reThinking Soriano

James Soriano’s iThink op-ed essay in the Manila Bulletin on August 26 caused such an uproar among Filipinos that the paper pulled the piece off their website before the sun set on the day of its printing, and certainly before I could write an after-work letter to the editor. Soriano was accused of arrogant elitism by many, while others praised him for bravely pointing out the linguistic schizophrenia he sees in the Philippine educational system, or even, in the very culture of the upper classes. At the same time, other readers suggested that he was actually being sarcastic, making fun of himself, rather than belittling the Filipino language.

Was he insulting those who speak Filipino by calling it the “language of the streets”? Or was he describing his own journey-in-progress out of elitism by speaking as he had thought at the time?  Is he saying the Filipino language is inferior, or that those who do not use it in supposedly high-status settings are themselves the problem? We may never know, short of sitting down with James over coffee to ask what he really meant to say in those few lines. I know that it is next to impossible to fully explain oneself in such a limited space. He certainly wrote some harsh words which might be taken as insulting, but I won’t judge him here.

And I cannot speak as a Filipino to say how a nationmate might be affected by his statements.

Because you see, I’m not Filipino—I’m an American. But while I’m still an outsider in many ways, I’m not just a casual visitor to this country. My wife and I came here from California over 30 years ago in our mid-20s (you can do the math). Out of respect for this nation and a desire to develop relationships and to function at a deeper, more empathetic level, we spent our first year in full-time Tagalog study. We made this country our home and raised our children here. Now, our kids are grown and back in the US, and we’re still working here. We love this country and its people, while being frustrated by some of the same things that our Filipino friends complain about (but we keep our thoughts to ourselves). After that first year, we moved to Palawan and have spent most of our time down here working with a tribal minority group in the southern part of the island, trying to help them deal with the many challenges they face after we became fluent in their language.

So our experience here puts us in a unique position. We have friends in Makati and friends in the provincial towns. And we have friends who live in the rain forest. Some of our Filipino friends grew up without speaking Tagalog much, as did James Soriano. Others prefer Tagalog and are not comfortable in English. And some speak their native minority language and little else.

 

LANGUAGE AND IDENTITY

As I think about Soriano’s topic—Language and Identity—or more broadly, what it means to be Filipino, I would never presume to speak on behalf of Filipinos, or to say that I have all the answers. But what I can do, perhaps, is to add a few more questions to the mix, questions which do not seem to be considered by many, and to pose them from my somewhat unique perspective. What I will write here are not simply my own ideas. They are a synthesis of what I have heard many Filipinos say, in particular the ethnic minorities, those Filipinos whose voices are rarely heard above the din of national discourse.

Soriano’s short-lived article provoked discussion on a vital question, namely, how to build a national Filipino identity and pride. But the real question, which I would like to put on the table, is whether or not such a Filipino identity should—or even can—be built around a single common language. This is an important question, because if the answer is “yes,” of necessity the next question is “which language”? But if the answer is “no,” then another basis for national unity and identity must be found.

Some might say the question was settled years ago. The national language is Filipino. But is it really? Does it promote a sense of common heritage? Or is language still a cause of marginalization?

The Philippines is a nation of 7,107 islands, and according to the Ethnologue, 171 languages. Those are languages. It is a misnomer to call them “dialects,” as we often do, as though they are somehow less distinct or less significant. Each one is the heart language—the mother tongue—of a community of Filipinos. So in the face of that, which language should be the national language? Ordinarily, a common mother tongue would be the criteria, as in Japan or Germany. But in the Philippines, there is no one common heart language, and many Filipinos claim equal mother-tongue facility in two or more languages. Many say that the national language should be Filipino, and that in fact, this decision was made decades ago. Others argue that it should be English, because it is the language of technology and opportunity abroad, or even because it sidesteps the question of which Philippine language should be considered “the one.”

