Help! Her college students don’t know their grammar


I am a retired employee from the corporate world. I was writing press releases, speeches and corporate paraphernalia until they put me as manager of a call center for a public utility company.

When I retired (early retirement, mind you), I delighted in old Hollywood movies on HBO and TCM, until a friend prodded me to teach English, a dying language in the Philippines, suffering the fate of Spanish in my time.

Although the compensation was a pittance compared to what I used to receive, I relished the idea of having something to do.

I’ve been [in this school] for three years and, to date, I feel like it’s more of an apostolate to teach these kids who don’t even know the meaning of “in the family way.”

I handled first year college grammar so these were kids fresh from high school, and yet they had no mastery of their high school English grammar.

Since I am a product of a private exclusive high school for girls run by German nuns, I never thought of English as a second language. My parents brought me up with English, my peers at school spoke to me in English and even our help spoke to us in English.

So imagine my chagrin when I found these kids couldn’t speak English, much more know grammar! I consider their English “chopsuey English” but I don’t totally blame them as they are products of a screwed up public educational system in the Philippines in general and in the provinces in particular. (Education Secretary Armin Luistro sure has a formidable task up his sleeves!)

I decided to make rules in my class. First, everyone should speak English during my period. Anyone caught speaking Tagalog would be penalized two bucks every time. One student handed me P100 and told me it was advance payment for all the Tagalog he would speak. On the campus grounds, whenever I would approach a group of students to converse with them in English as a practice session, they would all scamper away in different directions like I had leprosy.

My first year in this school, I discovered that absolutely nobody could speak the royal language—not even the English teachers or the school director who had a Ph.D. degree! As I snooped around, I also discovered some teachers who taught English in Tagalog!

This is the sad state of English brought about by media, the likes of a certain hunky comedian whose bastardized English makes his audience roar.

My second rule was for all to write a weekly composition titled “My Good Deed.” It followed that there were more red marks (I taught them the editing marks beforehand) than their black-ink handwriting. I got terrible headaches from these!

Another requirement was for the kids to submit a semester-end book report. They did, but all were lifted from the Internet! I remember the book was “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho.

Then I decided to assign a movie report, thinking their visual processes might be better. I brought DVDs of “My Fair Lady” and “Schindler’s List.” I even brought my 32-inch TV to school since at that time the school didn’t have a TV. Nothing doing!

In consternation, I formed a book club among the more concerned students, hoping to create a love for books and reading to expand their world. We had an election of officers, an oath-taking in the presence of our director. I donated books to the book club, which formed the core of the now-existing beautiful library. The club never took off in spite of my offering free tutorials. Good heavens!

As for the “in the family way” thing, our lesson was on prepositions, so I asked them for its meaning and not one hand went up. I challenged them to a P500 reward, still no hands. Then I upped this to P1,000. At the end, they asked me what it meant and I told them.

I grew tired of grammar so I asked to teach world literature this semester. The kind director gave me what I wanted. I have no regrets.  But when I discuss Guy de Maupassant, O Henry and Leo Tolstoy with the kids, it is very difficult to discern if they appreciate the author’s words. They heave a collective sigh of relief when we touch home, so I see that they can relate to Franz Arcellana, my once professor, and Jose Garcia Villa. Filipinos for Filipinos!

At times I feel frustrated, but perhaps there is light at the end of the tunnel.

This is a cry for help! If you, readers, have any suggestions to improve my teaching of English, please feel free to e-mail them to

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  • Expatnyc

    Have them participate in reading scripts from Plays, videotape it and let them enjoy the activity. 

  • Mux

     Since I am a product of a private exclusive high school for girls run by German nuns.

    Why not just say St. Scholastica’s College? Also, nobody says “In the family way” anymore because it is no longer considered impolite to simply say “pregnant”.

    • lucidlynx

      that’s because she is not writing on behalf of her old school. and can you find a preposition in the word pregnant? she was using the phrase as an example in one of their lessons.

      • Mux

        Yes I understand, what I was simply trying to explain is that some old idioms die out because they’re not in use anymore. 

    • pedronimo

      Expectant, expecting, or infanticipating is more euphemistic that pregnant.

