Last Tuesday, Feb. 21, was International Mother Language Day, one which should have been more heavily publicized considering that we are entering our fourth year of implementing Mother Language Education (MLE) in the Philippines.
The MLE directive from the Department of Education requires the use of a mother language up to the third grade. This mother language is not necessarily Tagalog-based Filipino. It might be Filipino, English (yes, that’s considered a mother language, too), or about a dozen other Philippine languages identified by the DepEd.
The rationale for this policy is that children learn faster when a local language is used, one which the child frequently hears and uses. Research conducted in the Philippines has shown that this mother language becomes a more efficient way of teaching science, math and other languages, which means that children could use Cebuano to learn Filipino and English.
The MLE program continues to be challenged. There are people who want English to be the primary language of instruction, supposedly because this gives us an advantage with globalization (read: exporting Filipinos). Then there are nationalists who say MLE distracts us from developing a national language, Filipino.
Land of the morning
I totally agree we need to develop Filipino, which is so essential, so integral, to the development of a Filipino identity. Just think of our national anthem, and the difference between singing “Bayang magiliw, perlas ng silanganan” and “Land of the morning, child of the sun returning.” Fortunately, the English version has disappeared for younger Filipinos, but just singing out the first lines will show the difference in the ability, or inability, of language to stir patriotism and nationalism.
Yet there is continuing opposition to Filipino, part of the problem being President Manuel Quezon’s choice of Tagalog as its base when he decreed a national language. That decision rightly infuriated Cebuano speakers, who actually numbered more than Tagalogs. To this day, many Cebuanos still resent what they feel is Tagalog linguistic imperialism.
A more comprehensive Mother Language policy could help to reduce this resentment. I’m saying “more comprehensive” because encouragement of mother languages has to go beyond its use as a medium of instruction.
Unesco, which has been behind the promotion of mother languages, is mainly worried about the disappearance of languages, which is frequently associated with unequal power relations. Languages decline or disappear when their use is discouraged, as Filipino is banned in some of our Filipino schools, even today. But even without a ban, many languages disappear simply because of economic and cultural domination. Children will stop using a mother language if they see it as representing inferior status, preferring instead to use the language of people who are richer, or at least perceived to be of higher status. In other cases, it’s simply a matter of getting along with the majority ethnic group. We see this often in migrant communities—Filipino children in America, for example, preferring English because all their playmates use English.
Ibanag, Kiniray-a, Maranao
But it’s not just in overseas Filipino communities where we see this happening. I’m getting more reports of up to four levels of a language hierarchy in some parts of the Philippines. As an example, I’ll use Ibanag, a language used in the Cagayan Valley. Ethnologue, a database of languages throughout the world, lists 500,000 speakers of Ibanag, not a small number. But that figure dates back to 1990, and I wonder if the number of Ibanag speakers has declined because I have talked with Ibanag parents who say their children no longer use the language, preferring instead to use Ilokano. In terms, too, of status, Tagalog-based Filipino is seen as a higher-status marker compared to Ilokano. It doesn’t end there. Lording it over Filipino as the premier elite language is English.
There you have it, a four-level hierarchy. Notice that if English is seen at the top of the hierarchy, you have an inversion when it comes to perceptions of vulgarity. Thus, for an Ibanag, curses and sexual terms sound at its worst in Ibanag, less so in Ilokano and Filipino, and almost acceptable if uttered in English.
No wonder some Filipinos look at Filipino as a language of the unlearned.
It’s not just Ibanag that is endangered. I’ve heard similar stories of Kiniray-a children preferring to use Ilonggo. In one of my graduate classes, a Muslim student told me children of Maranao traders in Cebu no longer speak Maranao and use Cebuano instead.
Some of you might argue that this is inevitable, a kind of survival of the fittest in the linguistic domain. But languages can be preserved. No, let me take that word back because it makes languages sound like fossilized specimens pickled in formalin. Languages can be promoted and revitalized. Some years back, someone sent me a copy of a Kiniray-a dictionary he had compiled in his retirement. I had agreed to write the preface, impressed by his commitment to the language. Alas, I can’t quite remember his name right now and this is because I gave the dictionary to the wife of an office staffer who had visited, picked up the dictionary and gotten very excited about it. She was, in fact, Kiniray-a, but had forgotten much of the language, and was now intrigued by the existence of a dictionary.
Calling on Vice President Jejomar Binay, who I understand has been active in promoting Ibanag culture, and other politicians and business people who might want to sponsor the promotion of their mother languages, through dictionaries and audiovisual compilations of folklore and short stories. These can be used for Mother Language Education in schools but, more importantly, they become depositories of knowledge and learning that future generations can further develop.
Will this distract us from developing a national language? On the contrary, promoting our many mother languages can hasten the emergence of a truly Filipino language. We forget that Quezon decreed the creation of a Surian ng Wikang Pilipino that was tasked to create a Filipino language by drawing words from all Philippine languages. This has been happening far too slowly. A vibrant national language called Filipino, that all Filipinos feel as their own, can emerge only if it draws from and acknowledges its many mothers.
Visit http://multilingualphilippines.com/?page_id=4932 for a start at bridging cultures through mother languages.
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