Here are the first 9 parts of the column I have been writing for the Northern Star, the SunStar Baguio, the Observer, the Weekly Banat, and the Ilocos Herald. It explores issues of language discrimination, language threats, the benefits of multilingualism, the need for language preservation and reform, and suggested actions to be taken by society and government in the Philippines. Additional parts shall be sent as they come out.
I’m so glad you are pursuing the MLE cause with perseverance and rationality, and I wasn’t aware you were one of the people supporting DepEd’s multilingual education policy… How did you get involved? I arrived in the Philippines at a very interesting and critical time!
I, and about 50 supporters, spoke at the Provincial Capitol of La Union to propose legislation to declare Ilokano to be an official language of the province and to institute standards across several sectors to correct some of the marginalization and discrimination that the local language has suffered: for example, standards for greeting customers in commercial establishments, minimum inclusion of Ilokano programming and content in radio and newsprint, more bi/tri-lingual government banners, and support for DepEd’s MLE policy. The board members were largely positive about the proposal, and there will be committee meetings over the next few months to produce a draft ordinance, and then it has to go through public hearings. So of course there are a lot of uncertainties: will it be passed? how diluted will it be? will it actually be implemented with enough funding, resources, staff, etc? But it’s worth the try! If you have any ideas of things that should definitely go in the ordinance based on your Fishman reading, please let me know! The example legislation we gave the Province to base their ordinance off of is the Catalan Linguistic Act of 1998, which is widely regarded as a good model. But Catalonia is wealthier than La Union and I think its native population and government have more concern and will to revitalize their language…
Who is Firth McEachern?
A brief account about Firth McEachern by Firth McEachern may be found at Sustainable Cities, a ‘small catalytic organization that tackles the daunting challenges of urban sustainability. Headquartered in Vancouver, Canada, with an active network of over 40 cities in 14 countries, Sustainable Cities is a think tank and a “do tank,” delivering results through practical demonstration projects and peer learning networks, and scaling those lessons out through affiliations and high-profile events.’
“Since an early age,” he says, “I have been interested in the interplay between human development, cultural preservation, and the environment.”
Here’s the entry on Firth in the ‘Harvard Class of 2008‘: Second Class Marshall, ‘Firth is an Earth & Planetary Sciences/Astro major… He has been primarily involved in the Darfur Action Group, whose mission is to provide relief for Darfuri victims, campaign to encourage university, state, and corporate divestment from businesses that support the Sudanese government, raise awareness in the Harvard and Boston communities, and to promote political resolutions to the conflict. He has also been a representative for the Resource Efficiency Program, acting as a liaison between students and administrators about environmental sustainability. Reps teach their peers why and how to conserve resources, and also suggest policy and infrastructure improvements that aid conservation. In his remaining time, Firth has been on stage or on the dancefloor, and is a long-term comper of FM magazine. His time at Harvard has been a decent mixture of art and activism, and can’t wait to activate Senior Year.’
McEachern is currently working in the City Environment and Natural Resources Office of San Fernando, La Union, on, among other things, garbage, primarily on their Solid Waste Management Program and their fledgling Septage Treatment Program.
In Part 9, McEachern writes:
“For all of you who have been following my column, thank you. It has so far been a pleasure exploring the maze of language issues in the Philippines, especially in Northern Luzon. For those new to this column, I am a foreigner working in La Union for 6 months in the San Fernando City government. As a representative of a Canadian organization that champions sustainability, I became unexpectedly mesmerized by the huge changes occurring in people’s language habits in this country. Almost all of the small languages in this country (like Bolinao, Isneg, Zambaleno), and even the big ones (like Ilokano, Kapampangan, and Pangasinense) are threatened, because people in the cities are speaking more and more Tagalog and English. (If you are confused why I am using the word ‘language’ instead of ‘dialect’ by the way, please refer to my last column in which I explain the proper use of these terms).
Since cities are the centers of development, it is only a matter of time when a city trend becomes a reality of the countryside. If local languages are being replaced in the cities, then rural folk will notice this trend, and in an effort to give their children the opportunity to find jobs in the city, parents will emphasize Tagalog and English, at the expense of their mother tongue. You might not think this is a problem because Tagalog and English are much more “useful.” But isn’t it better to know how to speak three things—English, Tagalog, and your mother tongue—rather than just two things, English and Tagalog? Anyway, if we are going to save our languages, we must secure them in the cities first. If they are alive and vibrant in the cities, then they will continue to be alive and vibrant in the countryside.
