The Grey Chronicles


The Mis-education of Filipino Engineers, Part II

Engineering English 101

English is considered the other lingua franca in the Philippines, aside from Filipino—the official and constitutionally-defined national language. I never believed in the usual mantra of excuses that just because engineering students are adept at mathematical manipulations, they would usually be poor in English.

During a lecture on Electrical Machine Design, I was shocked when one student asked me to translate some of the technical terms I used into the vernacular. “So I can understand it better, sir!” the student said. I explained that I, being a local migrant from Luzon exposed to another dialect since birth, still do not possess the proficiency to translate technical, particularly electrical, terms such as rotor slot pitch or lap-wave into vernacular. I tried my best to approximate, maybe incorrectly, these terms into a long exposition of equivalent words in the dialect, such as unsay kabag-on sa bangag na naa sa nagtuyok na parte [translation: the thickness of the slot in the rotating part] for rotor slot pitch or murag alon na nagsagunson [like a wave overlapping] for lap-wave. Thus, what could be enunciated in two to three words become an elongated transliteration in the dialect! In all other engineering subjects I handled, I would encounter similar requests. This fact bewildered me ever since.

Roots of Difficulty

I found out later that my engineering students came from ten years of primary and secondary schooling where the media of instruction on majority of courses were either Filipino or the local dialect, Bisaya. Some of my students were even taught in another dialect, Cebuano. It was only in 2002 when the Department of Education increased the percentage of time of using English as media of instruction in both primary and secondary levels. In 2002, however, I had to give up my part-time lecturer post from the local college because of hectic work schedule.

The situation is further aggravated when these engineering students graduate and become supervisors. Once such instance I encountered was a memo written by an engineer—a graduate of the most prestigious university here in Iligan City—who was explaining his side to a manager regarding an incident at a plant. He wrote:

“To explain my side to the contentious statements of [Rey Adel], since he started pointing fingers instead of airing his side or correcting the said 11hrs [mill] electrical delay only.”

Unfortunately, this quoted line is grammatically incomplete: the subject, predicate and object of the line of thought are missing. The whole phrase is rather colloquial, bordering on English illiteracy: the use of the preposition «to» to begin a sentence; the word «since» is wrongly used with a comma preceding it; and the unnecessary dangling modifier «only». It can be said that the whole quoted line is a a sentence made in the dialect transliterated to some form of English.

English is a Learned Language

Fortunately for me, my parents sent me to a state university, where from grades school and high school, most teachers used English as media of instructions. Once, I was even late coming home for lunch from Grade I classes, because I gave the wrong pronunciation for fish, enunciating it as phesh. When I was in Grade II, my class adviser went out of her way and gave us every day a list of new English words to look from a dictionary, learn its definition and pronunciation. I also remembered in Grade III where we were fined five centavos for each word spoken in the dialect. Five centavos were a great deal for me because I was only given 15 centavos as daily allowance, and the nutri-bun, a bread made from flour donated by USAID, was selling at five centavos each. By Grades IV to VI, I was looking for English books in the provincial library, to improve my grammar, syntax and vocabulary. All these were useful during our English classes which required us to write a theme, essay, poem or something to improve our writing skills.

I carried this quest from primary to my secondary schooling to learn English as a spoken and written language. I joined the school paper, starting as a contributor, just to improve my English. In doing so, I also excelled in other subjects because most of the textbooks used were written in English. Even though the required book in Pilipino 1 was Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere in Filipino, I even read Touch Me Not, its English translation, just for the joy of reading it.

When I pursued my electrical engineering degree until 1988, all the lectures were given in English, except for Filipino and Spanish courses. Yes, I had the misfortune of taking 12 units of Spanish, six (6) while in college and another six (6) in the Academy. Yet, I can only sing one or two Spanish songs and would fail miserably in conversational Spanish. Woe was on me! They discontinued the required Spanish units right after I finished the required two courses!

