How English was taught

In 1901, General Arthur MacArthur ( Douglas’s father) announced: “A rapid extension of educational facilities is an exclusively military measure…” What a clever strategy, that was the essence of “benevolent assimilation”  and “pacification.”  Immediately, Gen. Elwell Otis endorsed  7 schools opened by an army chaplain, shortly after that mock battle in Intramuros between Spanish and American troops. In no time,  the Thomasites began to arrive.

The transition from the Spanish educational system to the American one had to be flexible, almost experimental;  there were certain obstacles in the way:  Many school houses were burnt during the Philippine-American War; there were budgetary constraints, very few well-trained native teachers and no pedagogical materials.   The Spanish colonial administration had favored institutes of higher learning over primary schools, despite the 1863 royal decree. Early on, American officials debated about the use of English or the native languages as a medium of instruction; the consensus was  English, but there were no textbooks in that language.

Primary level textbooks had to be imported from the USA, but these turned out to be  “ wretchedly ill-adapted,” lamented the Bureau of Public Instruction.  They described things that did not exist in the Philippines, like snow and domestic scenes  “beyond the comprehension and experience of children of the Tropics…” (After WWII, my primary school textbooks were still that alien!).

An early import was The Revised Insular Primer by David Gibbs, a former superintendent of Public Instruction, published by the American Book Company in 1904 and 1906. This was specially written to teach the English language by using words representing familiar ideas, conversation in question-and-answer format with the pupils always speaking in complete sentences. Students used this primer from their first days in school.

The instructions to teachers were precise:  Begin with familiar objects like fan, jar, hat, flag (the American one), cat, pig, banana, etc. When teaching a new word, the teacher had to pronounce it first then require students to use the word in answering questions. On the blackboard, the teacher wrote a  sentence using the new word for the students to read. Memorization was not mentioned in that primer, but native teachers were allowed to explain in their own language, whenever necessary.  Translating directly was discouraged.

The first step was for the pupil to understand the English words before learning how to read and write them. Apparently, when words are thoroughly understood through vocal usage,  reading and writing become easier. Speaking in complete sentences was a must. It demanded a wider use of the vocabulary and taught students to engage in conversation.

As I leafed through Gibb’s Insular Primer, I could almost hear my grandmother, Filomena Francisco Guerrero, speaking in English. I had always wondered why she would ask: “Have you a pencil ?”  “Have you a new book?” instead of  “ Do you have a pencil?” In fact, the use of the verb “to do”  appears only on  page 59 with the question, “ What can you do?’ Answered with I can eat a big orange and I can run under the orange tree. I can hear with my ears. What can the boy do? The boy can jump. What is the boy doing? The boy is jumping. To this day, teaching  Spanish speakers the verb “to do” ( as in Do you have a pencil?”) is a challenge.

Aside from being  “wretchedly ill-adapted”, the textbooks should have been decolonized, but that was unheard of in those days.  Among the blond and blue-eyed sketches was a photo of a  young aeta to illustrate the following sentence: I am a little black boy. Do you like me?  I can run and jump and laugh. I can not read and write. On page 74 is a photo of a naked baby in a giant taklobo with sentences like, The baby has brown eyes. She is my sister. Have you a sister?  The taklob cradle remains a mystery. On page 76 coconuts are called cocoanuts. I like to eat the cocoanut, The locals must have joked about it.

Many of these early primers were phonetic drill books. Teachers were instructed to pronounce words “correctly, slowly and distinctly”. Special attention was given to the “p” and “f” which Filipinos notoriously interchange. This is  how to say a proper ”f”:  “ Have the pupils make the sound by putting the upper teeth on the lower lip and blowing the breath. Show them how. Practice until they get the sound and pronounce the words correctly.”

The Corona Readers, by James H. Fassett,  Book 1 was published by Ginn and Company in 1912. Surprisingly, there is a Murillo painting of the Holy Family facing the title page. The last 4 pages have a full-page nativity scene, stories about how Jesus loved children, two little girls with a guardian angel.  Those were concessions to the Catholic church. However, the other images are totally foreign– rosy-cheeked, chubby white-skinned children, women with curly blond hair, Santa Claus, Dutch windmills.  Filipinos may have learned to speak English, but I wonder how deeply those ideas and images that came with the new language affected the national psyche.