      • Mux

        Yes, and I rarely hear those euphemisms. People just plainly say “she’s pregnant” or “buntis siya”. 

    • sir_ed

      Sometimes people do, especially when talking to retired alumnae of private exclusive high schools for girls run by foreign nuns. 

  • Max

    This is the result of forcing tagalog  (surreptitiously named as ‘filipino’) on the throats of non-tagalog pupils, and high school students outside Imperial Manila and the result of idiotic television programs of ABS and GMA7.

  • pedronimo

    I have been an ESL teacher for more than forty years and here is my take on your frustration:
    Local television has killed English the reason young Pinoys could hardly write grammatically. Whatever grammar he learns at school is automatically unlearned as he switches on his TV. It;s either a variety show of performers who murder their English or trashy and impertinent plots and boring dialogues. Only a handful of broadcasters (Palma, Davila, Drillon, Soho, David ) stick to simple digestible English. Pinoys are entertained by horse-playing clowns and comics like Jose, Wally, Joey, Willie, Vic Sotto, and the notorious Jimmy Santos, are more appreciated when they speak jumbled English syntax. When it comes to influencing our youth, our public schools have no match against our TV networks. Kids can name a tune in .two notes but can neither speak nor write a simple sensible sentence. The only time a Pinoy speaks grammatically is when he parrots American singers.

    • sir_ed

      You’ve pointed, albeit unintentionally, to the root of the problem.  English is used only in school (and in some workplaces, like those in Makati, or in government).  You become good in English when you use it all the time, like at home or on the playground.  But except for the gated communities of the rich, you don’t find English being used outside school.  For the rest of the population, English is something they put up with in school, which is why the intentionally jumbled English syntax of clowns and comics on TV resonate strongly among TV audiences.  They don’t live in Bel-Air or La Vista, or go to school in Ateneo or St. Scho, so, for them, speaking English is like pretending to be what they are not, so they join in making fun of it, instead. . 

  • sir_ed

    I know how you feel.  I went to an exclusive school for boys run by American and Filipino Jesuits (sorry, wasn’t making fun of you; was having fun at Mux’s expense) and I also always thought of English as my first language.  I also switched careers lately, also from communications work at various NGOs to teaching English at a small college in Manila known for turning out architects and engineers (all right, Mux would probably say, “so why don’t you just say M_____?”).  On my first day of teaching there, students would come up to me and talk to me in Tagalog.  Heck, back in my “exclusive school for boys run by etc.,” we were careful to talk to our Filipino teachers only in Tagalog, out of respect for their profession.  Right now, my policy with my students is, if you talk to me in Filipino, I’ll just pretend I didn’t hear you.  As you can guess, very few students talk to me.
    I think it’s simplistic to blame the media.  We’re in the middle of a sea change in attitudes toward English and Filipino, in the same way that, during the early 20th century, our lolos and lolas were shifting from Spanish to English.  There are various sociological reasons for this (read, for example, the works of the late Bro. Andrew Gonzales, of the exclusive school for boys run by Canadian and Filipino…all right, the joke is wearing thin).  The simple prognosis, which many of us of the old school would find hard to accept, is that English is a dying language in our own country.  At best, like Spanish, it would probably be kept alive only by the elite and the upper middle class.
    I’ve also taught ESL, by the way, to South Korean and Japanese students, and I think it’s best to start using ESL methods with the present generation of Filipino English learners (Expatnyc’s idea is a good example).  They appear to be simple from the point of view of more proficient or fluent English speakers, but I’ve found them to be very effective among many of my students.
    But, more importantly, we should also lower expectations, not just of the present crop of English learners’ capabilities but also of the role that English will continue to have in our country.  I foresee that it will be treated in a very functional way–no longer for writing poems or personal essays that express how we feel, but largely for obtaining technical information in English and communicating to an international audience.  I think the responsibility should be shifted to Filipino teachers as well as to teachers in other subjects, as well as people in mass media, to develop Filipino further so that we can express more complicated concepts in the language (all right, Cebuano speakers, languages) closest to the Filipino soul. Simply reflect on the fact that the most successful Asian countries are those that use their native language as the primary medium of instruction and the language of intellectual discourse, as well as of business and industry.  Our people, particularly the school-age generation, have already started to make the shift, and we educators should help them find their voice–and not suppress it by insisting that they speak only in English (except, of course, in English class).

