How not to learn English and other stories

The way the language is being taught in the Philippines has become a minor scandal. For the rest of us, it's a reminder of just how tricky learning a language is.

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Once in a while I run across something that makes me profoundly grateful to be a native speaker of English. It happened again the other day when I caught up with a report in The Economist about how the Philippines is losing its edge in English. The proportion of Filipinos who speak English, as well as their proficiency, has been on the decline for three decades, the magazine reports.

The fault lies clearly with English teachers, the article suggests. This snippet from a textbook for 8-year-olds is offered as Exhibit A: "The dog rolled on the floor so fast and fell on the ground. There he laid yelling louder than ever. The dog yelled on top of his voice."

With textbooks like this, is it any wonder that 9 out of 10 otherwise qualified Filipino applicants, most of them college graduates, get turned down by call centers because of their poor English?

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The lay/laid error is bad enough in a book you'd expect to have been thoroughly nitpicked. Then there's a poor word choice. Dogs don't yell; they bark. The worst, though, was the idiom "on top of his voice."

The Filipinos' experience is a reminder what an idiosyncratic thing language is. The rules are real. A dog barking "on top of his voice" is truly wrong. No healthy, alert native speaker of English would say it. Not even one of the millions who don't know why "There he laid" is wrong.

But the rules are not always logical. And here's the killer, especially for those of us who wrangle other people's words for a living: The rules are, ultimately, what the people make them – even when the people are wrong.

I cheerfully plead guilty to being a prescriptivist. I believe that rules of language and grammar help us communicate, just as rules of the road help keep us safe in traffic. (I used to joke that I may be the last person alive to insist on "whom." I still say it, but nowadays it seems like less of a joke.)

But times change, usage changes, and suddenly the application of an old rule sounds quaint or even wrong. Like a GPS navigator scrambling after a driver has made a turn off course, the grammarians are left to recalculate their position.

The other day I was discussing with a friend a couple of longtime stalwarts of National Public Radio. When my friend referred to one of them as a "hostess," I thoughtlessly, unthinkingly, corrected her: "Host." (Ooops! Ouch! Sorry!)

But to be fair to my inner prescriptivist, host was the right word. A quick check of Google News turns up hostess with reference to Martha Stewart, to the former model who served as Silvio Berlusconi's "hostess" during the Group of Eight summit in Italy, and to "hostess gifts."

When did hostess get relegated to the social sphere as host took over as the unisex term in broadcasting, at least on the news side? I'm not sure but it's obviously happened.

This is the kind of thing the Filipinos must master if they are to reclaim their place as one of the world's largest populations of English speakers. The outsourcing industry in the Philippines hopes to employ nearly a million people, account for 8.5 percent of gross domestic product, and have 10 percent of the world market by the end of next year.

It's an ambitious goal, but I wish them well. English is a great language – once you get the hang of it.

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