So why are local languages declining in the cities? One persistent problem is the fact that immigrants are not obliged to learn local languages. Since everyone knows how to speak Tagalog, and there is no formal instruction of the local language, there is no incentive for immigrants from other areas to try to learn it. This creates an obvious dilemma. To use San Fernando, La Union as an example: when a group of 10 Ilokano-speaking people are found together, they can freely communicate in their own tongue. But if a single non-Ilokano joins the group, it makes sense to switch to Tagalog to politely include the new person. The same principle applies to much larger scales. If enough people arrive from other parts of the Philippines to San Fernando, and they are not able, encouraged, or compelled to learn Ilokano, then eventually everyone will switch to the common Tagalog. As more and more of one’s friends, colleagues, and potential mates fail to speak your native tongue, it becomes too impractical to continue speaking it on a regular basis, or pass it to one’s children. I know a Tagalog woman who has lived in the Ilocos region for 5 years and only knows one phrase in Ilokano: “Diak maawatan!”
This problem could be avoided if provinces implemented some form of local vernacular instruction in school, even if it were only one class during Home Room, so that immigrants could learn the basics. Such language policy thankfully exists elsewhere, such as in Canada. If an English Canadian moves to the French-speaking province of Quebec, he is required to learn French in school even though his mother tongue is English and even though the rest of the country is English. A similar policy in the Philippines would mean that if a native of Quezon moved to Ilocos Norte as a child, she would grow up to learn English, Tagalog, and Ilocano in school, while a young migrant from Ilocos Norte to Pampanga would learn English, Tagalog, and Kapampangan in school. This would preserve the policy that all Filipinos learn English and the national language, but it would also ensure the linguistic identity of each province was respectfully maintained.
From a social perspective, it is our collective responsibility to preserve the culture and language of each region for the benefit of Filipino heritage. It is partly the responsibility of newcomers to learn the local language, and it is also the responsibility of the locals to help newcomers learn it. A common complaint I get from immigrants to La Union is that the Ilokanos always speak to them in Tagalog so it’s difficult to learn Ilokano. Instead, we should all enthusiastically embrace the opportunity to teach and learn the vernacular, as an expression of cultural respect and exchange.”
Following is McEachern’s 9-part column (I actually found a 10th, entitled “Tagalog, English are for school”, published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on September 15, 2010, which is posted below:
In my last column I wondered whether all the Tagalog words I heard being used by Ilokanos and other language groups meant something serious. Is Tagalog replacing the local languages in Northern Luzon? Or are people just playfully mixing the two languages without neglecting their mother tongue? The answer in the cities, I’m afraid, is the former. And as someone who has been sent to the Philippines from a Canadian organization called Sustainable Cities, I am obviously worried by the fact that cities in the Philippines are not sustaining their linguistic diversity.
The realization first came to me at a carenderia near my house. A cute little girl was wandering between the tables, and I decided to engage her in small talk. “Anya ti nagan mo?” I asked her in Ilokano. She responded with a blank stare. “What’s your name?” I repeated in English. Still no reply.
“Isuna Tagalog,” her father (the carenderia owner) told me.
“Oh, I’m sorry! What province are you from?” I asked him, thinking he would tell me Rizal or Quezon or something.
“Here in La Union.” He replied.
“You mean you are Ilokano?” I asked incredulously. “Then why doesn’t your daughter speak it?!”
“We are speaking Tagalog to her.” He said cheerfully.
“Why?” I asked, confused. “Is her mother Tagalog or something?”
“No, she is Ilokana.”
I was shocked. I have met Filipinos abroad whose children only speak English; for the sake of integration, they spoke English at home. But I have never met a mother who, in her own linguistic homeland, has neglected to teach her children the mother tongue.
“This is Northern Luzon, the bastion of Ilokanos. Ilokano has been a dominant language here for hundreds, if not thousands of years. And you parents are both Ilokano, and speak Ilokano to each other. Yet you only want to speak Tagalog to your child?” I pressed.
“Because it is our national language.” He replied.
