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Is there still need for a national language?

12:30 AM January 10, 2017

One matter that needs to be addressed in the constitutional reform process is our national language. Article XIV of the 1987 Constitution lays out an interesting arrangement on this subject that needs to be reconsidered in the drafting process.

Section 7 provides: “For purposes of communication and instruction, the official languages of the Philippines are Filipino and, until otherwise provided by law, English.”

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Hence, we have one national language, which is Filipino. But we also have two official languages, which are Filipino and English, and no law has ever been passed to remove the latter’s status as such. In fact, until now the language of the government, of legislation, and of the courts in the Philippines continues to be English.

Then, we also have auxiliary languages or regional dialects that are contemplated to function as a third-level means of communication within the regions where they are spoken.

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This neat grouping of Philippine languages is not that accurate. The fact is most Filipinos commonly relate with English because it is the official language widely used by the state.

Moreover, the use of Filipino as the language of the nation is suspect because it is basically a Tagalog clone and is very rarely spoken by nationals outside the Tagalog region. In fact, I distinctly remember that in Sagada, Mountain Province, many years ago, the Kankanaey communicated to local tourists more in English than in Filipino. And I have heard similar comments from visitors to other parts of the country like Bohol and Palawan.

Our experience of languages spoken in the country necessitates a rethinking of the constitutional designation of Filipino as a national language. Is it still necessary to have just one artificially created national language given the richness of our linguistic heritage?

The constitution of South Africa, for instance, recognizes 11 official languages and enjoins the state to take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of their indigenous languages. [See Chapter 1, Section 6 (1) and (2).]

Our language diversity should be more prominently and officially celebrated because it reflects the narrative that is real to all Filipinos. And a provision that is inconsistent with the people’s actual conditions and sentiments has no place in the Constitution.

Correspondingly, English should now be unequivocally accepted as the official language of the Philippines because doing so more accurately reflects the reality in our daily lives.

But let me clarify that I am not pointing here to the “Make busina para sa hustisya!” form of English. I am not calling for the elevation to official status of the bastardized version we hear on morning talk shows and evening melodramas. I am referring to English as taught in our schools.

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I must add that proficiency in the lingua franca of the day has gained tremendous economic benefits for many Filipinos. I have personally heard industry leaders during an IT exhibition in Sydney praising Filipinos for our neutral and intelligible accent compared to other English speakers in Asia such as Indians, Malaysians and Singaporeans. Thus, making it the only official language of the country has practical value as well.

English is obviously a colonial language. But considering that American colonization is a fact of life that is universally shared in the Philippines, the use of English as an official language would certainly be more unbiased for all Filipinos than Filipino.

And with the Filipino now being a genuine citizen of the world, insisting on having just one national language seems anachronistic. Our sense of nation now ought to be founded on deeper grounds than just having a common native tongue. I believe it is more appropriate now to reflect the linguistic and cultural diversity of the country in our Constitution.

Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, a practicing lawyer, is the author of the book “Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective.” He conducts research on current issues in state-building, decentralization and constitutionalism.

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TAGS: Commentary, English, Filipino, Language, national language, opinion
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