Our local languages are dying out. Here’s what’s at stake.
Allowing the death of our native languages can blot out centuries’ worth of irreplaceable cultural ties.
There are over 7,000 living languages spoken in the world today; however, as the death toll of languages rises every year, linguists have predicted that one in every five languages will cease to exist by the next century. Comparably, results from SIL International reveal that 3,018 (or 42 percent of the total) world languages face endangerment today. And while language endangerment is nothing new to our country, the number of Philippine languages advancing toward the point of extinction is alarming. While we have over 175 individual languages in total, many are dying out undocumented.
To classify a language as endangered declares that there is a significant loss of speakers of the language and that the vernacular is no longer being passed to the next generation, signaling the potential risk of extinction. As of 2021, the Philippines has garnered a total of 45 “in danger” languages. Reports on these figures were based on the Expanded Graded Intergenerational Scale (EGIDS), a framework used to measure the vitality of a certain language with regard to its rate of being passed onto the succeeding generation. Languages that are at risk would score highly on the scale as these have a slim chance of being transmitted to the younger members of a community. Meanwhile, a vernacular is classified as extinct once it has fallen completely out of use by any living native speaker.
Agta Dicamay and Agta Viciosa have been pronounced extinct. While 30 of the 45 endangered languages are still being used to communicate, these languages were found to have been losing speakers, classifying them as threatened. Another 4 are shifting or have no living speakers transmitting the language to the next generation; 5 are moribund with only the older generation speaking the language; 5 are nearly extinct wherein older generation speakers are the only users of the language and have minimal opportunities to use the language; and 1 is dormant, meaning the language solely acts as a heritage symbol with no living speakers. Meanwhile, there is a lack in documentation to support the existence of the Aeta language Katabagan, which classifies it as unattested.
A Multisectoral Issue
In a highly globalized world, urbanization posits itself as one of the biggest culprits in the loss of language diversity. In an email interview with COMMONER, Prof. Vincci Santiago of the UP Department of Linguistics wrote, “A very common scenario is the abandonment of a language due to economic pressures coming from a more dominant language in the area, what we call a lingua franca.” Inevitably, as the trend for cross-regional migration and social mobility continues, indigenous languages tend to lose their value while more dominant languages (like Tagalog, English, and Cebuano) get falsely presented as more convenient and useful for communicative domains (i.e., homes, schools, workplaces).
Military and government subjugation have also driven the loss of our indigenous languages. The death of countless native tongues can be attributed to imperialism, much like the many instances of genocide throughout history. “In the Philippines as well, until today, there has not been a stop to the killings of indigenous peoples in different regions and provinces either by agents of the state or by local armed groups,” said Santiago.
Case in point: Over the past year, the efforts of many indigenous communities to save their ancestral domains and uphold their basic human rights have been met with sheer force, even military violence, through numerous threats, red-tagging incidents, and massacres. Educator Rae Rival wrote, “Farmers, indigenous people, the urban poor, and majority of the peasant sectors are always being threatened and displaced to make way for mining projects, dams, and New Clark Cities.” In this sense, language endangerment is exacerbated by the loss of native speakers to violence and urbanization.
As language is intrinsic to the preservation of knowledge, the death of a vernacular would result in more than just the disappearance of words and symbols.
For one, it would lead to a loss of cultural archives and documents. Language is vital in documenting a group’s culture and history, which also makes it a major representation of a community’s distinctiveness. One can learn the key aspects of a society’s culture by examining a group’s chants, myths, everyday greetings, prose and poetry, and the like.
Similarly, researchers Cámara-Leret and Bascompte have found that indigenous societies were able to profile various medicinal properties found in plants, allowing these groups to create “a living pharmacy.” In line with this, traditional medical cures and methods may be lost if an indigenous language ceases to exist. Prof. Anthony Woodbury wrote: “A people’s history is passed down through its language, so when the language disappears, it may take with it important information about the early history of the community”; such a loss, then, would cause a gap in knowledge.
Linguists have also found that linguistic diversity and biodiversity are strongly connected to each other, and the loss of a language would put the state of the environment at risk. In fact, research suggests that the traditions practiced by indigenous groups often involve proper management of the environment. Santiago warned, “We must not forget that most of the Earth’s ecological diversity is safeguarded by indigenous peoples whose languages are also the most immediately threatened.”
