Language dilemma: an outsider’s perspective

Bill Davis

Firth McEachern, working as a consultant in the provincial government of La Union, has his own run-in with the language dilemma in the Philippines (see “The “Goldilocks” of MLE Implementation: Possibilities in overcoming demographic challenges“). In the following response to James Soriano’s op-ed piece, “Language, learning, identity, privilege“, Bill Davis, an American writer, missionary translator, linguist and international language learning consultant, who has lived with his family in the Philippines (presently in Palawan) for some 30 years and counting, shares us his own perspective:

(Manuel Buencamino’s comment, “James Soriano and his wang-wang“, on the Soriano piece is also included here.)

reThinking Soriano

James Soriano’s iThink op-ed essay in the Manila Bulletin on August 26, 2011, caused such an uproar among Filipinos that the paper pulled the piece off their website before the sun set on the day of its printing, and certainly before I could write an after-work letter to the editor. Soriano was accused of arrogant elitism by many, while others praised him for bravely pointing out the linguistic schizophrenia he sees in the Philippine educational system, or even, in the very culture of the upper classes. At the same time, other readers suggested that he was actually being sarcastic, making fun of himself, rather than belittling the Filipino language.

James Soriano

In school I learned to think in English. We used English to learn about numbers, equations and variables. With it we learned about observation and inference, the moon and the stars, monsoons and photosynthesis. With it we learned about shapes and colors, about meter and rhythm. I learned about God in English, and I prayed to Him in English.

Filipino, on the other hand, was always the ‘other’ subject — almost a special subject like PE or Home Economics, except that it was graded the same way as Science, Math, Religion, and English. My classmates and I used to complain about Filipino all the time. Filipino was a chore, like washing the dishes; it was not the language of learning. It was the language we used to speak to the people who washed our dishes.

We used to think learning Filipino was important because it was practical: Filipino was the language of the world outside the classroom. It was the language of the streets: it was how you spoke to the tindera when you went to the tindahan, what you used to tell your katulong that you had an utos, and how you texted manong when you needed “sundo na.”

For the complete Manila Bulletin article, click on James Soriano’s “Language, learning, identity, privilege“.

Was he insulting those who speak Filipino by calling it the “language of the streets”? Or was he describing his own journey-in-progress out of elitism by speaking as he had thought at the time?  Is he saying the Filipino language is inferior, or that those who do not use it in supposedly high-status settings are themselves the problem? We may never know, short of sitting down with James over coffee to ask what he really meant to say in those few lines. I know that it is next to impossible to fully explain oneself in such a limited space. He certainly wrote some harsh words which might be taken as insulting, but I won’t judge him here.

And I cannot speak as a Filipino to say how a nationmate might be affected by his statements.

Because you see, I’m not Filipino—I’m an American. But while I’m still an outsider in many ways, I’m not just a casual visitor to this country. My wife and I came here from California over 30 years ago in our mid-20s (you can do the math). Out of respect for this nation and a desire to develop relationships and to function at a deeper, more empathetic level, we spent our first year in full-time Tagalog study. We made this country our home and raised our children here. Now, our kids are grown and back in the US, and we’re still working here. We love this country and its people, while being frustrated by some of the same things that our Filipino friends complain about (but we keep our thoughts to ourselves). After that first year, we moved to Palawan and have spent most of our time down here working with a tribal minority group in the southern part of the island, trying to help them deal with the many challenges they face after we became fluent in their language.

So our experience here puts us in a unique position. We have friends in Makati and friends in the provincial towns. And we have friends who live in the rain forest. Some of our Filipino friends grew up without speaking Tagalog much, as did James Soriano. Others prefer Tagalog and are not comfortable in English. And some speak their native minority language and little else.


As I think about Soriano’s topic—Language and Identity—or more broadly, what it means to be Filipino, I would never presume to speak on behalf of Filipinos, or to say that I have all the answers. But what I can do, perhaps, is to add a few more questions to the mix, questions which do not seem to be considered by many, and to pose them from my somewhat unique perspective. What I will write here are not simply my own ideas. They are a synthesis of what I have heard many Filipinos say, in particular the ethnic minorities, those Filipinos whose voices are rarely heard above the din of national discourse.

Soriano’s short-lived article provoked discussion on a vital question, namely, how to build a national Filipino identity and pride. But the real question, which I would like to put on the table, is whether or not such a Filipino identity should—or even can—be built around a single common language. This is an important question, because if the answer is “yes,” of necessity the next question is “which language”? But if the answer is “no,” then another basis for national unity and identity must be found.

Some might say the question was settled years ago. The national language is Filipino. But is it really? Does it promote a sense of common heritage? Or is language still a cause of marginalization?

