Pinoy Kasi : Language and the law

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Aug 25 14:12:12 UTC 2006

Pinoy Kasi : Language and the law

By Michael Tan Columnist Inquirer Posted date: August 25, 2006

WE complain endlessly about how lawless the country is. But there are
really two sides to this. On one hand, the rich and powerful know what the
laws are, and manipulate the legal system to their advantage. On the other
hand, you have the poor, who don't know the laws and end up being
victimized by the powerful. Language seems to aggravate the situation.
With English still dominating our legal system, it's no wonder that the
laws favor the rich. I thought about these problems of language and the
law as I read a copy of a letter from Napoleon Imperial to Sen. Manuel
Lapid (Lito Lapid, to most Filipinos). Nap, who is with the education and
manpower development division of the National Economic and Development
Authority (Neda), was appealing to the senator to push for the use of
Filipino, from the legislative processes to trial proceedings.

Nap's letter got me thinking. Perhaps one reason the nation is in shambles
is that the vast majority of Filipinos have little appreciation of our
laws. I intentionally used the word "appreciation" because we have many
wonderful laws, so much so that other countries sometimes look to our laws
as models. Let me cite a few examples: The Generics Act of 1989 is still
cited in medical journals and consumer magazines worldwide as an example
of how governments can promote rational drug use, and bring down drug
prices, through the use of generics. Our National AIDS Prevention Law,
passed in 1995, has been hailed by AIDS groups as model legislation with
its incisive provisions on prevention, treatment and care. Policy analysts
have pointed out that the law, with its strong anti-discrimination clauses
and support for a multisectoral National AIDS Council, may have been one
reason the prevalence of HIV in the country is low.

During a recent trip to Thailand, I met a woman legislator who told me she
had been inspired by one of our laws that penalizes marital rape. She's
been working to get a similar law passed there. Then there's the recent
passage of the Juvenile Justice Bill, which prohibits the imprisonment of
minors and provides for rehabilitation services. I predict that it will
inspire legislators in other countries to pass similar ones.


The list could go on and on. We do have good laws but they would become
even more effective if more people understood them, and used them. There
were multi-lingual information campaigns around the Generics Act shortly
after it was passed, and that helped to make an impact. Alas, with time,
the campaigns dwindled and many provisions of the law are rarely enforced.
With traffic regulations, we see attempts to use local languages for
better enforcement. We see more street signs now in Filipino, but they
still remain largely ineffective, partly because even in Filipino, the
messages are not clear.

Nap Imperial's point is to have new laws translated into and disseminated
in Filipino. But I suspect laws in Filipino may be even more obscure than
in English, so even more important would be public discussions of these
new laws, conducted in local languages and through the mass media. Just
listen to the legal assistance programs on radio, and you'll find
listeners calling in non-stop, asking, in Filipino, about a wide range of
legal issues from late birth registration to inheritance. I'd like to see
these programs going a step further and helping to change the Filipino
view of the law. Right now, Filipinos look at laws mainly as prohibitions,
exemplified by all the "bawal" [prohibited] signs we see on the road.
Since the powerful are always getting away with doing what's prohibited,
Filipinos end up looking at the "bawal" signs and our laws as
"suggestions"-things that you shouldn't do, if there's a risk of getting

Our public service programs should do more to emphasize how laws protect
people. A "No Parking" sign is there to prevent street congestion. A
"Slow" sign may mean the area has many schoolchildren crossing. We need
more discussions, too, about how laws help to assure fairness, to protect
rights. A "No Counterflow" sign should be explained not just to prevent
traffic gridlocks but also to ensure fairness. Why should anyone be
allowed to speed forward ahead of all the others who have been patiently
waiting? Language is important again to "interrogate" laws, and the
principles behind these laws. I once heard on radio an aggrieved woman
complaining, "Hindi karapat-dapat. Hindi fair." ["It's not right. It's not
fair."] We need to talk more about fairness, and the law, along lines of
what should be.


Nap also describes how court proceedings in English put many Filipinos at
a disadvantage. One reason is that their poor grasp of English prevents
them from following what's going on. But language isn't just a medium,
it's a setting as well. When judge and lawyers speak in English, they
duplicate the existing power inequities: We, the English speakers, know
what's right and you, the speakers of the "vernacular," of the "dialect,"
are ignorant.

Contrast our court hearings with our "barangay" [village or neighborhood
district] justice system, where the protagonists can confront each other
in Filipino or the local language, with barangay officials mediating.
Again, language sets the stage. Being able to speak, even occasionally
curse -- in Filipino or Cebuano or Ilocano -- allows people to bring out
important information to argue a case. Speaking in Filipino, the barangay
captain comes through as firm, yet understanding. I've seen a tiny woman
barangay captain restrain huge bullies, calm fiery wives, admonish haughty
mistresses with two words: "Makinig ka." She wouldn't have been as
effective if she said, "Listen."

Our notions of democracy revolve around voting, but I'm less impressed
with our elections than by the ways we lobby for or against laws.
Politicians' speeches leave me cold, but I'm always impressed with forums
where a peasant, or a worker, or a student, is able to explain a law with
all the eloquence that can come only with using local languages. Speakers
using English fall flat, the laws degenerating into jargon, distant and
irrelevant. In Filipino or a local language, the words fly, bodies move,
almost musically, as people begin to appreciate a law, and claim it as
their own. Now that's citizenship.

Similarly, the use of Filipino in barangay halls allows people to speak
their minds. Not surprisingly, the barangay hearings are often resolved
without going on to the police station or a court, sometimes in just one
afternoon. People can feel justice is done, and that the laws do benefit
citizens. "Galing!" ["Very good!"] I've heard people say after a barangay
hearing.  And I know they were not just praising the skills of the
barangay officials, but also expressing how they felt, a sense that
they're recovering from whatever wrong was done. That's justice, brought
about by the synergy of language and law.


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