Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Language of Ourselves

The inglorious president of the Philippines wants to change the current medium of instruction from Pilipino (based on Tagalog, the common language) to either English or local languages or both, so as to make Filipinos more competitive in the international market. If that's the rationale, then English would be likely restored as the medium of instruction, the mention of local languages a sop to lull suspicions.

Such reasoning boggles the mind. Consider that a million Filipinos leave annually to work in some 168 countries; consider that the country has 20% of the world’s call centers market and will have 50-60% of it in a few years’ time; consider that Dumaguete, Davao and Naga – hitherto rural areas – are now major call centers for the world medical transcription industry… how much more competitive do Filipinos have to be? To the extent where the whole archipelago devolves into a handful of disparate tribes unable to speak to one another except through the prism of a colonial tongue? It’s enough to make one gag.

In my New York neighborhood, a 20-block run takes you to Argentina, Chile, Columbia, India, Pakistan, Philippines; 30 blocks and you’re in Africa, Jamaica and other places whose names escape even a geography fan. It is so diversely ethnic here that it occasionally brings surfeit, like eating six black apricots one after another, mesmerized by the oxymoronic name. Over a hundred languages are spoken here and one meets Filipinos from every region of the archipelago, chance encounters blooming into friendship at the spurt of “ay, Pilipino ka, kumusta ka, saan ang lakad, kumain ka na ba?” This is where MJ, who comes from GenSan, speaks Ilongo to Tess from Davao, and both speak Tagalog to me.

A decade ago, only three Filipino households were in the neighborhood – myself, a friend at the next block and another ten blocks away. But eventually, others moved in, led by some self-described “stalkers” of mine, in a rush for the then relatively cheap apartments in pre-war buildings originally constructed on wheat fields to entice workers to Queens, catapulting the then-lone Pinoy real-estate agent to the million-dollar-sales club. Our tribes increased but remained invisible, because our “ghetto” was blocks away, streets peppered by Filipino restaurants, banks, courier/balikbayan agencies, beauty salons advertising the cryptic puting kilikili, singit guaranteed (white armpits and -- I have to invent a phrase here -- crotch-folds guaranteed). Sometimes a presence is announced – Maximo Bartel is here – which I took to be an ethnic version of Kilroy Was Here until a friend enlightened me that this was a hair stylist, this a make-up artist, that a singer. Pardon my ignorance. Gossip, of course, flows from corner to corner, unstoppable and without fact-check, in our common language.

I once offered to temporarily care for the child of someone who was ill and desperate. Two days later, a friend I hadn’t seen in four months came knocking, wanting to see “the child you adopted,” sending me into hysterics of “Did Not, Did Not, Did Not!” as anything about children often do. Two days, my goodness, for this bit of news to reach ten blocks; no wonder any tale from me was greeted with “ay, bahaw na iyan, may bago na!” (that’s stale, there’s something new!).

Point is that there’s a vast current of communication flowing through this neighborhood, welding us together into a people, no matter what region or tribe we came from. Because we tend to use perishable materials for our culture – bamboo scrolls, textile, beads and the like – and those of permanence like paintings and sculpture are reserved for those who can afford, language is what binds us together and our Putonghua (Chinese for common language or Mandarin) is Tagalog. I’ve spent hours of talk-story time with men and women from any of the 7,100 islands, occasionally with lapses of silence as we mentally translate from one language to another, working out meaning. My first language is Tagalog but I can do a little of Bisaya and a little of Ilongo and can curse heartily in five languages.

Point is practicing ethno-linguistic chauvinism in this area is impractical, because we have become a melting pot unto ourselves. In areas where ethno-linguistic chauvinism is practiced and defended, the Filipino population tends to decrease. Likely because a common language is needed to forge a community, to identify common interests, dreams and goals, and develop a common plan of action.

Even the second-gens, raised monolingual by misguided parents, listen with envy to the “bubbling water” cadenza of our conversation. How do you manage? I was asked once, and it was someone from Sulu – a place as unfamiliar to me as Alaska – who replied: “We use Tagalog.”

Making the leap from “my language” to “our language” is part of the process of nationhood; of achieving a sense of the collective entity we call our nationality. This "leap" to a larger self is absolutely necessary for the struggle for better work and living conditions, and against exploitation, discrimination and sexism. Organizing is ten times more difficult if one does not have a common language with those being organized.

For women, the issue of a common language is critical. Because of their intimate nature, certain topics can only be discussed effectively in a language reflective of one’s stream of consciousness. Instructions in safe sex or domestic violence or sexual preference are triply difficult in English, whose nuances are often alien to that of the archipelago’s social context. Blank stares are often the response to anything I say in English regarding such subjects but if I say, “walang k- ang asawa mong bugbugin ka, lalo pa pakain mo siya…” (Your husband has no right to beat you up, especially since you pay for what he eats)... the reaction is instant. Those who can read the Tagalog version will appreciate the difference.

That Tagalog has become the common language is a historical accident, true. But there it is and it binds us into an exiled nation, rather than an accumulation of tribes, and it seems to have lent itself to easy learning, being of the same stock as the rest of the islands’ 170 languages. The Philippines is not the only country with a multiplicity of languages; there’s Indonesia which has more and Malaysia as well. They thrive on Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia. China’s one billion population manages with Putonghua (Mandarin), despite 6-12 regional languages, each with tens of millions of speakers. And here we are, trying to devolve the Philippines into incoherence and to force the national conversation into a colonial paradigm. It is both stupid and tragic. -- ##


Anonymous said...

We need only to remember the faux pas made by a recent beauty queen to know the problem of forcing a colonial tongue into a people.

Anonymous said...

Great! But, we need to know first the language/s that we have before swallowing the new language of necessity..