The Philippines is a nation of 7,107 islands, and according to the Ethnologue, 171 languages. Those are languages. It is a misnomer to call them “dialects,” as we often do, as though they are somehow less distinct or less significant. Each one is the heart language—the mother tongue—of a community of Filipinos. So in the face of that, which language should be the national language? Ordinarily, a common mother tongue would be the criteria, as in Japan or Germany. But in the Philippines, there is no one common heart language, and many Filipinos claim equal mother-tongue facility in two or more languages. Many say that the national language should be Filipino, and that in fact, this decision was made decades ago. Others argue that it should be English, because it is the language of technology and opportunity abroad, or even because it sidesteps the question of which Philippine language should be considered “the one.”

But in choosing a national language, the quesiton must be asked: What are the criteria? If the decision is to be made solely on the number of speakers, Tagalog-based Filipino might win out, although its first-language status for large sectors of the population is questionable, and Cebuano, which runs a close second in number of speakers, should be considered as well. Most first-language Tagalog speakers are concentrated in Metro Manila and the surrounding provinces, so Tagalog-based Filipino cannot be considered “national” in terms of geographical area; its range as a first-language is actually rather limited. Its reach into most provinces is only due to the fact that it is a required language course and medium of instruction for about a third of the courses in the nation’s schools (English being the MOI in the remaining two-thirds, including math and science). And to select a neutral, common language like English—for whatever reason—besides the fact that it is an imported language and does not stir a sense of national pride, leaves out all the Filipinos who don’t speak English, or who speak it only poorly. And there are many who fit this description.

So which language is it to be?

The situation is much more complicated than many Filipinos, particularly those living in Manila, realize. Language is a very emotional topic, as the reaction to Soriano’s essay quickly proved. Language is tied up with identity and heritage, and it even shapes how a person views the world. But nationwide, language is not at the heart of a national Filipino identity; language is connected with local identity.


The arguments sparked by Soriano’s comments centered for the most part around whether English or Filipino should be the national language, the common source of pride and identity. But that is looking at the issue through the wrong lens. No language is shared universally throughout the Philippines as a heart language, the language of depth and fluency, the language of identity. No single language—not Filipino or even English.

As I have traveled around this country, friends and acquaintances have told me while they are Filipino, Tagalog-based Filipino is not their language. It is something which they were required to learn in school. It is not a part of their sense of identity as a Filipino. It is not the language of their heart. It is not even the “language of the street,” to use Soriano’s inflammtory words. This is true of educated Filipinos from many provinces. But it is particularly the case for the ethnic minorities—the katutubo—with which I am most familiar.

No only is it important what language a person speaks, it makes a difference what name is used to refer to the language. The language spoken on the island of Cebu is called Cebuano. But speakers of that language who live elsewhere, for example in Bukidnon, call it Visayan, because, as they were quick to remind me, they are not from Cebu (Cebuanos).

Some might be ready to argue that Filipino is already the national language, learned in school by everyone nationwide. But the fact that it is “learned in school,” is actually part of the problem. For much of the nation, Filipino is not a mother tongue learned in the home. And that’s not the only issue. I will go out on a limb here, as I know that there are other linguists who disagree with me. When you get right down to it, what we now call Filipino is nothing more than Tagalog with a new name given in a well-intentioned political move to create a national language. The few borrowed words do not really matter. It’s still Tagalog at heart. And a decision to call it “Filipino” does not make it any more of a national language for those who consider their mother tongue to be Cebuano or Waray-Waray or Batak. In fact, this is a sore spot for many Filipinos. It is too easy for those in Manila and other Tagalog-majority regions to forget this. The goal of creating a unified national identity around language has actually caused resentment and division. And that’s not hard to understand. Imagine the reaction in Bulacan or Taguig if Cebuano had been made the national language and renamed “Filipino” and was a required course in all the schools.


No small number of minorities are far from fluent in Filipino and many do not speak any English at all  because of a historical lack of schools in their communities. But the problem is not simply a matter of the lack of educational opportunity. It’s a matter of identity. But there are Ibaloi and Kalanguya with master’s degrees, who are masterfully articulate in English, but while they were required to learn Tagalog in school, they consider it to be their fourth, and least-preferred language, the order being: mother tongue (such as Ilocano), English, with Tagalog in last place. If one of their parents happens to be from a neighboring minority group, Tagalog will be bumped to fifth place, making it even less “Filipino” for them.

But not all minorities have such a strong sense of self worth. Many will leave their language and culture behind when they go to school and learn the national language. Sometimes in the space of 30 years, one generation will lose their parents’ minority language and adopt a language of wider communication such as Cuyonon, only to see their children turn from Cuyonon and speak only Filipino after a few years in school. But sadly, I have seen that the reason they are so willing to lose their identity is that unless they change and give it up, they are treated as inferior and are not accepted as fully Filipino.