But in choosing a national language, the question must be asked: What are the criteria? If the decision is to be made solely on the number of speakers, Tagalog-based Filipino might win out, although its first-language status for large sectors of the population is questionable, and Cebuano, which runs a close second in number of speakers, should be considered as well. Most first-language Tagalog speakers are concentrated in Metro Manila and the surrounding provinces, so Tagalog-based Filipino cannot be considered “national” in terms of geographical area; its range as a first-language is actually rather limited. Its reach into most provinces is only due to the fact that it is a required subject in the nation’s schools. And to select a neutral, common language like English—for whatever reason—besides the fact that it is an imported language and does not stir a sense of national pride, leaves out all the Filipinos who don’t speak English, or who speak it only poorly. And there are many who fit this description.

So which language is it to be?

 

The situation is much more complicated than many Filipinos, particularly those living in Manila, realize. Language is a very emotional topic, as the reaction to Soriano’s essay quickly proved. Language is tied up with identity and heritage, and it even shapes how a person views the world. But nationwide, language is not at the heart of a national Filipino identity; language is connected with local identity.

 

LANGUAGE AND IDENTITY

The arguments sparked by Soriano’s comments centered for the most part around whether English or Filipino should be the national language, the common source of pride and identity. But that is looking at the issue through the wrong lens. No language is shared universally throughout the Philippines as a heart language, the language of depth and fluency, the language of identity. No single language—not Filipino or even English.

As I have traveled around this country, friends and acquaintances have told me while they are Filipino, Tagalog-based Filipino is not their language. It is something which they were required to learn in school. It is not a part of their sense of identity as a Filipino. It is not the language of their heart. It is not even the “language of the street,” to use Soriano’s inflammatory words. This is true of educated Filipinos from many provinces. But it is particularly the case for the ethnic minorities—the katutubo—with which I am most familiar.

No only is it important what language a person speaks, it makes a difference what name is used to refer to the language. The language spoken on the island of Cebu is called Cebuano. But speakers of that language who live elsewhere, for example in Bukidnon, call it Visayan, because, as they were quick to remind me, they are not from Cebu (Cebuanos).

Some might be ready to argue that Filipino is already the national language, learned in school by everyone nationwide. But the fact that it is “learned in school,” is actually part of the problem. For much of the nation, Filipino not a mother tongue learned in the home. And that’s not the only issue. I will go out on a limb here, as I know that there are other linguists who disagree with me. When you get right down to it, what we now call Filipino is nothing more than Tagalog with a new name given in a well-intentioned political move to create a national language. The few borrowed words do not really matter. It’s still Tagalog at heart. And a decision to call it “Filipino” does not make it any more of a national language for those who consider their mother tongue to be Cebuano or Waray-Waray or Batak. In fact, this is a sore spot for many Filipinos. It is too easy for those in Manila and other Tagalog-majority regions to forget this. The goal of creating a unified national identity around language has actually caused resentment and division. And that’s not hard to understand. Imagine the reaction in Bulacan or Taguig if Cebuano had been made the national language and renamed “Filipino” and was a required course in all the schools.

 

THE FORGOTTEN MINORITIES

No small number of minorities are far from fluent in Filipino and many do not speak any English at all  because of a historical lack of schools in their communities. But the problem is not simply a matter of the lack of educational opportunity. It’s a matter of identity.  There are Ibaloi and Kalanguya with master’s degrees, who are masterfully articulate in English, but while they were learned Tagalog in school, they consider it to be their fourth, and least-preferred language, the order being: mother tongue, Ilocano, English, with Tagalog in last place. If one of their parents happens to be from a neighboring minority group, Tagalog will be bumped to fifth place, making it even less “Filipino” for them.

But not all minorities have such a strong sense of self worth. Many will leave their language and culture behind when they go to school and learn the national language. Sometimes in the space of 30 years, one generation will lose their parents’ minority language and adopt a language of wider communication such as Cuyonon, only to see their children turn from Cuyonon and speak only Filipino after a few years in school. But sadly, I have seen that the reason they are so willing to lose their identity is that unless they change and give it up, they are treated as inferior and are not accepted as fully Filipino.

So the issue is not all about language. It is about feelings of superiority and inferiority. At the core is question of how to find acceptance.