This statement made me pause for a moment. So what if Tagalog (or Filipino, technically) was the national language? Why did the existence of a national language have to do with parents not passing on their own tongue to their children? Why can’t children learn to speak both?
“Ok,” I said. “And?”
“So it’s good to know it.” He replied.
I still wasn’t following his logic. I don’t dispute the fact that speaking another language is useful to know, especially one so prevalent as Tagalog, but why would a parent not want pass on their mother tongue?
“Well, don’t they learn Filipino at school?” I asked. Why do you need to speak to her in Tagalog at home?”
“That is the trend. If she doesn’t know Tagalog by the time she already goes to school, she will be made fun of. Ilokano is considered too ‘native’.”
“’Native’? I asked, even more dumbfounded. “What does that mean? What’s wrong with that?”
“Corny, old-fashioned, low class,” the father explained.
Things were just going from bad to worse. Why should a native language have such a low reputation? La Union is 93% Ilokano. It is a traditional Ilokano province. Why should Ilokanos be ashamed of their own language, especially when they are mostly surrounded by other Ilokanos? Do people not realize that Ilokano has just as rich a language as Tagalog, and a long history of literacy too?
Healthy cultures do not dismiss themselves so readily. If the majority of mothers in Philippine cities are now speaking mostly Tagalog to their children (and a smattering of English), they threaten to kill the languages they grew up with. This is disrespectful to one’s language, one’s culture, and the generations of parents who came before, all of whom, until now, succeeded in passing on their native language.
In my next column, I shall explore how and why we have come to this situation. Why is there a measure of self-disapproval among non-Tagalog groups in this country? Why are local languages associated with words like “native”, “corny”, and “old-fashioned”? And I’ll try to give you reasons why it doesn’t have to be like this.
This week I shall analyze the exclusion of local languages in media.
First, I start with radio. Why is it that almost all the FM radio stations in Luzon are in Tagalog and English? I visited Pangasinan with my officemates and we excitedly flipped through all the radio frequencies looking for a Pangasinan radio station. Out of 11 stations, not one was in Pangalatok. One might justify the choice of Tagalog because it (or Filipino, to be precise) is the national language, so everyone can understand it.
But aren’t we forgetting the fact that many radio stations around the world are located in places where the language is not universally understood? In Canada, my home country, I can turn on the radio and find English or French FM radio stations, even though I don’t speak French and neither does everyone know English. In England, I can turn on the radio and find FM channels in Arabic, Punjabi, and several other languages besides English, even though English is far more widespread than the others. The majority of the listeners of the other language programs, like the Punjabi and Arabic stations, also understand English, but they CHOOSE to tune into these stations because they LIKE to hear their native tongue. My point is that we should have more options when it comes to FM radio in Luzon. There should be FM radio in local languages, Tagalog, English, and any combination thereof, as found in other countries with diverse populations.
You might ask, “Well, why is it necessary to offer FM stations that use local languages like Iloko or Pangalatok if you can already find them on AM stations?” First, AM stations rarely offer the frequency or modernity of songs that FM stations offer, so are less attractive to young people. Second, many of the smaller languages like Bolinao don’t even have AM radio stations. Thirdly, if there are English FM stations, why can’t there be FM stations in native languages too? The bias for English is perplexing given that the National Achievement Scores in English have hovered around 50% only, so English is not even understood very well anyway!
Television is even less representative of the diversity of Filipinos. Despite the fact that Tagalog and English are second/third languages for 70% of the population, almost all hours of every Filipino channel broadcast in Luzon are in these languages. Typically, only one hour per day is allocated to regional programming on the main GMA and ABS-CBN channels, and these are not even always in the predominant regional language. Unlike GMA, at least ABS-CBN has local TV Patrols in different vernaculars, such as TV Patrol Bicol, TV Patrol Pampanga, and TV Patrol Ilocos. I applaud ABS-CBN for providing such a service, but there are still gaps. For example, I am perplexed by the fact that despite La Union province being 93% Ilocano, we do not have a single second of television in Iloko. The regional broadcast of TV Patrol Northern Luzon, based in Baguio, is in Tagalog. One might say this is because Baguio is mixed, but as the lingua franca of the region—including Baguio—Iloko deserves at least an hour out of 24 hours of Tagalog and English.