So the issue is not all about language. It is about feelings of superiority and inferiority. At the core is the question of how to find acceptance.


First the Spanish and then the Americans brought language, religion and culture change to the Philippines. I will leave it to others to argue the relative benefits and detriments caused by those arrivals, as I would be totally out of line to comment on them. But I do know that there are those who feel a sense of oppression when those languages—first Spanish, and now English—are put forth as candidates for a national language. The valid desire is there to select a language which is indigenous to these islands. But the current challenge is how to promote even an indigenous language (whether Tagalog, “Filipino,” Cebuano or any other) without passing on a new form of colonialism. The requirement to change core identity is now handed down to the next level, to the smaller minority groups. How can the Philippines foster national unity and identity without implying that those minorities are somehow less Filipino if they cherish and retain their linguistic and cultural heritage? Must they be faced with the choice between educating their children and retaining their cultural identity? Is cultural and linguistic homogenization the only path to national unity and Filipino identity?


When the minorities are left alone and uneducated, they are marginalized and cannot prosper and advance. They are easily taken advantage of and lose their rights or the land. But often, when they are taught the national language and culture in school, they still face great loss—they lose themselves completely. It would be helpful to conduct the early grades of school in their mother tongue. Research has proven that this provides the best education, while helping students retain their heritage culture. But the implementation of mother language education (MLE) is not as easy as it might sound. In many cases, there are as many as five or six mother languages in a single barangay. How can teachers cope with that? And if there have been no schools in area, there will be no educated speakers of the local languages to be teachers in the first place, not to mention there will be no school materials for them. Idealism is not enough. MLE is a good idea, but it will require a huge commitment and coordinated effort before the country can see it happen and reap the benefits.

On the one hand, regional and linguistic separatism and factions harm the nation, and people cannot work together as one. The polar opposite might be to force a single national language and hope that in a few generations, the other languages fade away. But wiping out cultures and languages is not only unfair, it would be a great loss to the nation as a whole. In between these extremes lie all the challenges of implementing mother language education or some other program which would value diversity while at the same time providing education, and opportunity. The crying need is to foster a sense of national identity and pride without a collateral loss of local heritage or a false sense of shame, to become fully Filipino without ceasing to be Palawano or Manobo or Tboli.


Different languages, cultures and religions—islands and provinces. Families. The multi-layered and rich diversity in the Philippines is everywhere. And to varying degrees, Filipinos are simultaneously united and divided by these distinctions. And as the population grows and moves about and intermarries, the overlap between each of these makes for a very complex situation. But with diversity is a richness that must not be lost.

Historically, Filipino national identity has never really been based on a single common language. And to force any particular language on everyone is a risky business, with the possibility of resentment, the marginalization of minorities, or worse yet, their assimilation into a homogenized nation where the distinctions of heritage are lost. Such a loss would be tragic. And yet, there must be a common ground and an ability to communicate with one another.

For most of the country, national identity lies deeper than an artificially-imposed national language. Filipinos from different provinces can meet overseas and feel a strong sense of identity as Filipinos. But many of the minority groups right here within these shores feel isolated and left out. They are treated as something other, something less. They are not seen as equally Filipino, especially when lacking education and opportunity; they are made to feel they must cease to be what they are in order to be accepted.

To sum up, I propose that at the heart of what it means to be Filipino lies not a common language, but a shared history and common goals—the hopes and dreams of this society to thrive and to live in peace.

So the question is not, “English or Filipino?” The question is how to live and prosper as one without leaving any group behind or setting them aside on the margins of society. How can they be brought along as equal in status and opportunity without stripping away their uniqueness?

As I said at the beginning, I don’t presume to claim that I have the answers. It is for the Filipino people—all of them—to decide their course. So it comes back to you. What do you think? What does it mean for each and every member of this nation to be Filipino and to succeed, and what will you do to make that happen?

The following is a related comment/open letter:

 James Soriano and his wang-wang

By Manuel Buencamino
The ProPinoy Project, Sept. 6, 2011

An essay on the English language by Bulletin columnist James Soriano was met with so much protest and condemnation it became a trending topic in social media. Unfortunately, by the time I heard about it, the Bulletin already removed it from its archives. Wimps. Now I have to rely on excerpts from Billy Esposo’s Sunday column in the Star. Tragic. (Just kidding, Billy.)

At any rate, it seems that the majority of those who read James’ put down of the national language reacted like some Catholics did to Mideo Cruz’s Christ collage. They were outraged.

I was not offended by the Christ collage because human intellect needs sacrilege and blasphemy if it is to continue evolving. I was not offended by James’ essay either. I felt sorry for him. Because he believes that his ability to speak English is his wang-wang. And that is neither sacrilege nor blasphemy. It’s simply stupid. Even as satire.

