The Difficult Conversation About the Deaths of Our Native Tongues

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Come August of every year, publications such as ours discuss Philippine languages in words that border on patronizing: we must take care of them, enrich them, protect them. There’s nothing wrong with this. As a nation of many tongues, gathering together to discuss our languages help us decipher the steps we can take in safeguarding our languages. And there are a lot — both in the individual and institutional levels.

Languages are not a mere collection of words, sounds, and grammatical rules. They are a means for important knowledge to flow from one person to another, from one generation to the next. They serve as vessels for history and culture, no matter how dilapidated they may have become due to years of colonization and industrialization.

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Truthfully, we wish we didn’t have to do any of this. We wish we didn’t have to dedicate a month to shift focus on other languages. We wish the focus has always been there. But the current state of our languages is concerning, as they are dying one by one. Around one-third of the 180+ languages we have in the country are on the brink of extinction. At least 3 are already considered dead. And even major languages such as Pangasinan, Bikol, and Kapampangan have been reportedly diminishing in use.

There are theories as to why this happened. Some languages could be declining in use because of migration of its speakers to Metro Manila where Filipino and English are more widely spoken. Speakers of other languages are then forced to temper their native tongue in order to adapt with the norm, and unleash their multilingual prowess only when calling their relatives and friends in the province, or talking to their kababayan nearby.

Institutions such as the media and our own education system also play a large role in shaping our languages. Through these, Filipino and English are propagated. Television shows of wide circulation often feature Tagalog-speaking characters at the center while promdi characters are molded as caricatures and comedic relief. Though there are regional news programs, important current events such as Congressional hearings, expert interviews, and court proceedings are conducted in English and Filipino. In schools, these two languages are likewise enforced. There are high schools who even go as far as punishing students for speaking other native languages. This punitive approach to language instills a weird sense of pride in those fluent in English and shame in those who are not. And these are hard to shake off.

Native languages are relegated to a lower classification, even by thought leaders who should know better. They are reserved as languages used only at home, in the streets, among a group of friends, and in community churches. They are referred to as dialects which, to an unknowing mind, may sound harmless but are in fact a form of linguistic degradation that inadvertently degrades its speakers. The consequences of which seep through on a personal level, like when a Bisaya speaks Filipino with a thick accent and becomes the butt of all jokes. This may be a form of casual aggression, but it’s an agression nonetheless, and it is one that can escalate to further discrimination in more formal settings like schools and the workplace. The Philippines is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world yet, ironically, many (especially Manilenos) find it shameful when one speaks with a regional accent, regardless of the fact that knowing more languages means having a bigger intellectual arsenal.

Negrito languages, perhaps the oldest languages in the archipelago, became endangered through a mix of all these factors. They may have arrived thousands of years prior to the Austronesians (our ancestors who brought the majority of living Philippine languages), yet Negritos only account for 0.05% of the country’s population in the early 2000s. As their population declines, so do their languages. In a study by Summer Institute of Linguistics, 32 Negrito languages have been categorized as endangered and some no longer have living speakers.

These theories, however, did not arise from nowhere. There must be historical and political pretext that led to the problem our linguistic fabric is facing. And these problems, in all likelihood, are not all there is, but are simply the surface of a far deeper well of conflicts that intersect with education, land ownership, political disputes, and cultural preservation. Like we said, language is just a vessel, and that vessel houses many things, issues among them.

In order to find out more, we spoke with two brilliant thinkers, historian Kristoffer Pasion and Asst. Prof. Jem Javier, a linguist from the University of the Philippines, to get their two cents on our train of thought.

A slightly edited transcript of our interviews and e-mail exchanges follow.

COMMONER:

The proclamation of a national language happened under Manuel Quezon who wanted to establish a national identity. Why were the leaders then so bent on doing this?

Kristoffer Pasion (KP):

In 1935, when the Commonwealth of the Philippines was inaugurated, Filipinos were given complete control of domestic affairs, while the defense and foreign policy of the country was still held by the Americans. The Commonwealth was a 10-year transitional government, lasting from 1935 to 1946 (if the Japanese occupation did not interrupt it from 1941–1945). The transitional government was scheduled to end in 1946, upon the independence of the Philippines from the United States. So during this critical transition, Filipino leaders, especially Quezon, felt the burden to pioneer a distinct identity that could be differentiated from those of the Americans. This is because, from the time of the American occupation in 1899 onwards, the American influence was so strong that almost everyone in the Philippines spoke American English, and were basically well-versed in American culture. Indeed, the Filipino nationalist sentiments were still there, but these sentiments were largely delivered and disseminated by that generation of Filipinos who spoke Spanish.

