By Jorge Mojarro

On the Philippines’ diversity of languages

Posted on July 31, 2015

THE PHILIPPINES is one of the most linguistically diverse nations in the world. According to Ethnologue, a catalogue of world languages updated yearly, there are 171 living languages in the archipelago.

Many Filipinos wrongly tend to call “dialect” any language which is not widely spoken throughout the archipelago, like Bicolano, Chavacano, or Waray. This is a pejorative distinction that has no basis from a linguistic point of view. As the eminent linguist  Max Weinreich said: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy,” meaning clearly, that dialects are languages without political support.

Among the archipelago’s 171 languages, 61 have less than 10,000 speakers, and 30 are spoken by the Aetas, Itas, Agtas, and Negritos.

It is not a coincidence that the most discriminated indigenous people in the archipelago speak in languages that are the most endangered, because a long history of abuses has reduced them to indigency, semi-slavery, and even alcoholism, as reported by Danilo B. Galang in Among the Agta of North Sierra Madre (Anvil, 2006) and other scholars.

Globalization tends shallowly toward uniformity, and language is mainly seen in the Philippines as a useful instrument. The consequence is that many parents do not talk to their children in their ancestral mother tongue, especially in the provinces. Gaddan is being replaced by Ilocano, for example, while Tagalog is replacing the Mangyan languages in northern Mindoro. A language is not endangered when it has a few thousands speakers, but when parents stop using it when they communicate with their children at home. A linguistic gap occurs and the cultural knowledge that the language carries may be threatened, too.

According to professor David Crystal in his book Language Death (2000), “When language transmission breaks down, through language death, there is a serious loss of inherited knowledge.” For instance, Filipinos cannot access the original sources of their history before 1898 because those are mostly written in Spanish, and as a consequence the Philippines is, I suspect, the only country in the world whose people have to read the national novel through translations.

That may explain why Filipinos tend to have very vague ideas about the pre-Hispanic and Spanish colonial period and not a few misconceptions and established prejudices, as already pointed out by scholars like Fernando Zialcita or critics like Nick Joaquin.

The situation is even more worrisome when dealing with languages without any written tradition. Filipinos might learn Spanish if they feel like and access a vast collection of good literature. But most of these endangered Filipino languages were not written ever: once the last speaker dies, there will not be a come back. Mr. Crystal added that “as each language dies, another precious source of data -- for philosophers, scientist, anthropologists, folklorists, historians, psychologists, linguists, writers -- is lost.”

I believe language loss in the Philippines is not something desirable.

Some people -- especially politicians -- think that “sharing a single language is a guarantor of mutual understanding and peace, a world new of alliances and global solidarity,” to quote Mr. Crystal. This was partly the idea behind the creation of the linguistic concept called “Filipino” as the common language for the whole archipelago, a clumsy invention, I dare say, also sanctioned in the Constitution. Examples showing a unifying language guaranteeing the opposite of peace are thousands: we could mention a couple of civil wars, as in Yugoslavia and Spain.

Not a few have also held that the adoption of English would be better for business. Against this idea the examples of Japan, South Korea, Denmark, or Finland are quite eloquent -- countries that did not surrender to the global language and yet succeeded. Moreover, it happens that economic success is what leads a nation’s language to prosper and gain prestige. Who really wanted to learn Korean 20 years ago? Icelandic is a national language spoken by merely 350,000 people -- even less than the population of Malabon. Yet they take pride in the language in which ancient epic sagas were written centuries ago and there are few chances of finding a job there unless you learn their treasured language. What would really be revolutionary for Filipino children is the possibility of learning any subject in their mother tongue, skipping the gap of learning in a second language. A study carried by UNESCO demonstrated that this language in the community level should be used in schools to learn any subject, at least during primary school. Wouldn’t it be amazing to read Dostoievski in Waray, Flaubert in Tausug, or Rizal in Ibanag? It would reinforce undoubtedly those languages and encourage their use in many situations and disciplines. The University of Naga is carrying out such a project with Bicolano: a praiseworthy enterprise.

