Losing the mother tongue

By Firth McEachern

THERE are very significant and unfortunate reasons why Filipinos devalue their mother tongue. Whether you are Iloco, Bikolano, Pangasinense, or from any of the other 120+ language groups, you are more likely to view Tagalog and English as more important, and might even fail to teach your child your own language. Why is this? The first factor I’ll deal with is education.

Teaching Filipino (which uses Tagalog as its basis), is mandatory in all schools, but there is no formal instruction of vernaculars like Ilocano alongside it, at any level. Rumours have it that next year DepEd will start incorporating local languages in early primary school curricula, which would be an excellent idea. Like many great ideas, however, it may fall short in implementation. So far the vernaculars have been consistently excluded from educational settings, and have even been outright banned: the antiquated penalties for speaking local languages in schools are widely practiced in private schools and unofficially practiced in some public schools, decades after European countries have removed such discriminatory policies for their minority languages.

At first I did not believe this barbaric practice could still be found in the Philippines. But a few days ago I was in the La Union College of Nursing, Arts, and Sciences, and got proof! I was waiting in the hall and happened to overhear a teacher leading his classroom. He was speaking in English most of the time, but would occasionally switch to Tagalog. Most of the children were chattering in Tagalog with each other, which the teacher didn’t seem to mind. But one time a boy said something in Ilocano to his friend, and the teacher said, “No Ilocano here!” I was shocked. If this is a so-called English school, why would the teacher allow Tagalog and not Ilocano? If he thinks speaking Ilocano is unhelpful to learning English, then the same should apply to Tagalog. Either they should both be allowed in school, or neither. But outlawing one language and not putting restrictions on another is pure and simple discrimination, whether or not one is the national language.

In truth, banning any language in a school-especially a native one-is against international human rights standards. The Philippines is a signatory of the UN Charter on the Rights of the Child. Article 29 clearly declares: “State Parties agree that the education of a child shall be directed to [among other goals]…The development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms,” the child’s “cultural identity, language, and values,” and “peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin.” How, may I ask, can Filipino schools pretend to be respectful of students’ “identity, language, and values,” or true advocates for “tolerance,” if they discourage or even sometimes penalize the use of the mother tongue? They cannot.

Let me proceed to the next section of the same document that the Philippines has signed:

Article 30. In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities or persons of indigenous origin exist, a child belonging to such a minority or who is indigenous shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of his or her group, to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practice his or her own religion, or to use his or her own language.”

Every language group in the Philippines constitutes a minority, because no language is natively spoken by more than 50% of the population. Tagalog is native to around 30% of the population, Cebuano by 20%, Ilokano by 10 percent, and so on. Therefore, all these languages are protected by the UN Charter on the Rights of the Child, and Filipino children should be allowed to speak whatever vernacular they desire. I urge private schools, public schools, and the educators who run them to stop the barbaric practice of suppressing children’s natural inclination to use their native tongue. Teachers should feel free to use the local language in addition to English and Tagalog, as one is no more inferior to the other.

To suppress the use of local languages contravenes the promises the country has made to the international community, and is in fact unnecessary from a pedagogical perspective. Many studies have shown that integrating the mother tongue in the classroom can help a child understand better, encourage participation, enhance cultural awareness, and raise their confidence, resulting in improved learning-including the learning of English!

Someday I hope to walk into a fancy school like Lorma Colleges in La Union and hear Ilokano, Tagalog, and English being spoken freely. In an equal society, all languages would be perceived equally and could be used by rich or poor without judgment.

[Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on July 28, 2010.]

7 thoughts on “Losing the mother tongue

  1. Pingback: Tagalog Languages

  2. Pingback: McEachern’s observations re our language attitudes « Multilingual Education – Philippines

  3. Pingback: From a non-Ilocano with passion to save the Ilocano language « Multilingual Education – Philippines

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