Meanwhile, reflected in the Philippine literature produced in the Commonwealth years was the assertion of a need for a distinct national identity to complement and, perhaps, strengthen the nation in time for independence in 1946. Central to this national identity for the people at the time was language. Quezon often complained — explicitly mentioned in his speeches — how he would be disappointed that, when speaking in different parts of the country, he had to resort to speaking in English to be understood (when English was a foreign language). He longed for a national language based on a local language. Of course, issues of equal representation, even in languages, were superficially appreciated at the time. The time limit was 10 years, and a lot of things — at least from the perspective of the Filipino leaders at the time — had to be done, since these policies would be foundational for the future independent Philippines.

Jem Javier (JJ):

Ang una mong question ay ‘bakit kailangan ng national language?’ Sa US, wala naman silang national language now. Pero sa Pilipinas, along with other South-East Asian countries na naka-experience ng colonialism, there was the need for them to assert their sovereignty and independence. One of the symbols of their independence and sovereignty ay national symbols, which includes national language

COMMONER:

Among the 180+ languages we have, why did they choose Tagalog as base language?

KP:

There are multiple factors. For example, they had this notion of the nation-state concept from Europe wherein everything is centralized [in a capital]. All the powers in the country emanate from that colonial capital. If you’re near the center of power, you have access: access to information, to goods and to services. The established colonial capital [back then] was in Intramuros, Manila, which was in the Tagalog area. So the centralized pull of the nation-state goes to Manila. But when you get the language of that area that is very privileged, you get a certain status that normally other ethnic groups with other languages would not have.

Of course all decisions made from the top-down are political. It was the same then as it is the same now. When it came to representation, the Surian ng Wikang Pambansa, instituted by the Commonwealth’s National Assembly (unicameral congress), to survey and study the languages and choose a base language on which to create a national language, was well-represented. 7 commissioner-linguists formed the Surian — Jaime De Veyra for the Samar-Leyte Bisaya, Santiago Fonacier for Ilocano, Filemon Sotto for Cebuano Bisaya, Felix Salas for Panay Bisaya (Hiligaynon), Hadji Butu (Moro, presumably Tausug language), and Cecilio Lopez for Tagalog. It took the Surian more than a year for them to come up with the conclusion that Tagalog should be the base language. The reasons forwarded were:

“…that among the Philippine languages, the Tagalog is the one that most nearly fulfills the requirements of Commonwealth Act №184.. this conclusion represents not only the conviction of the members of the Institute but also the opinion of Filipino scholars and patriots of divergent origin and varied education and tendencies who are unanimously in favor of the selection of Tagalog as the basis of the national language as it has been found to be used and accepted by the greatest number of Filipinos not to mention the categorical views expressed by local newspapers, publications, and individual writers…”

COMMONER:

So how did this affect us as a country?

JJ:

Usually kapag mina-mandate na ‘yung isang language as a national language, mayroong mga corollary na negative effects. P’wedeng makita natin ‘yung negative effect doon sa acceptance ng mismong stakeholders. Kumbaga, state-sponsored ‘yung pag-elevate or yung pag-promote doon sa isang language. So pa’no yung mga minority? Kasi kapag may mas pinapaboran na language, apektado ang resources, ang learning, at pag-gawa ng publication at literature.

At ang pinakaimportante: ‘yung inclusive na participation in national decision-making process. Matingkad na matingkad na halimbawa ay sa mga impeachment proceedings. O yung mga senate hearings na purely in English ‘yung pagsasalita. Maraming mga Pilipino na hindi marunong ng English. Even ‘yung jargon ng court proceedings! So hindi nila masyadong nage-gets ‘yung nangyayari. That’s very important: national communication na inclusive.

On the other hand, paano naman kung walang national language? Anong language yung gagamitin mo para maging mas inclusive or mas marami ‘yung makakapagparticipate. So talagang lahat bina-balanse natin. Kung mayroon mang national language, at the same time, dapat meron ding equal opportunity for all. If not, for many. 180+ tayo eh.

