that policy.”

What exactly is the policy? Since she has explicitly said that she is running to continue the fight for quality and intelligent governance started by her late husband Raul Roco, former Secretary of Education, we may assume that, once elected to the Senate, Sonia Roco will espouse the same views that Raul Roco had on the medium of instruction.

Roco (by which I mean Raul) enjoyed debating and brainstorming. In private conversations and even in public discussions, he sometimes defended a stand contrary to what he really believed in, just to test the intellectual capacity of the people around him. Those who did not know him well sometimes attributed to him opinions that were not at all his own but articulated by him only to challenge popular views.

Roco and I shared the ancient rhetorical view that, if you are really a good debater, you can start a debate on one side, win over the other side convincingly, then shift to the other side in the middle of the debate and still win.

We can have a more accurate grasp of Roco’s ideas by looking at the departmental policies he implemented while he was Secretary of Education. Although he and I spent countless hours debating all sorts of issues when I was his Senior Undersecretary, he eventually would make a decision on a particular policy, which I then would write out and show to him for his approval.

During his stint as Secretary, Roco did something very few have appreciated. He insisted that Bicolanos should be taught in their own native language, Bicolano or Bikol. He thus expanded the then prevailing Lingua Franca Project (started by his immediate predecessor, Brother Andrew Gonzalez, FSC) to include Bikol.

Gonzalez had set up a mechanism for some schools to use Cebuano, Ilocano (or Iluko), or Tagalog as their sole medium of instruction for the first three grades. It was, during his time, just an experiment, with the scientific rigor supplied by, among others, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (which had been and still is successfully using various vernacular languages to make people literate enough to read the Bible in their own languages).

Roco insisted that Bikol be added to the three languages of choice. Since there were also a huge number of speakers of languages other than Bikol (Hiligaynon or Ilonggo, Samar-Leyte or Waray, Capampangan, Pangasinan, Maranao, Maguindanao, and Tausug, for example), I convinced him to include not just Bikol but the other commonly-used vernacular languages.

Roco ended the experimental stage of the Lingua Franca Project, declared it a success (after consulting with the Summer Institute of Linguistics and the Asian Development Bank), and mandated a language policy that allowed all schools to use the language of their own regions as the sole medium of instruction for the first three grades. The policy was by no means new, since it had its roots at least three decades earlier in government pilot projects. Roco just institutionalized it.

Because he did not stay long enough in the Department, Roco was not able to push through with what would have been the logical continuation of his decision on the first three grades, namely, to change the medium of instruction for the next three grades and eventually the high school years.

We never came to any conclusion in our endless debates on which language or languages to use from Grade 4 to 4th year high school, but it was clear that he did not want English to be the sole or even the main medium of instruction. He was very clear about this, because he believed in the Rule of Law and knew the Constitution by heart. If he had wanted to give English more time in the curriculum, he would simply have told me to write out an order repealing the Bilingual Education Policy. He never did that, and no one has actually done that. The present Secretary has modified the policy by privileging English over Filipino, but he will be held accountable eventually for following an illegal order from the President.

Roco loved Filipino languages. To prove it in terms of educational policy, he mandated that the learning area he himself christened “Makabayan” should be taught completely in Filipino. Only when Arroyo released the blatantly unconstitutional Executive Order 210 were some of the subjects under Makabayan taught in English.

When Sonia Roco gets elected to the Senate, we can be sure that she will oppose vehemently the ridiculous House Bill removing Filipino from the public educational system. (Published in The Philippine Star, 8 March 2007)