    • Mux

      In case you want to know, my High School and Grade School were in the exclusive school for boys run by Benedictine Monks in Mendiola and my college was in the University in Taft run by Brothers of St. John Baptist De La Salle. :) 

  • pj tolentino

     I think the biggest problem here is the fact that Filipinos are somehow pressured to learn english. Being fluent in english is like having a nice watch – it shows social status. But it shouldn’t! Filipinos should be proud of Tagalog, and not look at English like it’s the language of the learned. The history of teaching English goes all the way back when we were being colonized by Americans. I don’t want to sound like a dbag here, but the call center industry is one of the few things we got from being an English speaking country: We’re cheap and we know englishmy Comm 3* professor ironically shared the fact that Most progressive nations stick to their own language – Japan, China, Europe etc. They don’t know English but they turn out fine. Having “most of the world’s knowledge in English” doesn’t seem to have hindered their progress.As for learning, I did read a study that tested how well students learn when lessons are being taught in the native tongue. Quite surprisingly, those students who were taught Science, Math etc in Tagalog performed better in school. English was the only subject taught in English (obviously), and the students performed well on it too – much better than traditional english taught students!But I don’t know really. I really think the strongest force in learning a subject is exposure. We had a strong english speaking policy back in grade school, and most of my classmates speak English. High school was a bit more liberal and I had classmates from all over the country. College was a mess. What mattered was the fact that I chose to expose myself more to english media than local media. I rarely watch local TV and I get my entertainment from english internet sources.Keep exposing them to English. That’s the best thing to do. And never tolerate plagiarism! That sort of stuff gets you expelled from my school no questions asked!!!

  • Expatnyc

    I remember when I was still back home in the Philippines studied also in a private exclusive school for boys a Catholic College along CM Recto Avenue… we were allowed to speak tagalog only during the Pilipino class and spoke English for the rest of the day. Then all of a sudden came a period when if one spoke in English, one was soon labeled “burgis” but anyway… I still think that teaching the rudiments of english should really start early…most Child Psychologist suggest that during that stage of child development, they learn faster and retain those linguistic skills much better than during the later stages of development. 

    This is just my personal opinion… having conversational english I think has a little bit more advantage over the traditional didactic approach because somehow when one converses in english, and does it repeatedly, the use of correct grammar, would soon flow naturally and at the same time improve one’s accent. Then reenforced it by the traditional way of dissecting sentences and identifying the different components.

    It’s been 3 decades since my family left the islands for the US, one strange thing that happened was that I retained my local dialect and totally struggled speaking tagalog…

    and this seems a little bit silly because I still keep handy a copy of Harbrace College Handbook which I refer to once in a while when I turn in my reports.

    and to sir_ed… I am a little bit flattered upon reading your comment and mentioned my seemingly humble idea.


  • chitetskoy

    Ang mga Hapon hindi marunong mag-Ingles pero maunlad sila.

    Ang mga Pilipino sa ibang bansa nahihiyang mag-Tagalog habang mga Chinese dito walang takot na malakas mag-Chinese kahit sa LRT.

    Ang Wikang Filipino daw ay salita ng mga mangmang; kaya puro Ingles ang usapan pati sa Impeachment Trial kahit utal ay pilit silang nag-i-Ingles kung hindi babansagan silang mga bobo.

    ganito ba ang ating pagtingin sa ating sariling wika? Kahit ang ating sistemang edukasyon apektado sa pilit nating pag-Ingles sa kurikulum ng paaralan.


    The Japanese doesn’t know how to speak English but they’re progressive.

    Filipinos abroad are ashamed to speak Tagalog while the Chinese here fearlessly and loudly speak Chinese even in LRT.

    It is said that Filipino language is the language of the unlearned; that’s why all conversations are in English most especially in the Impeachment trial; though they are having difficulty they are still trying hard to speak English else they will be marked as dumb.

    Is this our attitude towards our own language? Even our education system is affected by our forceful implementation of English language in our school curriculum.

  • AkinGraceLee

    That is really frustrating. I have taught in public school for ten years and every year we always have non-readers fresh from elementary.

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