KP:

A lot of inequalities and under-representation in the Philippine public square have had its roots from the inequalities produced by the centuries-old colonization of the country. From maltreatment of Filipino workers in the encomiendas, the forced labor of the polo y servicios under the Spanish rule, to the imposition of Catholic Christianity as state-religion in the Spanish empire, a large portion of the population in the Philippines, especially the indigenous were marginalized and set aside.

So even at the time of the creation of a national language, many of these inequalities and under-representational issues remained and were not surprising to have been reflected even in the decision of the Surian. While there was no doubt that the Surian ng Wikang Pambansa, upon choosing Tagalog as the base language for the national language, had the best of intentions, it only took them more than a year to come up with the decision, which, in my opinion, should have taken more time, at least to be spent in consultation with the peoples in the regions who would use it. Considering the inequalities and the privileged position of the Tagalog as compared to the other Philippine languages, I think the decision was rushed, and I think the decision should not have been made only by a single institute such as the Surian composed of academics but should have been voted on by the population in a plebiscite. The people are the ones who would speak the language in the vernacular anyway. They are entitled to vote on it and make their choice.

Up to now, while the national language, “Filipino,” has taken on a distinct characteristic from the Tagalog language of the Tagalog provinces in Luzon, incorporating indigenous words and orthography from different ethnolinguistic groups, Tagalog is still seen as the language of the privileged. In the perception of the users of the regional languages, Filipino is still another form of Tagalog.

COMMONER:

We’re already here: we already have a national language and it is a little too late to undo what we have done. But what can we do now?

KP:

In the case of the Philippines, we have around 180 plus languages all over the archipelago. Languages carry with them certain depths of realities unique to the communities that experience and espouse them. Cultural values applied in the context of the practices of these communities are often encapsulated in simple word expressions, in gestures, in how these words were uttered and the context where they were uttered. Language is central to this. And when a language is forgotten, when a language ceases to be written and spoken — when it ceases to exist — all these cultural values reflected and kept in the words used in that language, will also cease to exist.

A particular language has its own concepts and realities wherein the language flourishes. So imagine the loss that we have as a nation of many peoples if we prioritize just one language in expense of the others. That’s very unfortunate because we have a lot of cultural values out there we don’t know. The national language already happened — we cannot do anything about it. But what we can do is make it more representative of the peoples who speak it. Whenever I mentioned “Peoples” I always emphasize on the S. We are not a monolithic group of people. We are made up of many peoples from the Cordilleras to the Moros and the Lumads — we are very diverse. Different cultures, different languages. So imagine the contribution that would enrich our concept of nation if all peoples in the archipelago are included in our conversational public square. I don’t know if Filipino as a national language that we speak in its present form in the media is enough to pursue that.

JJ:

Syempre ‘yung pinaka romantic na perspective d’yan yung “Language is the soul of the community and the nation”. ‘Pag sinabi na nawala yung language, wala ka ng soul. But in a more practical perspective, ‘yung loss ng language would equal to the loss of the knowledge system of that community that speaks it. Whenever linguists would document certain languages from a community, especially those communities that were not heavily influenced by outside cultures, makikita natin na very encyclopedic pa rin ‘yung knowledge nila of their own surroundings. For example, yung mga Mangyan group, may sarili silang writing system, sariling categorization ng colors. And then merong mga iba na mas malalim ang understanding sa mga flora and fauna nila sa paligid. Without their language, may mga mamimiss out tayo na kaalaman mula sakanila. So ‘yung mga ganung klaseng kaalaman or information could disappear also with the disappearance of language.

KP:

When people have their own local languages and they insist on expressing it, they are insisting on what matters to them, what their values are, who they are, the essence of where they originated, the places where they are born. That insistence is part of being human.

For those people who have the benefit of having these cultures, they could code switch any time they want. So, be proud of who you are, don’t be ashamed. Don’t let the ruling privilege language to dictate on you. To promote your language, you can write down your own language via your diary, blog about it, video blog about it, use it in songs, use it in poetry.

It boils down to a pursuit of understanding and mutual respect — that each language, each person that speaks his/her own language has value. Each language has immense cultural value, as an integral part of an individual’s identity. I think realizing that and pushing for more representation and inclusion would make a lot of our problems in the country solvable.

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