Dear James,

I hate to disappoint you but English is just another means to communicate with other humans. English is not a magic potion, speaking it does not endow you with special powers. When you speak English in English-speaking countries you are just like everyone else there. And when you speak it in countries where they don’t speak English… well you will be different. And different is not the same as special.

“I may be disconnected from being Filipino, but with a tongue of privilege I will always have my connections.”

No, James. That would be like Mommy D. saying, “My Hermes handbag will get me into the salons of the old rich.”

Was your mother responsible for your pathetic attitude? “As a toddler, my first study materials were a set of flash cards that my mother used to teach me the English alphabet. My mother made home conducive to learning English: all my storybooks and coloring books were in English, and so were the cartoons I watched and the music I listened to. She required me to speak English at home. She even hired tutors to help me learn to read and write in English.”

I don’t think so. I think she only wanted to teach you a second language, with great difficulty.

Was it your school? “In school I learned to think in English. We used English to learn about numbers, equations and variables. With it we learned about observation and inference, the moon and the stars, monsoons and photosynthesis. With it we learned about shapes and colors, about meter and rhythm. I learned about God in English, and I prayed to Him in English.”

I don’t think so. I think your school was only making do with what was available because in this country we do not print textbooks in our native language.

So who is to blame for your belief that Pilipino is inferior, that it is “the language of the streets: it was how you spoke to the tindera when you went to the tindahan, what you used to tell your katulong that you had an utos, and how you texted manong when you needed sundo na”?

I think you acquired that pathetic attitude all by yourself. As a coping mechanism. Because you patronize tindahans instead of supermarkets, because you put down tinderas like a stupid tourist who faults locals for not speaking his language.

Now I don’t know about your personal circumstances but you did mention that you ride jeepneys and you address your driver as manong. So let’s talk maids.

A privileged lady once told me that if you have to talk to your katulong in Pilipino then that means you either cannot afford to hire one who can speak English to begin with or you don’t have the wang-wang to phone your local bishop to tell him that you have a new maid just in from some godforsaken province and to please take her to the convent so that his nuns can teach her how to speak English and be a good maid.

So I asked her, “Why send a katulong to a convent instead of Maid Academy?”

“Well,” she replied, “that’s because we are good Catholics and we want out katulongs to learn the right values as well. Because we know that if we send our katulongs to Maid Academy then chances are they will learn not only English, right values, and good maidsmanship but also how to text, twitter, and facebook. And then they will connect with an English-speaking foreigner and marry him. But we don’t consider that a problem, as a matter of fact we would be happy for the maid.”

However that would be a problem for someone who seems to have no other qualities other than his English to differentiate himself from his katulong. Can you imagine running into her and her American better-off-than-you husband while you are bargain hunting at Serramonte Center with your English-as-a-second-language immigrant relatives from Daly City? “Hi sir James, this is my husband Jack. I’m teaching him Pilipino.”

Anyway, where did you get the idea that you can pontificate on something you know nothing about? “(Pilipino) is neither the language of the classroom and the laboratory, nor the language of the boardroom, the court room, or the operating room. It is not the language of privilege.”

Tell that to the tindera. And don’t be shocked if she replies, “Pilipino is not the language of call centers either.” In other words, they speak English in call centers but call centers are not exactly places where you would go to rub elbows with the privileged.

Allow me to also point out that your notion of English being “the language of the learned” is absolutely wrong. Because to speak English and to be learned is not the same thing. Sarah Palin speaks English, duh.

And that brings me to my last point. Knowing English is not good enough. You also have to speak it with the correct accent. Now there’s no right or wrong accent per se. But there’s the accent of the privileged and the accent of everyone else. And I’m sure you don’t want to be included among the everyone else because “connections”, as you proclaimed, is important to you.

So you have to learn to speak English like the privileged. You must hang out with them, pretend to be one of them. Fortunately for you, your school, the Ateneo, is a school where you can learn how to fake good breeding. But, unfortunately, you also have to deal with pedigree. And there’s nothing your Alma Mater can do about that because pedigree is all about being a sperm from a long line of privileged sperms.

I guess what I’m trying to say is you might be better off learning Pilipino and embracing it instead of deluding yourself that English is your wang-wang.

Mabuhay ka,


One thought on “Language dilemma: an outsider’s perspective

  1. The richness of each of the diverse and unique languages/cultures of each specific group of Philippine ethnicity cannot be rendered inferior by debate or declaration of any group naming one out of the group as “the national language” and truly be justified in doing so. Without offending any one group, a simple solution could be reached by naming a “common communication language” for all to use in public, private and political forums, except within the framework of the local ethnic groups.

    If the statistics prove that the mother tongue being used in the early formative years are the best, then why not just follow the proven way?

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