In the Philippines, August is filled with festivities to celebrate the national language. You’ll see banners hung in schoolyards, special commercials aired in TV and radio stations, and people dressing up in Filipiñana and barong (national costumes for females and males). Schools, government offices, and other similar institutions organize activities ranging from speech and writing contests to poster-making competitions. Even restaurants and hotels join the celebration by decorating their lobbies with banderitas (small, colorful flags) and bayong (bag woven from palm leaves) and creating a special menu of Filipino dishes—all to commemorate the proclamation of Filipino as the national language of the country.
Ever since President Sergio Osmeña formalized the celebration of the Filipino language through Proclamation No. 35 in 1946, most activities conceptualized for this month-long celebration aim to promote the use of Filipino language to both locals and foreigners alike. However, as an archipelago with diverse people in terms of history and religion, this month-long celebration seems to gloss over the fact that there are other languages spoken in the Philippines. Not until 2019.
As response to UNESCO’s proclamation that 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages, Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (KWF) announced that the theme for this year’s Buwan ng Wika celebration is “Wikang Katutubo: Tungo sa Isang Bansang Filipino (Native Language: Toward Unity for the Filipino Country).” The theme aims to celebrate the indigenous languages in the Philippines and raise awareness among the Filipinos on the importance of multilingualism as a step towards a unified Filipino country.
One of the biggest threats of having every single person speak just one language is the risk of forgetting the rich heritage of a specific region. Language is intrinsic to the expression of culture: it’s a vessel for spreading and preserving customs, norms, beliefs, practices, and values of a community. Moreover, it serves an essential role in creating feelings of individual and shared identities. There’s a high link between language and humanity. When a community develops, their language also grows; when they migrate, their language spreads and when they discover new things, new words are invented. Wherever the people go, their language follows. Needless to say, when the people disappear, their language goes with them. The death of a language is also the death of the people’s culture and history. More than a celebration of the diversity of the Filipino race, recognizing the different indigenous Philippine languages is a cry for help to preserve the things these languages carry and we rarely hear in mainstream media—regional myths, history of the various provinces, the people’s shared beliefs.
According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, language affects our perception of the world. Sentence structure and word formation create a world different from someone who speaks a language with a different set of rules. Or, at the very least, it gives a different perspective of the world. Bringing awareness on the multilingual nature of our country opens the discourse of the relevance of recognizing the 120 to 170 languages spoken by Filipinos to the people themselves instead of limiting the conversation within the linguistic community. Knowing that other people see the world differently from us opens opportunities to explore it in different ways as every language is its own unique system of knowledge. Learning a new language is like seeing the world from a different set of eyes.
Understanding that people think differently from each other due to factors like status, background, history, and, language would help create a community that makes an effort in understanding the intentions of the other person’s words.
When there is a conflict between two people, a dialogue is the diplomatic way of solving it with the implicit understanding that they must operate on common grounds: just like lingua franca. When the people can communicate directly through their lingua franca, miscommunication is minimized. In the Philippines, while Filipino has been officially declared as the national language it’s not the lingua franca across the country. For instance, in Visayas, Cebuano is the lingua franca and Ilocano for the northern regions. Understanding and being aware of the various languages used helps facilitate a peaceful discourse between and among different conflicting groups for a more democratic and civil means of resolving conflict and peace building.
Inclusion and Rights
Having Filipino as the national language may have bridged the different regions and enabled a peaceful exchange of ideas, but fully embracing the fact that not everyone in the Philippines use Filipino as their first language will help Filipinos cross that bridge easier. Also, it would create an environment that doesn’t discriminate against the language minorities. Note that inclusiveness is not just about acknowledging; it also means finding concrete solutions to different issues relating to language.
The Philippines’ Department of Education (DepEd) have taken the first steps in creating a language- and social-inclusive school environment. In 2013, the Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MTB–MLE) was implemented in elementary and secondary schools. This education policy uses the learner’s first language or lingua franca as the medium of instruction, with the aim to accommodate learners who are not speakers of English or Filipino, or both. Learning, especially in early childhood, is most effective when the lessons are delivered in the language that the learners are most comfortable with.
This policy is a great step towards inclusive education, however this is just in the aspect of learning. There are other facets in the social sphere of Filipinos that remain unfriendly to those who do not speak the official language. Education is only one of the human rights that is hindered by linguistic exclusivity; public services like health services and administrative processes to private activities are also hindered. Some cannot apply for government services simply because the forms are in a language they don’t understand. Some are discouraged to go to school because the language used is foreign to them and sadly, there are quite a few who have been wrongly convicted either because they cannot tell their truths in the language that the court understands.
There public’s lack of knowledge on the diversity of languages in the Philippines have caused these kinds of problems and more. At the end of the day, we simply need to remember that language is the most powerful tool we humans have for language is not a barrier but an opportunity.