There are a lot of prejudices regarding languages and language use.

Maybe the most common one is the idea that indigenous languages are primitive. But according to Mr. Crystal, “There is not such a thing as a primitive language: every language is capable of great beauty and power of expression.” As with the experience of almost any “established” language, there will be as much “borrowing” needed in order to improve the language and make it adaptable. Words like “table,” “government,” “priest,” “bay,” or “simple” come from French.

Few people know that actually 45% of English words alone come from French. And nobody comes to say that English is a “bastardized” language: the essence of the language is not altered but invigorated.

In the same way, there is no connection between the complexity of the language and the intelligence of the speakers or the culture: both are language myths. If that were the truth, the Eskimo would have the highest IQ, thanks to the complexity of their languages. At the same time, speaking English is not a sign of intelligence, as anyone who has heard the ideas, comments, and proposals of some politicians and celebrities would attest.

Languages also “promote community cohesion and vitality, foster pride in a culture, and give a sense of self-confidence to a community,” Mr. Crystal wrote. Local languages are a source of pride, as I have observed especially while wandering in Ifugao and Kalinga.

Cordillera is one of the few places where I have been told: “You have to learn the greetings in our language. It is a matter of respect.” Being proud of their identity is very helpful for a society in order to prosper and improve. English should be reserved for situations in which the speakers do not share the same language.

Languages are cultural treasures too. Linguists have collected several definitions in order to highlight the importance of languages in the cultural order. Professor Michael Krauss, who has studied the endangered languages of Alaska, said, “Any language is a supreme achievement of a uniquely human collective genius.” Professor Vyacheslav Vsevolodovich Ivanov said, “Each language constitutes a certain model of the universe.” Or, as expressed in a more idealistic manner by the American scholar Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Every language is a temple, in which the soul of those who speak it is enshrined.” Being a polyglot like Jose Rizal is a great luck: speaking different languages clearly increases our knowledge of the world. Each language is, in fact, another view of the world, or, citing again, Mr. Crystal: “Each language reflects a unique encapsulation and interpretation of human existence.”

Unfortunately, not too much is being made to save this rich heritage in the Philippines. In many cases, an active program of language revitalization would provide new life to many languages. There must be a documentation and recording of the endangered languages before they vanish forever.

Not a few scholars doing field work continue to report the phenomenon of this tendency by some Filipinos to avoid belonging to a certain local community, as if this were a source of shame or discrimination. In one provincial capital that will charitably be left unmentioned, there were residents who were polled, disowning practically the language of their community and claiming to speak only Tagalog. And yet, the more rare a language, the more unique it is, and this is how everybody should regard the languages.

In the European Union, in Taiwan (allegedly the birth place of Austronesian languages), and in Australia, steps have been made to preserve their respective language heritage -- especially after a long history of discrimination against the Aboriginals, in the case of Australia. The Philippines, being one of the richest countries in terms of human biodiversity, does not even have a decent museum of ethnology where Filipinos could learn about the many cultures in the archipelago and children, in particular, could learn diversity and tolerance.

Filipinos cannot expect their government to develop policies to encourage the preservation of this precious but vanishing linguistic heritage, since they, too, may regard heterogeneity as a danger to the country’s unity, when on the contrary it works just the opposite: heterogeneity, from the beginning, has always been the core of the real prismatic identity of the Philippines. Unless something is done, the country may lose much of this heritage in less than a century. It would be like half the world gone in one country, and that would be a silent cultural catastrophe. Keeping alive this intangible treasure depends on the collective will of those who inherit it.

Globalization tends shallowly toward uniformity, and language is mainly seen in the Philippines as a useful instrument. The consequence is that many parents do not talk to their children in their ancestral mother tongue, especially in the provinces.

JORGE MOJARRO is a Spanish scholar and a doctoral candidate doing research on Filipiniana. He has been living in the Philippines since 2009, going around the country, walking Manila’s streets and taking the train. He also writes for interaksyon.com