Friday, August 26, 2011

Essay: The Dichotomy of Language in the Philippines

One of the essays circulating recently is "Language, learning, identity, privilege" by James Soriano (Edit 2: it's inaccessible now but you can check the Google Cache). It's not an original or even fresh opinion: it's a never-ending debate that's plagued by the Philippines for the past few decades (and I'm sure it's an issue in other, multilingual countries as well).

Whenever someone raises the English vs. Filipino argument, they often miss two significant points.

The first point is context and this is very important. A lot of people assume that Filipino is the de facto language of the country when it's not: it's transitioned from Spanish to English to Filipino (and sometimes, switching back to one or simultaneously having two national languages). Just look at the country's iconic (if not contentiously important) novels: Noli Me Tangere by Jose Rizal was written in Spanish, The Woman Who Had Two Navels by Nick Joaquin was written in English, and Bata, Bata... Pa'no Ka Ginawa? by Luwalhati Bautista was written in Filipino.

There is the belief that one language is "more Filipino" than the other but we have to understand that history is dynamic and constantly changing. English (together with Pilipino) might have been the vernacular during the Martial Law era when English was the National Language while Filipino the common tongue during the Cory Aquino administration when English was replaced. It would also be important to note the evolution of the language, as there was a time when Filipino exclusively used the abakada alphabet with just 20 letters, but how modern Filipino has expanded that repertoire into 28 (with letters c, j, v, etc. making the cut).

And while it's true that one language is used more often than the other in a particular context, you also have to ask where. I'm from Metro Manila so the common language I used every day is English and Filipino. But that's not necessarily the case in other regions like Visayas and Mindanao. There's a lot of dialects being used that's not represented by our National language (and another never-ending point of contention). To those who don't subscribe to the idea that Filipino is the language that best represents the entire archipelago, Filipino is as tyrannical and elitist as other foreign languages.

So when we talk about language and identity (which asks the question who we are), we also need to factor in when and where into the equation. It's not enough to say the Philippines as if there was just one Filipino experience, but clearly, generation gaps, locality, and personal experiences are all important elements.

The other point, and is perhaps the bigger problem, is our subscription to the ideology of dichotomies: something is either black or white, good or evil, positive or negative. It's a tempting paradigm, just as the concept of Schrödinger's cat at the very least gives pause to many people.

For example, as a personal experience, there's this belief that funerals and wakes should be depressing. The relatives of the deceased should be crying and mournful. While there is an atmosphere of sadness, for some family members, this is also a time of camaraderie, of seeing, talking, and empathizing with friends and relatives whom you don't often see. That's not to say you don't feel a sense of loss during a wake, but it's not the only emotion you're capable of experiencing. Both positive and negative emotions can take place simultaneously and the existence of one does not invalidate the other.

My difficulty with essays that frame the Filipino vs. English debate is that it becomes a zero-sum game where there is no room for co-existence.

Again, I've lived in Metro Manila, and as much as I'd like to say I speak in fluent English or in fluent Filipino, the reality is that most people fall somewhere in between. The mixing of both languages--"Tag-lish" as some of us call it--is natural, just as some might mix smatterings of Bicolano or Ilocano with Filipino or English (I was raised in a Filipino-Chinese atmosphere so I also encountered "Chi-Tag-Lish"). Even the recent text messaging lingo which we deride as Jejemon is a subversion of both English and Filipino so you can't get any more street-level than that.

Even within English and Filipino, the influence of one is evident in the other. For example, with English, terms like "salvage" or "the province" have a different meaning when compared to their Western counterparts. Filipino is constantly appropriating foreign words and another constant debate is the practice of colloquial Filipino vs. deep Filipino which is evident in word choices like tsapter vs. kabanata.

That's not to say there isn't any difference between English and Filipino--there is and only a fool would overlook that--but one of the prevailing ideologies is that English is an elitist (even imperialist) language while Filipino is the downtrodden underdog. My answer to such claims is that it's much more complicated than that and honestly, if you're just rooting for underdogs, there are other vastly underrepresented languages in the Philippines: they just don't happen to be national languages.

Another trend that I'm noticing--and its propaganda, based from personal experience, is incredibly effective if Soriano's column is any indication--is the English-language guilt: if you're fluent with English or if you have an American/English accent (or alternatively, if you don't speak in Filipino or do so with an accent), then you are somehow less Filipino than you ought to be. Again, this falls into the trap of dichotomy, and ignores the fact that English IS one of our national languages. True, it comes with imperialist baggage (and for the most part is the biggest contention against it), but we've also appropriated it as our own and to simply disregard it is to eschew its role in our history (both good and bad).

On one hand, I'm glad we're having this conversation. National pride and language are important matters to discuss. But my problem with limiting paradigms is that it doesn't really address the core questions that plague us. A lot of people will see this as a problem of language (English vs. Filipino) just as Soriano has framed it, but for me, the heart of the dilemma is how can we be responsible Filipinos, and that's going to be a very subjective answer. For me, it's more important to prove my virtue and nationalism through my actions and my decisions, rather than simply by the language that I speak (although that too is an integral factor) or how fluent I use it. As a writer, I recall that language isn't inherently good or evil, but a tool. There will be times when one language is best suited to a particular task, while at other times a different one is better. And in many ways, that's the beauty of the Philippines: we're a plurality of languages and cultures.

Edit: Just to clarify, that's not to disregard biases against Filipino. There is a negative bias in the country when you can't speak fluent English (but adept in Filipino), or how English proficiency is demanded--if not required--in a lot of business environments, or how the publishing industry favors English over Filipino (although there are exemptions). But raising awareness and appreciation of Filipino is not the same as tearing down English and those who choose to use it.


Eos said...

"it's more important to prove my virtue and nationalism through my actions and my decisions, rather than simply by the language that I speak"
So true.

Kate said...

The problem is that making a choice to speak (and as is the case for us writers, write) in a language, is that that choice in itself, is an action. So if we were to be judged by our actions, how we talk and how we write should be included there.

This is not to say I disagree about the complexity of the issue. I, too, grew up in a multi-lingual home (parents spoke Bisaya and Tagalog, school taught English) and I carry the guilt of being not proficient in Bisaya or Tagalog.

I guess I just felt insulted with Soriano's piece that implied Filipino is not (and cannot) be the language of the learned. Not being proficient in the language is one thing. Blaming it for your personal deficiencies in not being able to appreciate its intricacies, is another.

Charles said...

My interpretation of Soriano's piece--and for some this is me giving him too much credit--is that he's being apologetic and ironic in his last three paragraphs.

Considering in the fourth to the last paragraph he is acknowledging Filipino as the language of identity, there's a difference in tone with his last few words. He's not decrying Filipino but praising it (at the expense of English, which still makes it erroneous).

More along the lines of Lizada's interpretation

That aside, yes, for some of us, the language we speak and write is our way of showcasing our patriotism and agenda.