Looking south for Filipino
This year, there’s greater urgency to take August as the Buwan ng Wikang Filipino (month of the Filipino language) more seriously, in light of the Supreme Court ruling last May reiterating the court’s previous decision that makes Filipino, Panitikan (Literature) and Constitution subjects optional in the General Education curriculum of colleges.
For today’s column, I wanted to look at why we are so cavalier about having a national language, and I do this by comparing our experiences with that of Indonesia, which has managed to develop a national language for its more than 260 million citizens, more than double our population.
Let’s first review what happened in the Philippines.
In 1936, still under the Americans, our National Assembly passed a Commonwealth Act creating an Institute of National Language, with members from several ethnolinguistic groups. It was this institute that eventually recommended Tagalog as the basis for a national language. President Manuel Quezon issued an executive order on Dec. 30, 1937, confirming Tagalog as the national language.
The move was met with opposition, especially from Cebuano speakers, who correctly argued that their language had more speakers than Tagalog.
The debates continued for decades. In 1959, the national language was given a name, “Pilipino,” to distance it from Tagalog, but opposition continued. The 1973 Constitution designated English and Pilipino as official languages, and provided for the development of “Filipino” as a national language.
More than 80 years after Quezon’s executive order, we’re still not quite united around a national language. Filipino is still called Tagalog by many people. Even then, a language called Filipino has taken a life of its own, with all kinds of varieties out in the streets and marketplaces, in radio and television and on social media and, most importantly, in homes.
The problem is that so much is going on without adequate government support. There are concerns that our national language is, well, a language of the streets, colorful certainly and alive, but not quite capturing the soul and spirit of a people, always seen as “slang,” as a dialect rather than a language with both oral and written literature.
This is where we look south, to Indonesia, to look at how it developed a national language, Bahasa Indonesia.
As early as 1928, even during the Dutch colonial period, at a second Indonesian youth congress attended by nationalists, a Sumpah Pemuda (Youth Pledge) was enunciated, a pledge of allegiance to one motherland, one nation… and one language, which they called Indonesian. There was, in fact, no such language—yet.
The Indonesians rejected Dutch, although it was, like Spanish in the Philippines, actually not that widely spoken, used mainly by the Indonesian elite.
If the Philippines seems like a Tower of Babel with some 180 languages, Indonesia had to deal with more than 700. Yet, the nationalists and their first president, Sukarno, eventually chose Malay to be the base of their national language.
Malay was actually a native language only for a minority, but had become, through the centuries, a lingua franca across the Indonesian archipelago for trade, even as people used, in their homes and everyday relationships, their own mother language, the most widely spoken ones being Javanese, Sundanese and Balinese.
What’s striking is that the 2010 census of Indonesia found only 20 percent of people spoke mainly Indonesian at home, retaining their native languages but using this Bahasa Indonesia as a medium for trade and commerce, for education, for mass media and for culture. What I’ve always found so impressive is the great literature, some of it recognized internationally, that have been produced in Indonesian.
Note, too, that unlike the Philippines, the use of Indonesian and local languages is not seen as being “lower class”; in fact, social mobility is tied to using the national language.
With or without government support, Filipino has taken off, but we might want to learn from Indonesia and push for more efforts from government and from schools to allow Filipino to flourish and become useful for business, for the sciences, for literature and the arts.
I think of how often, in health care, we run into disastrous situations when health professionals and patients do not understand each other, even when speaking in Filipino. Extend this situation to all other vital sectors where the lack of a national language keeps us divided, and therefore unable to work together.
Indonesia saw language as a powerful tool for building a nation. That’s important, certainly, but think, too, of the more practical, but still important, reasons for a national language: Wouldn’t it be great if we could dream, feel and, most importantly, think in a shared language?
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