09:52 PM August 29th, 2013

By: Michael L. Tan, August 29th, 2013 09:52 PM

August is designated as National Language Month (Buwan ng Wikang Pambansa) because Aug. 19 is the birth anniversary of President Manuel Quezon, who first designated Tagalog as the basis for a national language, way back in 1937.

More than 70 years later, we continue to be linguistic schizophrenics, still debating on whether we should use Filipino or English (some schools even threatening expulsion for violators of “English-only” rules on campuses), and whether we spell the national language Filipino or Pilipino.

I don’t think anyone now denies the need for a national language but there is still resentment, mainly from Cebuano speakers, at “Tagalog imperialism.” Less discussed is the way Filipino, as a national language, has been slow to absorb words from languages other than Tagalog. The original intention, after all, of a national language was to bring in words from different languages in the Philippines.

In the last few years there has been still another twist to our language situation and this is the implementation of Mother Language-Based Multilingual Education, with the Department of Education requiring the use of an area’s mother language up to Grade 3 as the medium of instruction.

Many mother languages

The DepEd has designated 17 languages for now that qualify for Mother Language-Based Education. There are actually many more potential mother languages, the total number spoken in the Philippines running to 181, if we are to use the count of the “Ethnologue” of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). SIL started out as a missionary group sending out linguists to learn the languages of the world in order to translate the Bible. That mission remains but in the course of their work over several decades, SIL has become a recognized authority on the world’s languages.

“Ethnologue,” which has a print and electronic edition, is a standard reference now for people interested in languages.  The latest electronic edition was uploaded on the Internet a few months ago, with information on more than 7,000 languages of the world. For the Philippines, it lists 185 languages, of which four are extinct.

There is open access to, so I would encourage readers to visit. For starters, learn about the languages used in the Philippines. Rather than looking at linguistic diversity in the country as an obstacle to national unity, look at these languages as contributing to a richer national identity.

Every time I browse through “Ethnologue” I discover something new. I didn’t know for example that we have more than two million deaf people. Filipino Sign Language or FSL is listed as one of the 181 living languages in the Philippines.

Although my paternal roots are in Davao, I didn’t know  Davawenyo  qualified as a language, described as a “synthesis” of Filipino and Cebuano and other Visayan languages.  Or that there is a language called  Malaynon, spoken in Malay, Aklan.

Note these are languages in their own right, and not dialects.   Malaynon,  Davawenyo  are languages, just like Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocano. Dialects are variations on a language, for example, Tagalog’s dialects are listed in “Ethnologue” as Bataan, Batangas, Bulacan, Lubang, Manila, Marinduque, Puray, Tanay-Paete, Tayabas. I suspect that there are many more dialects waiting to be identified, just like new animal or plant species.

Language status

The latest “Ethnologue” listing does not just list languages and the number of speakers. What it does now is talk about the status of these languages, using 13 categories of an Expanded Graded Inter-generational Disruption Scale or EGIDS. I know it sounds almost like a scale to measure earthquakes and in some ways it is—linguistic seismic activity, that is. The scale goes from 0 or International, meaning the language is used globally, down to Extinct status.

The main point about EGIDS is to look at the way languages are developing. High on the scale would be languages that have written forms, that are moving toward standardization in pronunciation, grammar and other language attributes, and “modernization,” meaning the ability to translate to and from other languages and to be able to communicate on a wide range of topics that are part of contemporary society (e.g., computers).

Using this EGIDS, we find two languages in the Philippines classified as “national”: English and Tagalog (with 21.5 million speakers). The second category is “wider communications,” and includes Cebuano (15.8 million), Ilocano (6.9 million), Bikol (4.5 million), Hiligaynon (5.7 million), Waray (2.5 million), Pampangan (1.9 million), Pangasinan (1.1 million), Maguindanao (1.1 million), Tausug (1.06 million), and Masbateño (700,000). Note that most of the numbers of speakers that are cited come from the 2,000 national census. The 2010 census apparently did not collect data on language use.

I’ll skip the other categories and jump to the “threatened” and “nearly extinct” languages. These are mostly Agta languages, spoken by various Negrito groups whose younger members no longer speak their mother language. Not all the threatened languages are those of the Agta though. Included here is Bolinao.

The EGIDS categorization emphasizes how languages are transmitted, a particular language is seen as threatened if younger people no longer use it. When a language is spoken only by those who “are no longer of child-bearing age,” it means there will no longer be natural transmission of that language.

I did wonder about Maranao not being in the “wider communications” category and was surprised to find it had 776,000 speakers. I had always thought Maranao speakers outnumbered those of Tausug and Maguindanao, but I realized this was only because the Maranao are so visibly dispersed throughout the Philippines as traders. This dispersal might actually work against the Maranao language, as the children end up speaking Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocano or whatever the dominant language is in the area they’ve migrated to, and do not learn Maranao.

A decline in the use of a language can be reversed though.  A language can be “rediscovered,” as I’m seeing this happening to Sambali (Sambal in the “Ethnologue” listings) through a family friend, Malou Tinio, and her group, who are trying to get Sambali to be used by the young. A language is said to be revitalized if it can be spoken by a second generation, and is reestablished if it is picked up by a third generation.

So, lolos  and  lolas, work hard on your grandchildren if you want your mother tongue propagated. You can do this simply by using the language at home, but better still, work on dictionaries, on a written literature (collecting stories and poems for example). Get local universities and colleges into the act, following the lead of Holy Angels University, which has done wonders for Kapampangan, both the language and culture.

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