Using Filipino Languages in Decolonizing the Filipino Identity

Every year, Filipinos celebrate the Buwan ng Wikang Pambansa or National Language Month in August, as proclaimed by former President Fidel Ramos in 1997. This year, the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (KWF) takes part in the 2021 Quincentennial Commemorations of the Philippines (QCP), commemorating 500 years of the country’s momentous events, by leading the celebration with the theme Filipino at mga Katutubong Wika sa Dekolonisasyon ng Pag-iisip ng mga Pilipino.

Section 3 of Executive Order No. 103, issued by the President of the Philippines last January 28, 2020, explicitly states that “The 2021 QCP is a historical event that seeks to reinvigorate the sense of nationalism of every Filipino through the commemoration of our ancestors’ heroism, humanity and significant contribution to the first circumnavigation of the world.” Thus, all government initiatives related to the 2021 QCP must be Filipino-centric to emphasize the Filipino identity and the values of unity, magnanimity, and sovereignty; multidisciplinary to encourage historical understanding, research, and discussion; and communicative and transformative to further historical education among Filipinos through traditional and new media. Echoing such principles, the KWF will participate in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) International Decade of Indigenous Languages (IDIL 2022-2032) as they continue to champion the documentation and general use of native languages.

Essence of Decolonization

Jose Rizal, a national hero and advocate of the Filipino language during the Spanish period, once wrote, “He who does not know how to look back at where he came from will never get to his destination.” Throughout the millennia, Filipinos have veered away from true Filipino identity, free from colonial influences. Filipinos have succumbed to discriminating and stereotyping their fellow countrymen, belittling and mocking those who speak English with their thick Filipino accents and those who do not speak the language at all. Many are ingrained with the mentality that those with inferior English language skills are only fitted for domestic housework, such as maids and housekeepers. Consequently, this mindset has led to the notion that Filipinos fluent in English are wittier and more intelligent than others. This year’s Buwan ng Wikang Pambansa theme mainly addresses these issues, stressing the importance of regaining the Filipino identity through decolonization and the Filipino native languages.

From the prefix “De-,” meaning to remove or separate from, we Filipinos must free ourselves from the effects of the colonization. Decolonization also highlights that education and various art forms throughout the country deserve the same respect, acknowledgment, and patronage as popular culture and mainstream media. It is also essential that various forms of education be translated into the Filipino and native languages and dialects to further national recognition. Through this, people nationwide will gain equal opportunities to access education and participate in all sorts of activities for inclusivity and improve themselves and their communities.

KWF and UNESCO

The UNESCO IDIL 2022-2032 is anchored in the Los Pinos Declaration. This Declaration calls for action as it emphasizes the rights of indigenous communities toward freedom of expression, gaining access to education, and participation in the community’s activities with the use of their native languages as the main tool for language preservation. In addition, it highlights the relevance of native languages to social cohesion, cultural traditions and rights, health, justice, and sustainable development. Moreover, it points to digital technology as a potential means to use and preserve these languages. Other countries have developed ways of enriching national and indigenous languages through projects such as the Language Nest and Master-Apprentice Language Learning Program (MALLP).

Language Nest focuses on teaching children their mother tongue from birth to five years old. The program is not necessarily a daycare or preschool but an opportunity to immerse young children in their first nation’s language. Specifically, it creates and provides a safe, homelike environment to interact with fluent language speakers naturally. As such, it is considered one of the most effective ways of preserving and nurturing languages. Various organizations use it with a common goal in different countries, such as Canada, New Zealand, Alaska, and Hawaii.

In contrast, the MALLP is a training program to help a language learner work with elderly language speakers. It was developed by Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival (AICLS) because Native Californians were no longer learning their heritage language at home as children. All the native speakers of California languages are now elderly, and their languages disappear with them when they pass away. Fortunately, many members of the indigenous communities want to learn their language and keep it from dying. Hence, the program poses a possible solution. According to them, “You can’t learn a language just overnight. It takes years and many hours every week during those years. MAP is a program that can get you started through intensive one-on-one teaching and learning.”

