Word(s) of a nation

LANGUAGE IS seen as a unifying factor, particularly for people who share a common identity. This unifying quality is celebrated in the country’s Buwan ng Wika theme for the year, “Filipino: Wika ng Pambansang Kaunlaran,” which emphasizes language as an instrument of national development.

The official selection of a lingua franca or a widely spoken language for the country underwent many changes, as shown in the previous versions of the national constitution. A year after the declaration of national independence, Spanish was recognized as a compulsory language in the 1899 Malolos Constitution and Filipino languages were left untouched. During the American regime, English became the second foreign language to be recognized as an official language.

It was during the reign of President Manuel Quezon that Tagalog was approved as the first official and national language in 1936. Since then, Tagalog has become the foundation of the Filipino we know today. Spanish was later demoted as an optional and voluntary language alongside Arabic in the 1987 Constitution. Meanwhile, English has been reinstated as “second” to Filipino.

But the Filipino language is not without its critics and obstacles. Until now, the fight of advocates for the Filipino language continues as they petition to retain Filipino subjects in the General Education curriculum designed for the Kindergarten to Grade 12 (K-12) Basic Education Program. Meanwhile, the debate is far from over on the exclusivity of Filipino in its Tagalog roots and relevance to the whole population.

Caught up in its polarizing images of nationalism, Filipino as a national language struggles to unite a population not only divided by waters and mountains but also by cultural standpoints.

Room for regionalism

In 1937, the Institute of National Language (INL) chose Tagalog as the most viable choice for the official language, citing its enrichment in literary tradition and wide usage from their research findings. The now-defunct INL was a pioneer government agency tasked to initiate development of the Philippine language.

Although Filipino remains a Tagalog-based language, the archipelago is home to a hodge-podge of regional languages. Ilocano, Kapampangan, and Bicolano rule the rest of Luzon. Cebuano, Waray-Waray, and Hiligaynon dominate the Visayas and some parts of Mindanao. Chavacano and Tausug reign over the southernmost islands.

Patricio Abinales, PhD, an Asian Studies professor with a specialty in Philippine Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, is skeptical and opposing of the imposition of Tagalog as the basis for the national language.

“The constitutional provision that requires Tagalog to be the national language does not always lead to the wholesale adoption in non-Tagalog areas of our country,” he explains.

A native of Ozamiz City in northern Mindanao, Abinales grew up learning Bisaya and English. However, his ability to write in Bisaya was hampered due to a lack of formal training of the language as a young student. As an alternative to the sole basis of Tagalog for the national language, he advocates for “allowing a multiplicity of Philippine languages to continue growing.”

“Today’s language policy remains biased against the regional languages,” Abinales adds. “The government makes promises that it will include non-Tagalog words into the evolving [national language] but this will work in the long run if resources are extended to these other languages.”

English, an enemy?

Filipino has been mandated to share its throne as the national language with English. However, their relationship seems to go far beyond the symbiosis the constitution envisioned it to be.

“English is the language of the power domains,” says Wika ng Agham at Kultura Inc. President and Palanca Hall of Famer Isagani Cruz. “This is the way linguists describe its role in Philippine society.”

In the government, President Corazon Aquino’s Executive Order 335 tried to further the use of Filipino in official transactions and communications in all government. However, most legal documents continue to be written in English. There are legal documents in Filipino, such as certain affidavits and memoranda, but they remain to be rare cases.

In the media, on the other hand, Filipino continues to dominate, particularly on major television networks. However, the English language has started getting mass appeal, especially on the Internet. Online counterparts of major news providers on television such as ABS-CBN, GMA, and TV5 have gradually segued into English. Filipino has been left to the use of online tabloid sites.

In education, English as a medium of instruction was introduced by the Schurman Commission during the American colonization. It has never been remotely toppled since. Even the Bilingual Language Policy, which was introduced in 1974 to attain a balanced national competence in English and Filipino, has not changed the dominance of English in the field of education.

Even further, Filipino language education came close to being expelled from the Philippine collegiate curriculum by the Commission on Higher Education (CHED).

In the Memorandum No. 20 s2013, CHED proposed to remove all of the required nine units of Filipino subjects for college students. They would, instead, be relegated to the final academic years of the K-12 curriculum as core courses.

Officials and members of organizations such as the National Commission for the Culture and the Arts, Pambansang Samahan sa Linggwistika at Literaturang Filipino, Inc., Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, and some 300 teachers from 50 colleges and universities protested by pointing out the memorandum’s unconstitutionality.

The simultaneous petitions eventually elicited a Temporary Restraining Order from the Supreme Court that kept Filipino as a medium of instruction alongside English. This, however, did not seem to remedy the imbalance between the two.

In her article published by the Language Institute of Japan, California-based English teacher Doray Espinosa-Kahny said that the efforts for the shift between English and Filipino “ended in confusion and frustration.”

“The best lesson we can learn from that experience is that language grows,” she says. “…It cannot be transplanted and expected to blossom quickly by a mere presidential decree.”

Oplan Salita

As Filipino cocoons itself in metamorphosis, the common tongue continues to adapt to modern times and coevolve with its cousin languages and the English language.

For Abinales, the best scenario in the country would be a more inclusive language growth by allocating government support for the different local languages. He cited basic languages training and writing literature as stepping-stones.

“At a certain point, when all the languages are more confident of the wealth they have accumulated and their ‘local’ popularity, then the experts can sit down and figure out how to go about crafting the national language,” he says.

For  Cruz, the simplest solution tends to be the most overlooked and possibly even the best one, if a country wishes to empower their language or languages.

“Just speak it,” he says, referring to the Filipino language.

Cruz explains that “languages are bigger than human beings” and should be let alone. He believes that the decision of using the language alone is enough to empower it.

“[It is] useless to do language planning and funding,” Cruz said. “Languages live or die by themselves. Unless a language is spoken, it dies. If those who know Filipino do not use it, it will die.”

Author’s note: This article was published in The GUIDON August issue year 2015 written with John Carlo Beltran