[OPINION] Our languages are in trouble, so what?

Multilingual Philippines
[OPINION] Our languages are in trouble, so what?
The education system has reinforced the narrow definition of success in terms of proficiency in two dominant languages: English and Filipino


The world has about 6,000 languages. More than half of them are endangered and could be extinct by the end of the century. The Philippines is no exception, with many of its native languages in decline.  

The Philippines is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. With 175 native languages (wrongly called “dialects”), it has about 3% of the world’s languages, yet only 0.2% of Earth’s land area. In other words, the Philippines is about 15 times more diverse than average. 

Ethnologue, a compendium of world languages, states that 28 Philippine languages are in trouble, up from 13 in 2016. Eleven languages are dying, and several are already extinct. The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages has identified the Philippines as being one of the top 10 “language hotspots” of the world, which means that the Philippines has a wealth of languages but they are being lost at a rate faster than we can adequately document them.

This is very worrying, because language diversity is a fundamental part of Filipino heritage, and humanity as a whole. Language diversity benefits both individuals and society, as discussed in our previous two articles.  (READ: The benefits of knowing many languages and How our native languages benefit society

Ethnologue’s estimates are conservative. In reality, more of our languages are in trouble. All 32 Negrito languages are endangered (Headland, 2003), and the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino has identified approximately 50 endangered languages.  

How do you know if a language is endangered or not? Unesco notes that any language where there is a break in intergenerational transfer is endangered. That means if parents are not passing their mother tongue to their child, then the language is endangered. Other signs of endangerment are when people develop a negative attitude toward their language, use their language in fewer and fewer aspects of their lives, or the proportion of speakers declines. Considering these signs, there are actually many more vulnerable Philippine languages than the officially published numbers.  

When we take a look at the evidence from news reports, online forums, language studies, and personal observations, it is clear that even large Philippine languages – like Kapampangan, Pangasinan, Bikol, and Ilokano – are dying, some faster than others. The same is happening with medium-sized languages, like Ibanag, Itawis, and Sambal. These languages are decreasing in terms of number of speakers and in terms of the frequency and contexts in which they are use.  

For example, while local languages are still used in family gatherings, sari-sari stores, and barangay halls, they are not widely used in certain public places, like parks, banks, food chains, and schools.  There are anecdotes that passengers would speak in their local languages, but once the bus enters the big city, they would shift to Tagalog.  

Why is this happening? There are a number of factors, such as migration and media. It can also be a residual effect of our colonial experience when Americans branded English as the language of civilization, while they dismissed native tongues as mere dialects. This hierarchical view of languages has stayed on. For example, Filipinos would describe people speaking their mother tongue as “parang ibon magsalita” (speak like bird) and having “matigas ang dila” (stiff tongue).  

Instead of affecting social change to address inequity and poor sense of identity, the education system is sustaining such conditions. It has reinforced the narrow definition of success in terms of proficiency in two dominant languages: English and Tagalog-based Filipino. While mother tongues have been included in the early grades, this move was expediently rationalized to improve acquisition of the dominant languages.

Evaluation studies on basic education tend to measure only what was learned in the two dominant languages, as if developing one’s mother tongue is not a legitimate goal in its own right. They do not highlight the knowledge that children have gained on various subjects using their mother tongue, nor do they holistically address benefits to participation, culture, community, and identity. As a result of such a deficient and materialist view of education, teachers are inclined to quickly shift to using dominant languages even if the children have not developed foundational skills in their mother tongue.

Meanwhile, parents are pressured to speak to their children in these dominant languages, knowing that the mother tongue will be discarded after Grade 3. In a more equitable system which supports diversity at all levels and does not perpetuate rigid language hierarchies, parents would not have to give up their heritage for the sake of their children’s academic success.    

While supporters of Tagalog and English battle each other for relative influence, let us not exclude the other 174 Filipino languages from the conversation. For many of our endangered languages, it’s not just about influence – it’s about survival. Their decline is a threat to our cultural democracy. (READ: Buwan ng Wika 2019 itatampok ang mga katutubong lengguwahe)

We must reevaluate our policies and come up with sustainable solutions now. We owe this commitment to every Filipino. To apologize after it’s too late will not bring back our languages.   

As warned in a Unesco Atlas on endangered languages (2001), “With the death and disappearance of a language, an irreplaceable unit in our knowledge and understanding of human thought and world-view is lost forever.” – Rappler.com 

Multilingual Philippines is an informal network of researchers and advocates of flexible and inclusive policies related to languages, education, and diversity. This article consolidates inputs from Ched E. Arzadon, professor at the College of Education, University of the Philippines-Diliman; Elizabeth A. Calinawagan, PhD, former dean of the College of Arts and Communication and professor of Filipino and linguistics at UP Baguio; Tony Igcalinos, president of Talaytayan 170+ Multilingual Education; Napoleon B. Imperial, former deputy executive director IV at the Commission on Higher Education; Firth McEachern, “Honorary Ilokano and Son of La Union” by Provincial Ordinance 033-12; and Voltaire Q. Oyzon, former director, Panrehiyong Sentro sa Wika, Leyte Normal University. Contact multilingual.philippines@gmail.com


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