‘Filipino’ and my mother tongues | Inquirer Opinion

‘Filipino’ and my mother tongues

In my line of work, I’m sometimes interviewed on issues of the day by Cebuano-speaking provincial radio stations. I love the on-air Q&As because they connect me to my heritage. But they pose a linguistic challenge.

I grew up in General Santos City, a migrants’ melting pot. At home, we spoke Hiligaynon, but my paternal cousins who lived next door spoke Waray; the neighborhood was mostly Cebuano. Farther down the street, you’d hear an occasional Tagalog or Ilocano. First Barrio prided itself as a “Devoted One Society.”


In school, I learned Lope K. Santos’ “Balarila.” Too, I was a habitué of stalls across the Lagao Central Elementary School, renting out Tagalog komiks at 25 centavos a pop, and an avid fan of Froilan M. Villegas’ “Gabi ng Lagim,” aired in the evenings by a dzRH affiliate.

I imbibed Hiligaynon, Cebuano and Waray while playing tubiganay with the neighborhood kids. (I also learned English in school, aided by Reader’s Digest and FEBC’s American Gospel broadcasts). Still, our veritable Babel was easy to navigate for a child. I’d speak to a playmate in Hiligaynon and he’d answer  me in Waray and we’d be just fine.


But, having been based for the better part of my adult life in Manila, I now often find myself grappling for words when responding to the interviews. If memory of the old familiar fails, I shift to English or Tagalog. Worse, I sometimes catch myself mixing Cebuano and Hiligaynon in one sentence.

When I entered UP as a freshman in 1990, Dr. Jose V. Abueva was pushing for “Filipinization” in the university as a debate raged over national language as national identity. But most of it was on whether to continue Mang Openg’s legacy or to let evolution direct language development. It was a given to call the national language “Filipino” when it’s actually Tagalog-based.

I’ve always been for Filipino. The Tagalog translation of Alphonse Daudet’s “The Last Lesson” stirred my heart warmly for it. For fun, I render the English translation of Rumi and Rilke’s poems into Tagalog. Once, I sneered at news of some Cebu City schools singing the national anthem in Cebuano.

Ironically, I write or speak better in Tagalog than in my mother tongues. It’s just that, in school, I wasn’t taught their grammar and orthography. I have a small collection of books and Bibles in Cebuano, Hiligaynon and Waray that I bought over the years to try to remedy this.

When the Supreme Court recently announced the lifting of a temporary restraining order on the abolition of Filipino and Filipino literature as mandatory courses in college, I felt it’s about time.

Filipino is already being taught from basic to secondary schooling; its pedagogy is seriously flawed if, by the time they reach college, students still lack the expected mastery of the language. Yes, offer Filipino and Filipino literature as elective courses and develop graduate programs in them. But imposing them on all college students is time that’s better spent learning other languages necessary for advancement in a globalized world. After all, Filipino is already a fait accompli, spoken across the archipelago after more than half a century of linguistic colonization by the national government.

The multilingual nation that is the Philippines should be reflected in its educational system. Equating patriotism with Tagalog cloaked as Filipino is nonsense. A 2017 UP-University of Melbourne study of best practices in mother tongue-based multilingual education shows that schoolchildren learn better if properly taught in a language they speak at home. Lingual justice means, at the very least, that major Philippine languages develop alongside Tagalog.


If I had my way, native Tagalog speakers should study at least one non-Tagalog Philippine language in school. It would contribute more to national understanding than anything else.

Perhaps, if this had been done early on, President Duterte wouldn’t be saying today, as an excuse for his forked tongue, that the problem is that his critics don’t

really get him because he’s Bisaya.

* * *

Romel Regalado Bagares is a lawyer who daydreams of happily spending all his waking hours as a clueless academic.

He tweets @Dooyeweerdian.

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TAGS: Filipino language, Filipino literature, Inquirer Commentary, multilingualism, Romel Regalado Bagares
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