Even before the Declaration, the KWF, as the official regulating body for Philippine languages, has been answering the call to decolonization through language use. The KWF has launched various programs, such as an adaptation of the Learning Nest and MALLP in 2017 and 2018, the International Conference on Language Endangerment and Seminar-Workshop on Digital Archiving in 2018, and the International Congress on Endangered Languages in 2019.

In 2018, the Bahay-Wika (Language Nest) was launched in the indigenous community of the Ayta Magbukun in Bangkal, Abucay, Bataan. This project serves as the First Philippine model of a language immersion program in the ancestral domain of the Ayta Magbukun. For 5 hours a day, 5 days a week, 3 teachers and 12 elders engage with children aged 2–4 years as part of their early development for 2 years. Subsequently, the MALLP was launched in the same community where three elders taught their language to six apprentices three hours a day, five days a week, for two years.

These programs aimed to slow down the process of language loss, if not to halt it; debase the negative attitude toward the language and ethnic groups; raise people’s awareness for appreciation and respect for linguistic and ethnic heritage; and foster people’s sense of pride, self-esteem, identity, and ethnicity. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the KWF managed to turn the Bahay-Wika program into a home-based language nest starting 2020 to continue children’s learning while adapting to the new normal.

Frédéric Vacheron, the UNESCO representative in Mexico, stated that “It is important to take care of these indigenous communities to prevent the continuous extinction of about 40% of more than 7,000 languages in the world based on the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.” Moreover, according to Thomas N. Headland (2003):

“There are 6,089 languages spoken in the world. Half of these have less than 6,000 speakers each; a quarter (28%) have less than 1,000 speakers; 500 languages have more than 100 speakers; and 200 languages have less than 10 speakers. Conservative estimates are that the world’s languages are currently dying at the rate of at least two languages each month, meaning about one-third of today’s languages will disappear in the 21st century. Most specialists argue that at least half will die in the next 100 years.”

Thus, we must work together to develop and enforce more programs to protect indigenous communities that carry our cultural heritage, which now lies on the verge of extinction. Who would we be if they are lost?

Conclusion

 As we work together in preserving our national and indigenous languages through various forms of education, art, and literature, we also help each other understand our collective identity; thus, progressing as a nation by leaps and bounds. It will take years to unshackle and distance our identity from our colonized mentalities, but every step taken is another step closer toward realizing who we are as Filipinos.

References

Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival. (2021). Master Apprentice Program (MAP). https://aicls.org/programs/https-aicls-org-wp-content-uploads-2020-01-aicls-master-apprentice-program-invoice-2020-pdf/

Casanova, P. (2021). Mensahe: Buwan ng wikang pambansa 2021. Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino. https://kwf.gov.ph/mensahe-buwan-ng-wikang-pambansa-2021/

Delima, P. (2018). “Bahay-wika” for Ayta Magbukun: The case of the Philippines [PowerPoint slides]. Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino. https://kwf.gov.ph/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Bahay-Wika-for-Ayta-Magbukun-The-Case-of-the-Philippines_Purificacion-Delima.pdf

Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino. (2021). Filipino at mga katutubong wika sa dekolonisasyon ng pag-iisip ng mga Pilipino. https://kwf.gov.ph/filipino-at-mga-katutubong-wika-sa-dekolonisasyon-ng-pag-iisip-ng-mga-pilipino/

Reconstituting and Strengthening the National Quincentennial Committee, and Amending Executive Order No. 55 (S. 2018) for the Purpose, Exec. Ord. No. 103. O.G. 4 (January 28, 2021) (Phil.). https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/downloads/2020/01jan/20200128-EO-103-RRD.pdf

Teves, C. (2021). KWF to boost Indigenous languages documentation. Philippine News Agency. https://www.pna.gov.ph/articles/1130391

United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). (2020). Upcoming decade of languages (2022–2032) to focus on indigenous language users’ human rights. https://en.unesco.org/news/upcoming-decade-indigenous-languages-2022-2032-focus-indigenous-language-users-human-rights