The same issue is faced by the provinces of Region II: despite being predominantly Ilocano, TV Patrol Cagayan Valley is only in Tagalog. Iloko is the 3rd largest language in the Philippines, spoken by 10 million people and serving as the lingua franca for no less than 17 provinces, yet ABS-CBN only has one regional TV patrol in Iloko, serving a mere two provinces.
Mind you, the odd media patterns found in Luzon are not the same across the country. In the Visayas and Mindanao there are many TV Patrols, all of which patronize the major regional languages like Cebuano, Chavacano, Waray, and Ilonggo. Furthermore, there are Visayan news channels, game shows, and even telenovelas like “Saranghe”, “Summer Sunshine”, and “Amor Chico.” And as for radio, most of the FM radio stations are in one of the Visayan languages. Why should Northern Luzon be any different? Why do our radio stations shy away from using our languages? The Visayans do not view their language as inferior to English and Tagalog, and rightly so. All people under God should be considered equal, regardless of the political circumstances—and that also applies to cultural artefacts that define such people—like language.
I’ve offered some glimpses of why Philippine vernaculars are declining: the exclusion of local languages from education, the underrepresentation of local languages in media, and their stigmatization in various business settings. This week, I turn to government.
The City of San Fernando government is very vernacular-friendly. Everyone in my office knows how to speak the local vernacular (Iloko, or commonly known as Ilokano), and it is the main language of verbal communication in City Hall. If someone comes into our office, we are happy to serve them using Iloko, Tagalog, or English, depending on their preference. The same applies to the provincial government and indeed most provincial offices around the country.
Politicians are also excellent patrons of the vernaculars. During election time, I was happy to hear all the councillors give eloquent speeches in Iloko. The Honorable Manuel C. Ortega always prepares billboards and public messages in Iloko, including the provincial slogan—“Agay ayat kada kayo amin.” Ironically, the Ortegas are actually a Spanish family, yet they learned and continue to patronize the local language. The former mayor of San Fernando, Hon. Mary Jane Ortega, likewise learned fluent Iloko even though she is originally from Cavite. The Ortegas, and indeed many political families, are great models in respecting the heritage of the respective regions of the Philippines.
However, improvements can still be made. Few city or provincial documents are produced in the local language, as English dominates all the interdepartmental correspondence in writing. Sometimes I see posters and pamphlets in Iloko, but they are becoming less common. By contrast, I browsed the Department of Health website of the State of Hawaii yesterday and guess what I found? Health documents and advisories, written in Iloko! If the Hawaiian government provides Iloko documents in topics as obscure as anthrax, why can’t we? Why is it harder to find Iloko publications in the Ilocos region than it is to find Iloko publications in a foreign country with a much smaller minority of Ilokanos? If this inconsistency does not strike you as strange, I don’t know what will.
I saw a great pamphlet about climate change written in both Iloko and English by UP Los Banos; it would be wonderful if such bi/tri-lingual documents were more common here. In Canada, all official government documents are produced in both French and English. Other measures can also be adopted. In Quebec, the French part of predominantly English-speaking Canada, they keep French alive with signage laws, universal use in government offices, and mandatory education. In Fryslan—the Frisian-speaking area in the Netherlands—citizens can take oath in courts and produce evidence as witnesses in the local Frisian dialect, even though most of the country speaks Dutch. In the northern parts of Norway, the Sami language receives equal status with Norwegian, even though Sami is only spoken by around 20,000 people. What I mean to show you is that there are many countries in the world that have minority languages and dialects. More importantly, these languages are given recognition by the municipalities or provinces in which they are found, sometimes even by the country as a whole. That’s because countries are now realizing that they should be proud of their diversity and try to protect it.
It would be a simple yet tremendous step for a province of the Philippines to grant similar kind of recognition to its vernacular(s), alongside English and Filipino. This would not contradict the National Constitution, as the Constitution already gives recognition to the major regional tongues as “auxiliary languages”— provincial recognition would merely extend this idea. At the very least, provinces or municipalities could pass some kind of Language and Cultural Preservation ordinance, prescribing fairer representation of native languages in media, education, and government itself.
