Why languages die
I was rushing to my class in anthropological linguistics last Wednesday when I spotted a group of lumad (Mindanao indigenous peoples, or IPs) on the steps of Palma (or AS) building at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
Perfect, I thought. Maybe I could invite them to drop by my class and talk about how they were dealing with the preservation of their languages. The Summer Institute of Linguistics, a global research group, estimates that there are 23 endangered languages in the Philippines, mostly those used by IPs.
I approached the IPs and learned that they were from the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (Alcadev), a nongovernment organization based in Tandag City, Surigao del Sur, offering practical vocational training involving agriculture as well as preparations for taking the Alternative Learning Systems exam. Passing this exam will serve as certification that one has graduated from high school.
We talked briefly about the situation of the IPs’ mother languages in the area, and they confirmed that these were in decline as young people shift to Cebuano, Tagalog, and even English.
One said the decline was faster wherever “signals” entered. I first thought of Cignal cable TV, but it turned out what they meant was a cell phone signal. When cell phone services do get to an IP area, younger people begin to text more, not in their mother languages but in Cebuano or Tagalog.
Alcadev and other groups working on education with the IPs are aware of the need to keep their mother tongues, and are beginning to record their oral literature, songs, chants and prayers.
But our discussions quickly shifted as they explained why they were in Manila: mainly to publicize the militarization of their area, a development associated with the entry of mining corporations.
The sad irony is that while this lumad group was in Manila, three of their leaders were killed in Surigao just last Monday, right in their school grounds—Emerito Samarca, Alcadev’s executive director; Dionel Campos, chairperson of a local lumad organization; and Bello Sinzo.
The men were killed during a raid by the 36th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army, together with a local paramilitary group called Magahat/Bagani. A part from the killings, a community cooperative was burned down and communities evacuated.
The lumad ancestral lands are rich in coal, nickel, gold and minerals, attracting many mining companies especially from Canada, Australia and China. The entry of these corporations can quickly boost a town’s finances, sometimes transforming it from a fifth-class to a fourth-class or even a third-class municipality overnight.
I was in Agusan three years ago to look into public health programs, and the municipal health officers expressed mixed feelings about these overnight bonanzas, with the additional money allowing for an expansion of their health programs, even as they wondered about the long-term adverse effects of the mining operations. One officer was graphic in her description of her town as now “butas-butas” (full of holes)—a reference to the excavations in the land. The officers also talked about how the sudden inflow of money could corrupt officials and the communities.
Mining operations have divided lumad communities, and the military, deployed to protect the mining corporations, aggravates the situation by arming some lumad men and organizing them into paramilitary groups such as the Magahat/Bagani to control the population. In the last few years, there have been many reports of human rights violations in these militarized areas.
Two of the lumad did visit my anthropological linguistics class, together with Prof. Roselle Pineda, to talk about their situation. They provided a new take on why languages die.
We usually hear of the decline of languages in the context of majority and minority populations. Smaller ethnolinguistic groups lose their languages because their young ones pick up the language of a larger group.
But there’s more to language loss than numbers. We’re talking about power relations. Young people are attracted to the languages of an economically more powerful group. Cebuano, for example, is associated, among Mindanao IPs, with social mobility, being able to find new economic opportunities with the “Bisaya.”
No doubt too, there is the association of Cebuano or Tagalog with modernity and prosperity, represented by the allure of a youth culture with its cell phones, celebrities and movie stars.
Roselle Pineda, who is also with the National Commission on Culture and the Arts, shared her views about the dangers of “culturalism”—the idea of a piecemeal preservation of “heritage” where the focus is on things (for example, woven fabrics or handicrafts), forgetting that there is a social context to these cultural objects and, even more importantly, that there are people involved.
The danger of culturalism applies as well to languages. Of what use are recordings of folk literature and the establishment of schools of living tradition if the organizations and the schools involved are under threat from militarization? Or if the communities concerned are losing their lands?
Roselle prefers schools of “lived,” rather than “living,” traditions to bring back the human element behind the traditions.
Alcadev’s ongoing campaign has a tambuli tu kalinow, budguka tu anyadan, or a call for peace, for the defense of our right to education. (The tambuli is a carabao horn used to summon and mobilize people.) The emphasis is on the right to education—not just a mainstream education, but one that incorporates social and cultural contexts.
The class was visibly amused when one of the lumad speakers mentioned that they could be contacted through Facebook: sos.caraga (“sos” being an abbreviation for “save our schools,” and “caraga” being the geographical region. Alcadev, while having reservations about cell phones and modern information technologies, is well aware, too, of how these technologies can help the IPs.
For Alcadev and other lumad advocacy groups, the call to save our schools becomes particularly urgent when we consider how their schools are being burned down, how their students are being intimidated and harassed, and how lives are being lost.
Of what use will the preservation of languages be, after all, if there will be few living people left to speak them?
* * *
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.