 

LANGUAGE AS AN ISSUE OF ELITISM

First the Spanish and then the Americans brought language, religion and culture change to the Philippines. I will leave it to others to argue the relative benefits and detriments caused by those arrivals, as I would be totally out of line to comment on them. But I do know that there are those who feel a sense of oppression when those languages—first Spanish, and now English—are put forth as candidates for a national language. The valid desire is there to select a language which is indigenous to these islands. But the current challenge is how to promote even an indigenous language (whether Tagalog, “Filipino,” Cebuano or any other) without passing on a new form of colonialism. The requirement to change core identity is now handed down to the next level, to the smaller minority groups. How can the Philippines foster national unity and identity without implying that those minorities are somehow less Filipino if they cherish and retain their linguistic and cultural heritage? Must they be faced with the choice between educating their children and retaining their cultural identity? Is cultural and linguistic homogenization the only path to national unity and Filipino identity?

 

PRESERVING MOTHER TONGUES THROUGH EDUCATION

When the minorities are left alone and uneducated, they are marginalized and cannot prosper and advance. They are easily taken advantage of and lose their rights or the land. But often, when they are taught the national language and culture in school, they still face great loss—they lose themselves completely. It would be helpful to conduct the early grades of school in their mother tongue. Research has proven that this provides the best education, while helping students retain their heritage culture. But the implementation of mother language education (MLE) is not as easy as it might sound. In many cases, there are as many as five or six mother languages in a single barangay. How can teachers cope with that? And if there have been no schools in area, there will be no educated speakers of the local languages to be teachers in the first place, not to mention there will be no school materials for them. Idealism is not enough. MLE is a good idea, but it will require a huge commitment and coordinated effort before the country can see it happen and reap the benefits.

One the one hand, regional and linguistic separatism and factions harm the nation, and people cannot work together as one. The polar opposite might be to force a single national language and hope that in a few generations, the other languages fade away. But wiping out cultures and languages is not only unfair, it would be a great loss to the nation as a whole. In between these extremes lie all the challenges of implementing mother language education or some other program which would value diversity while at the same time providing education, and opportunity. The crying need is to foster a sense of national identity and pride without a collateral loss of local heritage or a false sense of shame, to become fully Filipino without ceasing to be Palawano or Manobo or Tboli.

 

THE RICHNESS OF THE PHILIPPINES

Different languages, cultures and religions—islands and provinces. Families. The multi-layered and rich diversity in the Philippines is everywhere. And to varying degrees, Filipinos are simultaneously united and divided by these distinctions. And as the population grows and moves about and intermarries, the overlap between each these makes for a very complex situation. But with diversity is a richness that must not be lost.

Historically, Filipino national identity has never really been based on a single common language. And to force any particular language on everyone is a risky business, with the possibility of resentment, the marginalization of minorities, or worse yet, their assimilation into a homogenized nation where the distinctions of heritage are lost. Such a loss would be tragic. And yet, there must be a common ground and an ability to communicate with one another.

For most of the country, national identity lies deeper than an artificially-imposed national language. Filipinos from different provinces can meet overseas and feel a strong sense of identity as Filipinos. But many of the minority groups right here within these shores feel isolated and left out. They are treated as something other, something less. They are not seen as equally Filipino but lacking education and opportunity, but are made to feel they must cease to be what the are in order to be accepted.

To sum up, I propose that at the heart of what it means to be Filipino lies not a common language, but a shared history and common goals—the hopes and dreams of this society to thrive and to live in peace.

So the question is not, “English or Filipino?” The question is how to live and prosper as one without leaving any group behind or setting them aside. How can they be brought along as equal in status and opportunity without stripping away their uniqueness.

As I said at the beginning, I don’t presume to claim that I have the answers. It is for the Filipino people—all of them—to decide their course. So it comes back to you. What do you think? What does it mean for each an every member of this nation to be Filipino and to succeed, and what will you do to make that happen?

 

Image credit: Tower of Babel, public domain

Bill Davis (2 Posts)

Bill Davis is a missionary translator, linguist and international language learning consultant, his most remote assignments being outer Mongolia, Papua New Guinea and Guinea, West Africa. He and his wife have lived and worked in the Philippines for over 30 years, mostly on Palawan. Their work has focused primarily on ethnic minorities. Fluent in Palawano and conversant in Tagalog, Bill is also a musician and a writer, and is currently working on his first full-length book, a novel set on Palawan, which contains international intrigue, cross-cultural and environmental issues. His cat's name is Beck.


Ideas Towards Transformative Action