By Firth McEachern
“Pizza po,” said the little girl.
I guess they think Ilokano is not “cool” or “fancy” enough for a Little Miss Barangay contest, I thought, as I watched the event. Don’t they realize that Ilokano is just as rich and old a language as Tagalog? And don’t they realize that by excluding the local tongue from high profile events like Little Miss contests, they further undermine its prestige?
I turned to the gentleman to my right, the Hon. Vice-Governor Aureo Q. Nisce, and said, “I’m sad that these little girls are being forced to answer in Tagalog. The emcee should set an example and speak Tagalog AND Ilokano interchangeably, so that the girls know it’s acceptable to answer in either.
Otherwise they will just grow up thinking Tagalog is superior to Ilokano, which is not a positive belief.”
“Yes, I noticed this too. They should not be ashamed of using Ilokano,” the Vice-Governor said.
“Is there anything that could be done about it?” I asked.
“You know what? If I am reelected I will suggest more events for Ilokano, like poetry readings and song competitions.”
“That’s great!” I said, glad that someone high up in government noticed the marginalization of mother tongues too.
In previous columns I’ve discussed the exclusion of local language in business, education, and other places, but as demonstrated by Tagalog and English-dominated events like pageants, the vernacular is also excluded from many social situations. That’s why Sir Aureo’s idea to create more Ilocano events is very important. My suggestion is that these events not just be ABOUT the Iloko language, since that is too specific for most people’s taste. (And anyway, there are already such events organized by organizations like GUMIL, the Association of Ilokano Writers). In order to expose the vernacular to a wider audience, therefore, it’s important to also have events that simply USE it. We should establish all sorts of events – such as science fairs, health drives, pageants, job fairs, or musical performances – with the only difference being that that they are conducted in the local language. They are ordinary events with a twist, that send a message to the public that it is acceptable to use Ilokano in many situations, not just when the topic is about Ilokano itself.
The most common argument against using the local vernacular in public events is, “What if some people don’t understand?” For me, that is precisely the reason why we SHOULD use the vernacular at public events. If some people don’t understand the local language that means some people are failing to learn it, and the tongue is destined to decay. Therefore, we need to provide non-speakers of Ilocano the opportunity to hear and learn it, so that the linguistic heritage of La Union is kept intact. The same goes for any other part of the Philippines. The only way to ensure the survival of local languages is to use them, so their use in public should be encouraged.
The older generation, especially the politicians, instinctively know this. They are not ashamed to speak in the local tongue even in the most high profile events. When his Hon. Jejomar Binay came to La Union, the Governor, the two congressmen, and the ex-Mayor of San Fernando all managed to incorporate Iloko into their speeches, even though Binay is a native Tagalog! Binay was not fazed or upset that his hosts used the local language; on the contrary, he wryly told the audience that, although he could not speak the local language, his skin at least looked dark enough for Northern Luzon! It was a humorous and completely relaxed atmosphere.
By contrast to the free way adults use the vernacular, the younger generation is reluctant to do so. I don’t know why, but it might be a shame that is hammered into them in school. Most of the young people who walk into my office introduce themselves in Tagalog. When I ask them why, they say they are trying to be polite and are also not sure if the staff speak Ilokano. In reference to their first concern, being polite is not about what language you use, but rather HOW you use it. And as for the second concern, so what? Use your mother tongue first, and if the listener gives you a blank stare, switch languages. It’s as simple as that. No hard feelings, no problem. It’s high time young people start respecting their heritage.