Ultimately, the loss of a language would mean the loss of a unique worldview. Psychologist and linguist Lera Boroditsky explained how expressions and grammatical rules influenced the manner in which we processed information and understood the world around us. In her study, she revealed how sentence structures altered our concepts of blame and punishment, like how mere sentence composition can mold the formation of reasoning and perspective. To demonstrate this, she cited the incident of a vase breaking, comparing the implications of saying “the vase broke” versus “he broke the vase.” Given that participants were exposed to identical instances alongside the two phrases, her findings revealed that a person is more likely to receive blame if a doer is mentioned (in the second phrasing, “he”). Thus, as language has the capability to form the way we interpret the world around us, losing a language would alter a long-established perspective.
A Shot at a Second Life
Although the long fight is yet to be won in order to preserve at-risk languages, all is not lost.
Today, revival efforts are being pursued by various ethnic groups in the hope of saving their native tongue. Santiago specified that communities such as the Mangyan groups, located in Mindoro, have started community-based efforts that are centered on revitalizing their writing systems. For instance, the Buhid Mangyan cultural community has been working closely with the UP Department of Linguistics to revive their dictionary. “The Buhid Mangyan Dictionary is unique because members of the community themselves approached some of our faculty saying that they really wanted to kickstart this initiative and they needed the help of experts,” said Santiago.
Meanwhile, institutions like the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (KWF) have reached out to indigenous groups in support of revitalizing their community’s native language. In 2017, the commission began both the Bahay-Wika project and the Master-Apprentice Language Learning Program (MALLP) with the Ayta Magbukun community. The two initiatives consist of the group’s elders teaching kindergarten students and young adults their native language.
Lourdes Hinampas, head of the Sangay ng Salita at Gramatika of the KWF, shared that similar projects for the Alta language of Aurora and Inata language of Negros Occidental are in the works. In an email interview with COMMONER, she mentioned that the speakers of the moribund language Butuanon are also collaborating with a local government unit (LGU) from the commission to develop an orthography of the language.
Much Left to be Done
Aside from the existence of written work, to say a language has been revived requires the use of the vernacular in an everyday setting. Undoubtedly, saving a language is not an easy feat. If anything, it’s one that takes multiple collaborative efforts and sustainable initiatives.
At present, indigenous groups continue to face discrimination for speaking their language. Hinampas disclosed. “Sa aming pakikipag-ugnayan at pakikisalamuha sa mga [indigenous people], ilan sa mga dahilan kung bakit ayaw nilang gamitin ang sarili nilang wika ay dahil nadi-discriminate sila” (Based on our interactions with indigenous people, one reason they shy away from using their native language is the discrimination they face in doing so). She noted that intolerance and prejudice faced by indigenous people have stemmed from majority ethnic groups who are speakers of dominant languages.
For Hinampas, educating the public on the importance of cultural and linguistic diversity is key. Being open and respectful to these new learnings may sound like an overused truism, but honing this mindset of inclusivity can lead us a step closer toward language revitalization.
Meanwhile, Santiago advocates for linguistic studies and findings to be made more available to communities and officials. “Linguists and scholars must also exert more effort in making their studies and research accessible and comprehensible to those communities, institutions, and policymakers who will truly benefit from their findings.” Moreover, retitling August as Buwan ng mga Wika might alleviate the decline of at-risk languages. He added that highlighting and providing representation for the plurality of Filipino languages would encourage the much-needed discussion on Philippine indigenous languages and the problems they face today.
Language has always been instrumental for people to communicate and build a sense of community. In more ways than one, it has become a repository of knowledge, one that has woven itself into the fabric of a community’s culture and history.
If we allow the death of these languages, we permit the wiping out of invaluable knowledge and irreplaceable cultural ties. This only makes it even more of an imperative to safeguard Philippine diversity for future generations and embrace its unique role in our culture. While institution-led initiatives are currently in place, support and action from the public are still needed to ensure the continued survival of such a foundational structure.
Bianca Buita is an AB Psychology sophomore at the Ateneo de Manila University. In her free time, she enjoys going on runs and broadening her perspectives through reading and writing.