Miss Philippines Ariella ‘Ara’ Arida, in her interview with Karen Davila on ANC, recently got a lot of flak because of the way she uses the English language. A sociolinguist friend describes it as the “non-native variety” which is not to say that it is substandard. It is quite clear from the online comments and criticisms though that her brand of English doesn’t sit well with some Pinoys who are not just obsessed about using “good grammar”, but also about aping the General American or British varieties—varieties they consider “perfect English”.
It doesn’t require much insight to realize that this obsession with the perfect English stems from the highly suspect language ideology that speaking fluent English is indicative of one’s intelligence. It is a highly discredited notion in academic circles but this warped thinking has continued to dominate our public platforms. It simply tells us that those who can speak this foreign language like our former colonial masters are or should be in a better position in society. How many times have we deluded ourselves into thinking that speaking English (with an American accent—or usually in the way the Kenyon and Knott’s pronunciation dictionary prescribes) and churning out polysyllabic perorations are signs of intellectual heft? And how many times have we heard of celebrities, who speak fluent English but with very little substance, earning instant public adulation? This kind of thinking which we should have disabused ourselves with long ago has continued to perpetuate in the age of social media where constructed personae become instant (disposable) authorities on any subject matter based on mob affirmation (i.e., likes) and their accessibility to public consumption (i.e., shares).
I honestly don’t think there is any major, major problem with Ara’s use of English. Her “heavy” accent shouldn’t really be an issue as most Miss Universe winners from non-English speaking countries have “marked foreign accents” when they talk (remember Dayana and Stefania from Venezuel, Ximena from Mexico, and Leila from Angola? Or just think of Margie Moran's answer to the final question in 1973). Ara does incur some grammatical lapses, but it is also evident that she is aware of these lapses since she is actually able to correct herself on the spot (a sign of pragmatic competence). She could use a little bit of diplomacy (or tact) when answering questions, but that may easily come off as insincere to judges who normally want the candidates’ personalities to shine. Ara can be very straightforward when she answers questions (walang palamuti at echebureche!) and that did her good when she answered the final question in the national pageant in April.
One thing that people do not know about Ara (or choose to ignore about her) is that she really has a good head on her shoulders. She may not be the best English speaker to most of us (and that is even a contentious proposition), but this young woman is not an intellectual lightweight. Ara pursued a degree in chemistry at the University of the Philippines at Los Banos in order to challenge herself. It sure wasn’t easy studying chemistry in a university once known to have the highest concentration of doctorates in the fields of science and technology in the country. I remember sitting in at a higher chemistry class in Los Banos to observe a colleague who’s a candidate for a university teaching award and I was reminded there and then why I was not cut out for that field of study. The chemical sciences require a sophisticated kind of mental work (the simple concept of electronic configuration already unsettles me!) that only those who have the passion for the field and who have gone through the rigor of the discipline can deal with. I believe her training in the field will work wonders for Ara when she competes for the coveted crown. It is actually doing wonders for her now in that she is able to keep her cool and stay confident notwithstanding the flak she’s getting from some of her irrationally irascible compatriots.
Look, Ara is not competing at a public speaking competition in the English Speaking Union. Accuracy in language use can do her good, but it is not a guarantee for her to make the first cut in the competition. We’ve sent some of the most articulate girls in the pageant and their articulateness could only get them so far. The pageant is most certainly beyond one’s capacity to speak the colonial tongue in a manner that former colonial masters want it spoken. It requires immense capacity to strategize before varied audiences, the ability to adapt to difficult situations, and the indefatigable character to stay unaffected despite public pressure and criticism. It seems clear that Ara has developed these competencies throughout her training in her quest for a beauty title (and perhaps even before that).
Whatever happens on November 9th, Ara, to me, is already a winner. She’s taken criticism in stride; it hasn’t made a dent on her confidence which makes her already victorious. She has sashayed her way to Moscow with a lot of panache and that easily makes her the kind of Filipina competitor that we need in the arena like Miss Universe.
To dearest Ara, maintain your positive disposition and I’m sure you will reign supreme throughout the competition. A huge number of us—I dare to include even some of your Filipino detractors (trust me, they are your closet supporters while you wear that Philippine sash)—will be cheering for you as you inch your way to the crown. We’ll be cheering for you because we think you deserve to wear that crown that has eluded the Philippines since 1973. We want you to win if only to prove, as my sociolinguist friend says, that “that the non-native English variety rocks”. We want you to win because we think that your victory can help bring the much needed attention to the excellent work of our Filipino chemists and scientists in the Philippines and abroad. We will support you all the way because as a pageant-loving people, we know how to revel in the flawed perfections of our queens!
You go girl! Conquer the Universe in Moscow!