Speaking in tongues: How storytelling shapes Philippine languages

Ivan Jim Layugan

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Speaking in tongues: How storytelling shapes Philippine languages
'People contextualize their language when they tell a story'

There is no such thing as a regional defect.

Usually prone to mispronunciations, poor vocabulary, and wrong grammar, Filipinos, especially those in the rural areas, are usually teased for their “imperfect” English. This allowed for a concept of “regional defect,” associating these flaws in proper English usage to their first language, dubbed by linguists as L1.

English holds an important place in the Philippine academe.

In fact, the research and ranking firm Quacquarelli Symonds places the University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University, and De La Salle University constantly in the Top 200 universities in the world for excellence in English Language and Literature. Proficiency in English is a yardstick for intelligence and academic prowess. Think of the Filipinos’ language fiascos in international “major-major” beauty pageants, diplomatic meetings, and most recently in popular culture, television and “you’re road.” 

From world to word 

Debate on the issue of our capacity and capability to speak English are sparked by situations when we feel embarrassed by a fellow Filipino’s quip or quote. This happens regularly, however, thanks to the Filipino knack and love for storytelling.

Researchers from the University of the Philippines-Baguio, one of the cornerstones of language and literature education in Northern Luzon, contribute to this debate by establishing what they found in festivals in the Cordillera region: language is dependent on the story being told.

“People contextualize their language when they tell a story,” Learane Ampaguey, a linguistics scholar based in the University of the Philippines-Baguio, observed.

“Language is heavily affected by culture and we Filipinos are quick enough to shape the stories we tell based on the culture where the stories came from.”

Ampaguey, who collaborated on the research with Dr. Elizabeth Calinawagan, the former Dean of the College of Arts and Communications in the university, immersed in Benguet. They attended important government-sponsored festivities or town fiestas in the province, where they studied how the five existing ethnolinguistic groups use their L1: Ibaloy, Iowak, Karao, Kalanguya, and Kankana-ey.

A common language shared by these groups include Ilocano, aside from Filipino and English.

“Filipino and English are formal programs and it’s not surprising that the locals understand it,” Ampaguey told Rappler, “but we were surprised to discover that when they tell a story, they can shift from Kankana-ey to Kalanguya or Ibaloy, even if they are not fully knowledgeable about the other language they are using. Nakakatuwa (It’s fun).”

In linguistics, this phenomenon is called “code-switching” or “code-mixing,” a practice of alternating, most often unconsciously, between two or more languages and its varieties. The best example of which is our concept of Taglish, a mix of Tagalog and English.

Code-switching, however, is used by a speaker to create a special effect in his speech, something essential in storytelling.

The researchers also discovered, albeit by serendipity, that we stray away from our L1 and opt for an original, regional term when we talk about food.

“Ilocanos working in other countries, for example, would converse on social media using English, but in between the conversation, they would rather say ‘I want to eat daing nga ada kamatis ken sibuyas na.’ than ‘dried fish with tomatoes and onions,’” Dr. Calinawagan said in one of her lectures in the college. “It becomes more visual. It is imagery.”

This serves true even in marketing. “A vendor told us that she would sell more if she would use the local term,” Ampaguey shared. “She would easily sell out her ‘cassava soaked in rice wine’ if she will label it by its name, binudburan.”

They also discovered how people of Benguet, which may be said about peoples in other rural regions in the country, feel about language not their own. They feel distanced, intimidated, and shy.

“When we interview them, oftentimes the enunciation of words change,” Ampaguey furthered. “We have to validate the spoken data we get by providing illustrations.”

Language in literature 

The research also confirms what academics envisioned upon the inclusion of the Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education as a feature of the Enhanced Basic Education Program in the K+12: We develop cognitive and reasoning skills enabling us to operate equally in different languages once we have a good grasp of our own — our L1.

“When we use our L1, we express or communicate information, ideas, and jokes easily to a wider audience,” Ampaguey said. “It helps transmit cultural heritage to younger speakers, and they are empowered about how they perceive their language.”

Languages and dialects are part of this overall language debate in the Philippines, although in technical terms in linguistics, all the codes we speak in the Philippines, like Ilocano, Kankana-ey, Manobo, or Waray, among others, are languages.

The dialects are brought about by the variations—the regional usage. (READ: The Buwan ng Wika debate: Do we celebrate local languages or dialects?)

In MTB-MLE, one of the first things developed in Grade 1 pupils is oral fluency, thus involving speaking skills and storytelling. The other macro skills— reading, listening, and writing — are encouraged later on.

Thus, narratives and regional folklore play an important role in their education.

They learn from, and also to tell, stories. One of the key vehicles in implementing MTB-MLE in the regions is through the regional literature: folktales, legends, myths, and other unique Philippine literary forms shared in the L1.

But English, as this distancing and somehow intimidating language, is already an indispensable part of our culture, as well.

“People, potentially, are generally multilingual. While on field, we observed that the people who attended the festivals, rain or shine, are game. They are not embarrassed. They are empowered by using their own language and these are fused with other languages — English or their neighboring community’s,” Ampaguey shared.

Confidence and empowerment in the language and knowledge of our literary and cultural history are important aspects of patriotism and communication.

“Any way of using a language enhances and strengthens that language,” Dr. Calinawagan said. – Rappler.com


 Ivan Jim Layugan is a writer and teacher based in Baguio City.



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