Why Our Native Languages Matter To Our Filipino Identity, As Told By A Proud Negrense
What makes a language, a language? Is it the number of speakers, the duration of its usage, the region or geographical location, or the established norms in the society which uses it? Growing up in a province where the majority of people speak Hiligaynon, I have always wondered if my medium of speech was a language or a dialect. I have always had this mindset, like many others, that a medium of speech was a dialect if only a few people spoke it.
Outside the little Hiligaynon bubble of my home province, people spoke Tagalog. So I thought Manila was a much better and more progressive place because of the greatness of the language spoken there. Meanwhile, I spoke Hiligaynon — a “dialect” — comparably less pervasive in the country’s capital.
Filipino and English remain to be the country’s official languages. Although largely based on Tagalog, Filipino was envisioned to be a language developed by incorporating the many other tongues the country has. After all, there’s always an 84% chance that someone from the Philippines can speak two or more languages. Yes, they are all languages. But the long debate of language versus dialect is still ongoing — no matter how much linguists insist that distinguishing the two is pointless. For the sake of it, let’s decipher what the confusion is all about.
Language is often believed to be “official” — written in literature, and widely understood, while a dialect carries a lower classification for being “informal,” regional, and devoid of literature. David Crystal, renowned author and linguistics professor, defines language as a “system of conventional spoken, manual (signed), or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, express themselves”. On the other hand, he defines dialect as a “variety of a language that signals where a person comes from.” Another popular definition of language is the one credited to celebrated linguist and Yiddishist Max Weinreich, wherein he attributes it to a “dialect with an army and a navy,” or simply put, a ‘glorified dialect’. This alone should be enough to end the comparison between the two. However, this debate has a deep historical background within it.
After a string of foreign colonizations infiltrating our way of life, the quest for a semblance of a national identity was stronger than ever, As such, a battlecry for a national language was strongly pursued by former president Manuel L. Quezon during the Commonwealth period. He formed a commission that would study and identify which languages could be used as the basis for our “wikang pambansa”. In an interview with ANC, linguistics professor Gary Devilles said that the committee was not merely made up of Tagalog speakers. Other Philippine languages were well represented, but choosing Tagalog as the basis of Filipino was considered strategic since, at the time, it was the most widely-used lingua franca in terms of literary production.
However, having a national language which aims to unite us as a nation is not enough to establish and strengthen our identity. In the search for unity, we must not forget an important characteristic that we have as a country: our diversity. This should be used and celebrated to its fullest extent. Because language is synonymous to culture, it would be absurd to replace a native language’s place in a region or community altogether since it has its own unique history and influence upon the people speaking it.
Think about the distinct oral traditions passed down by our ancestors. For sure, it was intended to be transferred to generations in its respective mother tongues. After all, native languages are part of an indigenous peoples’ defining fabric. Likewise, collectively, they determine the different rich facets of our make-up. If a lingua franca’s use is hindered, it’s not just a set of words that could wane and become nonexistent altogether — a significant part of our identity dies along with it too. The ties between culture and language are woven too deeply within each other that separating the two would be an impossible feat. For instance, when the usage of the Kapampangan language was uncharacteristically suppressed in classrooms, Kapampangan children below the age of 12 began to be only Tagalog-literate. What will happen to the next generation of its speakers then, when the young generation who’s supposed to be holding the torch can no longer identify with their roots?
In my case, I learned to speak Filipino through subjects in school and through telenovelas that my beloved grandmother used to watch. But for me, Filipino was just that — a subject to be aced, a language to be learned in order to understand the plot of something. Hiligaynon was, and still is, the language of my childhood, my identity, and it was a language that I thought was “inferior” in a Filipino-centric society. Although I was eventually taught that what I spoke was a language and not a dialect, the way that it was treated did not reassure me. For one, I did not grow up reading literature in Hiligaynon; what I had were books written in English and Tagalog. There were exactly two television shows that were aired in Hiligaynon, thanks to a broadcast network’s regional arm. Apart from that, there was nothing that made me feel that my language was celebrated or even appreciated.
When I first went to study in Manila, I was afraid of speaking Tagalog. I was afraid of not getting the right tone, accent, and nuances of speech. I didn’t want to sound “weird.” I didn’t want my naturally sweet and mellow Hiligaynon accent to bleed into Tagalog words. This was due to the fact that I grew up thinking that the language I spoke was for casual conversations and was not to be used in more formal scenarios, like the academe, offices, and especially in the “big city.” I was forced to use a weapon which I always had: English. I can express myself better in the language of colonizers, rather than what was supposed to be my own. In a debate that my class had in freshman year, I defended the use of English rather than Filipino because that was the language that gave me a sense of belonging in a foreign environment. It was the language that helped me communicate among my mostly Tagalog-speaking peers.
There was this particular instance when my classmates first asked me to speak in my native tongue, and I felt uncomfortable. The fascination in their faces, and their wonder and awe made me feel alienated. It was as if my language existed as a background noise in the capital of my own country. The country which valiantly pushed for unity through a national language apparently lacks understanding and appreciation for the other 180+ languages in its make-up. As time went by, I realized that having Hiligaynon as my first language is not a disadvantage. It is, in fact, an advantage. Having a mother tongue I could call my own reminded me that despite the hustle and bustle of Manila, I had a home to go back to. Speaking Hiligaynon reminded me of my family. To me, the language was more than a language. It meant quiet surroundings, sugarcane fields, the smoke coming from a sugar milling company, pure white uniforms, Sunday lunches, and a memorable childhood. It brought me tranquility and reminded me of who I am.
While having a national language is important in strengthening us as a nation, we must not stop using and celebrating our regional languages. The younger generation needs to be taught that, first and foremost, their mother tongue is important and appreciated. We must normalize having our native languages being used in places like the academe, the offices, and even the “big city” — not merely relegating its usage at home and in the streets. In doing so, we can truly make everyone feel that they are included and accepted in our motherland.
This article was written by our Negrense contributor, Carol Ortigas.