It’s time to stop denying our diversity


Written by Dr. Elizabeth Caliwanagan (UP-Baguio)

AUGUST is Buwan ng Wika (Language Month). For some, this is a happy celebration; for others, it is observed just for compliance, while others avoid it out of frustration.

Before explaining why, let us review a little history. In 1968 Ferdinand Marcos issued Presidential Proclamation 187 establishing the Linggo ng Wikang Pambansa (National Language Week) during which government agencies and schools were told to use Pilipino in all their official communications and transactions. President Fidel Ramos altered the timeframe of this celebration in 1997, declaring the whole month of August as Buwan ng Wikang Pambansa.

For 46 years, the national government has set aside a time of the year in which Filipinos are supposed to use, prioritize, and idolize the national language. The frustrating aspect, however, is how it never seems to change. It would be wonderful if someone thought to make Buwan ng Wika more inclusive. In other countries, celebrations designed to promote language usually target regional, minority, and indigenous languages, because these are the languages that are in most need of attention. With 90 percent of the world’s 6,000 languages endangered, it is urgent that we give time to think about their place in our societies, their legacy, and their future.

The national language is not endangered. The advocacy for its use nationwide has been achieved. It is rapidly being integrated into new domains of technology like Facebook and is spreading around the world as the lingua franca of Filipinos. It is like a virus that permeated the communication system via mass media and social media.

In fact, Tagalog (or, more formally, Pilipino) is spoken by more people today than in any time in human history. In fact, even foreigners learn and speak it. By contrast, there are many Philippine languages that are endangered, and a few Ayta/Agta languages have already gone extinct. Even large languages, like Capampangan and Pangasinan are fast declining, as has been reported by this newspaper in past issues.
Without many realizing, we are gradually losing our linguistic and cultural diversity. This should be a cause for concern for everyone. In a recent conference held in China, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Director-General Dr. Irina Bokova explained why we should protect our many languages:

“I see multilingualism as essential to crafting more inclusive human development, reflecting the needs of every society. There can be no ‘one size fits all’ model. The new development agenda to follow 2015 should be universal in order to be sustainable, engaging all countries equally and reflecting their diversity.

This is an issue of human rights. It is an issue for poverty eradication and sustainable development. Ultimately, it is an issue for lasting peace, for respect and tolerance. Each of the world’s 6,000 or so languages contains its own wealth of knowledge.”

The typical refrain of Buwan ng Wika, however, is ‘one size fits all.’ What the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (KWF) tells us is that the national language fits us all. No matter if we are Bicolanos, Bisayans, Kapampangans, or Muslims, we should all just love and use the national language. There was only a brief period of three years (2006-2008) in which the KWF became more attentive to other Philippine languages, evident in Language Month themes like “Ang Buwan ng Wika ay Buwan ng mga Wika sa Pilipinas” (2006), “Maraming Wika Matatag na Bansa” (2007), “Wika mo, Wika ko, Wika ng Mundo, Mahalaga” (2008). Since then, the KWF has reverted back to a platform of uniformity. The Philippine Constitution espouses “unity in diversity”, but then why are our children forced to sing and chant about the importance of the national language for a whole month, without a single day of August in honor of their mother tongues? The KWF might argue that they do things for other languages, like the recent publication of Cordillera folk stories, but it is not enough. The big majority of their resources is spent on Pilipino.

Buwan ng Wika is frustrating to many Filipinos not because they are against the national language. They are frustrated because, after half a decade, the approach has not changed. The national language is spoken by almost all Filipinos. The national language has become more powerful than anyone expected. Is it still necessary to push it so hard, while other languages are silenced? Filipinos don’t buy the argument anymore that we have to abandon our languages to be unified. We can get along fine with our diversity. There is nothing to fear. Let’s do the right thing and make Buwan ng Wika a celebration of all our languages.
 An expounded version of this piece shall be presented in a forum held at UP Baguio on August 27 and UP Diliman on August 28, 2014

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