I also pursued learning English by competing both for the top post in the university and the college students’ publication. I managed to become the Editor-in-Chief of The Universitarian, on my first try; while gave up the post, to give chance to others, and settled for Associate Editor for the college-based publication.

Once and a while, as an Electrical Engineer, I still manage to read one or two English stylebooks to brush on my English grammar, sometimes flip the Merriam-Webster dictionary to learn a new word, and recently have taken a passion of collecting English encyclopedias on various fields: Philosophy, Science, Mathematics, Literature, History, Management, etc. through e-book downloads or paper-based books.

Media of Instruction Debate

Even today, proponents and apologists of English, as a second language or as medium of instruction, are still having their field day. Proponents argue that there should be more English air time in pre-college levels; while apologists usually take the moral high ground that Filipino, and other local languages, should be used “to build a bridge for learning other languages.”

Bacobo (2007) blogs:

“The Medium of Instruction . . . may also become a hot topic, after a group of Naitonal [sic] Artists and other Official Language Patriots filed a Supreme Court case basically claiming the failures of the public school system are due to teaching of too much English! — an allegation that seems to be amply disproved above.” [Italics in the original]

Tan (2007) writes:

“The President and her advisers presume that this is best done by making English the primary medium of instruction. But this runs counter to all the scientific evidence. The research into language and education shows clearly that learning is best done through a local language.”

Citing one particular study: Diane Dekker and Catherine Young’s “Bridging the Gap: The Development of Appropriate Educational Strategies for Minority Language Communities in the Philippines,” which shown that the strategies mentioned in the study could produce good literacy and numeracy levels, Tan state: “The conclusions of local and international studies are simple: pupils learn faster when taught in their mother tongue.” Huh? Where did that conclusions came from? One definitive study is not a bunch of local and international studies! Drawing conclusive statements from a singular study then create a generalization is a bit hasty! Moreover, isn’t it ironic that Tan, advocating the use of Filipino or local languages, is adept at making arguments using another language, i.e., English?


For me, learning English or learning IN English is never the real cause of Philippine public schools’ malaise. Using English as a media of instruction in pre-college levels is never anti-nationalistic, as persistence of some claimed, but rather being true to our own roots. The Indios, the pre-republican Filipinos, never officially learned Spanish or were instructed in Spanish. Our recent forebears studied English and learned IN English during the American era. Remember the Thomasites? Thus, English is ingrained in our racial blood.

Yet, learning in the vernacular at pre-college levels damages the chance of perfecting our knowledge of and intimacy to English. The local dialects are readily learned by children from birth. Even with decades of promoting Filipino as a national language, compared to English, there are even fewer grammar books on all our precious mother tongues. Thus, these dialects or local languages should be relegated as vernacular, but never as the media of instructions in any level of schooling. In the long run, learning English, and learning IN English becomes synonymous to conversing, writing, arguing and ultimately, thinking in English!

In this Information Age, English once learned affords a graduate his competitive edge. It is the lingua franca of the Knowledge era: from internet to workplace, wherever that might be—virtual or physical. Or should the Philippines remain within its myopic nationalistic shell which have not gotten us—economically, linguistically, politically, technologically, or scientifically—any further?


Bacobo, Dean Jorge (2007) The High Cost of Free Public Education. Online: Philippine Commentary 2009, 29 May 2007. back to text

Tan, Michael (2007) Pinoy Kasi A, B, C, D or A Ba Ka Da?. Manila: The Philippine Daily Inquirer, 30 May 2007. back to text

Disclaimer: The posts on this site does not necessarily represent any organization’s positions, strategies or opinions; and unless otherwise expressly stated, are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Philippines License.



  1. Hey very cool blog!! Guy .. Excellent .. Amazing .
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    Comment by Rocket Spanish vs pimsleur — 2012.October.21 @ 07:29 | Reply

  2. You’re so colonized =(

    Comment by Gatsya — 2010.January.12 @ 15:08 | Reply

    • And how about you? You think, you are not? =(

      Comment by reyadel — 2012.March.17 @ 03:41 | Reply

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