Reversing Language Shift

Theoretical and Empirical Foundations of Assistance to Threatened Languages

By Joshua A. Fishman

The Firth McEachern published observations (“No longer cool to speak Iloko,” “Kankana-ey being replaced by Iloko?” “Customer is always right, right?” “Losing the mother tongue,” “Quest for a multi-culture,” and “Diversity shock“) prompted my friend (a linguistic grad student), Sherma E. Benosa (Bilingual Pen), First Prize winner of the short story Iluko category (“Dagiti Pasugnod ni Angelo”) of this year’s 60th Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, to write:

“First, the bilingual policy our educational system has adopted is one of the root causes why parents and school administrators emphasize Tagalog, especially English. This policy did not give emphasis in the teaching and use of the mother tongue in school. In fact, it viewed the mother tongue as a hindrance in the learning of these “preferred” languages — and even in the learning of content. Hence, the discriminatory policy of many schools in provinces to fine students speaking in their native languages.

This also gave rise to the “prestige” that is accorded to Tagalog/Filipino — the national language, the language that “unites” the nation, the only Philippine language perceived to be intellectualized enough to teach content to our children.

This in turn, gave rise to the notion that to be “in”, to be able to go up, you must speak Tagalog/Filipino fluently… sans the accent of your native tongue. [The funny thing is that, when you are in Manila, the more refined your Tagalog, the more it is obvious that you are not from the city… as the city-folks speak a different variety of Tagalog/Filipino… the one that is embedded with so many borrowings].

This bilingual policy has likewise prompted many parents to use Tagalog or English as the language in the home — in preparation for their children’s schooling, thinking that by starting their children early, the kids will not have a hard time in school, learning two foreign languages (Tagalog and English) at the same time while also learning content subjects.

The Bilingual Education policy was a big mistake, and it is such a relief that many seem to be learning this. This is an old issue… and it is good if addressed by giving a chance to the mother tongue-based MLE.”

Actually the observations by both McEachern and Benosa fall within the more involved study, “Reversing Language Shift“, by Joshua A. Fishman, an American linguist who specializes in the sociology of language, language planning, bilingual education, and language and ethnicity.

Fishman wrote:

“Although I have struggled to approach language maintenance and language shift as fields of dispassionate scientific inquiry, I have never tried to hide (neither from myself nor from the careful reader) the value positions in support of cultural pluralism and cultural self-determination to which I personally subscribe.  Indeed, my work of the 60s began as a quest for any possibly overlooked successes, amidst all of the clearly obvious failures, in the efforts to secure minority language maintenance in the United States.  The intellectualization of this quest has led me to a constant review of the circumstances of modern life, even under democratic and multicultural auspices, which lead overwhelmingly in the direction of language shift.  That intellectualization has helped me realize that every failed societal effort on behalf of greater ethnolinguistic self-regulation nevertheless hides, within itself, many minor successes (first and foremost, the community-fostering experience of a common struggle on behalf of a shared verity) and some memorable ‘near misses’ that reveal the direction in which ‘success’ might lie.

“I deeply regret that I did not react to those realizations more quickly.  Perhaps as a result of the initial language shift momentum that I provided for this field of study, and my negligence with respect to offering more focused insight into the few cases of actual language maintenance success and near-success that I had come across, the entire positive side of the ledger is far less represented in the intellectual economy of the macro-sociolinguistic enterprise than it could and should be.  In a sense, therefore, this book not only represents the continuation of a long felt interest, but, also, the payment (or, at least, the partial payment) of a long regretted debt…”

Well, the main reason I am bringing up Joshua A. Fishman’s book here is to provide all those folks toiling hard to implement DepEd No. 74 s. 2009 which institutionalizes mother tongue-based multilingual education, albeit less encompassing than the MLE Bill (House Bill No. 162 –> read text) sponsored by Rep. Magtanggol Gunigundo, a comprehensive resource (brimming with empirical data) they can fall back on to help them understand what they are doing and why.  Because that’s basically what you and I are trying to do:  reverse language shift occasioned by the aggressive government-sanctioned bilingual policy that put Tagalog or Filipino and English above all the many other ethnic languages which have been marginalized as a consequence.

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