While the members of government in La Union and many other Region I/II provinces continue to know Ilokano—from streetsweepers all the way up to the governors—the public, especially the youth, are using it less and less. Almost every new child born in cities nowadays represents another person who will be raised primarily Tagalog-speaking. If provinces and municipalities want to pass regulations to ensure the continued use of the local language alongside Tagalog and English, then it is critical that these regulations are passed now. The youth of today will be the leaders tomorrow, and being a generation whose proficiency in the local languages is lacking, they are unlikely to have the reason or motivation to try to save these languages. Therefore, language preservation laws must be passed now, or never.
Many young people and professionals are abandoning their mother tongue in preference for Tagalog and English, and this is unsustainable for Filipino diversity. I am only 24, and it frightens me that in the same amount of time, many Philippine languages may become extinct.
Perhaps the most concerning threat to Philippine languages is the low level of knowledge about them. The vast majority of Filipino society do not even know that the tongues they call “dialects” are, for the most part, full-fledged languages. This is not a case of the public not remembering the proper terminology taught in school. It is a case of the schools themselves misinforming their students, with textbooks and teachers erroneously calling Ilocano, Hilgayanon, Bikolano, and the other languages as mere dialects. This claim, whether intentional or not, dangerously undermines the importance of the other Philippine languages. Losing a dialect is losing one variant of the same language, but losing an independent language—which represents thousands of years in the making—is even more serious. In dismissing a language as a dialect, therefore, one absolves oneself from the urgent responsibility to protect it.
Why is it incorrect to refer to Philippine languages as dialects? The mainstream, internationally accepted definition of a dialect is that it is mutually understandable with another dialect. That is, speakers of different dialects should be able to understand each other. If you say Ilokano and Kapampangan are dialects, for example, that implies that an Ilokano person and a Kapampangan person can understand each other even if it is the first time they have heard the other dialect. But that is clearly not the case. A Kapampangan cannot understand Ilokano, and visa-versa. Kapampangan and Ilokano, therefore, are separate languages. This applies to the rest of the 100+ languages of the Philippines. In fact, many Philippine languages have less in common with each other than European languages have, like Italian and French.
If you don’t believe that the various mother tongues of the Philippines are languages, go research for yourself. Check on Wikipedia. Check on Ethnologue, the world’s compendium of languages. Check your very own Constitution! Article XIV, Section 7 correctly refers to the vernaculars as “languages”, and further recognizes them as “auxiliary official languages in the regions.” It is also interesting to note that the Constitution proclaims these regional languages as “auxiliary media of instruction.” This means that penalizing a pupil for speaking a major Philippine language like Ilokano or Pangasinan violates the most supreme law of the Philippines. To put it simply, teachers and schools who have punished or fined their students for speaking a vernacular have actually broken the law. Those who feel reluctant to use the local language in school—don’t be ashamed. You have a constitutional right to do so.
Even though many people misuse the word dialect, I must clarify that dialects do exist in the Philippines. The true meaning of dialect, however, is not what the general public is familiar with. In truth, dialects represent variations of the same language. Southern Tagalog, for example, is different from Manila Tagalog. These would be correctly classified as dialects (i.e variations) of one language, Tagalog. Similarly, the Iloko spoken in Ilocos Norte is a little bit different from the Iloko spoken in La Union and Isabela, yet they can still all understand each other. These regional differences are dialects, but viewed together they make up the whole Iloko language. Similarly, Bikol Legaspi and Bikol Naga City are dialects of the Bikol language. By this criteria, there are 300 dialects in the Philippines, representing 120 or more distinct languages.
As explained by Dr. Andrew Gonzalez, former DepEd Secretary and Professor of Linguistics at De Le Salle University: “The other Philippine languages (not dialects), as of the last count, were put at 120 (see McFarland, 1993). If one adds the varieties which are mutually intelligible (hence genuine dialects), the estimate extends to over 300. Part of the confusion in the literature on the Philippines during the American period (l898 to l946), and even now among non-linguistically trained academic researchers, is that authors still speak of the 120 Philippine languages (by linguistic definition, mutually unintelligible) as if they were ‘dialects’.”
Now that you know your local “dialects” are in fact complete languages according to the international community and according to mainstream science, any threat to their survival should be taken very seriously. If children are not speaking the mother tongue as fluently as their parents, and if local languages continue to be excluded from media, education, and business, then you risk losing something as important, as old, and as celebrated as the English language itself.
Part 9 is quoted in its entirety above.