Why Filipino?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Mar 15 02:23:25 UTC 2006


Why Filipino
First posted 11:35pm (Mla time) Mar 15, 2006
By Inquirer

FOR some time now, we've been hearing educators and government officials
-- all the way up to the President herself -- lamenting the deterioration
of English in the Philippines and how this will affect our international
competitiveness. All kinds of solutions have been proposed, from the
exclusive use of English as a medium of instruction to "English-only"
zones in schools. Last week, the Department of Education released results
of the latest National Achievement Test (NAT) administered to high school
seniors, and reported that proficiency in Filipino had deteriorated.
Specifically, average scores decreased from 61.3 percent (meaning "near
mastery") in 2001 to 42.5 percent ("below mastery") in 2005. What has been
the public's response to these latest test results? In stark contrast to
the frequent expressions of dismay over alleged deterioration in English
proficiency, there has been silence over the NAT findings for Filipino.
Many of my fellow professors at the University of the Philippines even
missed the story, which appeared in the Inquirer albeit on the upper left
hand corner. Several shook their heads in slight dismay;  others shrugged
their shoulders.

I have different interpretations of these responses. With so many pressing
problems of leadership and governance in the country, proficiency in
Filipino seems almost like a trivial problem. I suspect many Filipinos
actually think it's a language that doesn't even have to be taught because
we are, after all, Filipinos. We think all Filipinos will pick up the
language almost instinctively, at home, in the streets, through mass
media. And if that doesn't happen, it doesn't really matter since we think
we don't need Filipino to achieve the Filipino dream, which is to live

Ice cream slips

I agree that English is important -- I've certainly benefited from a
fairly good command of the language in terms of international
consultancies. But I also know what it means to lack proficiency in a
national language. I belong to a generation, and class, of Filipinos where
Filipino was actually prohibited in school. We alternated between an
English and Mandarin Chinese week, when we would be punished if we didn't
speak the prescribed language. That meant being punished for speaking in
Tagalog (the term "Filipino" was almost never used). Not only that, we
were rewarded for squealing on classmates who dared speak the unspeakable
-- the stool pigeons given ice cream slips that they could accumulate to
get popsicles and ice cream sandwiches. Did that system work? No. I have
classmates who went through that ice cream slip system but didn't get to
master English or Mandarin Chinese.  Languages can't be forced. But
neither can they be learned through classrooms alone. We had Filipino
classes in high school, but it consisted of boring lectures on grammar. I
eventually learned Filipino when I entered the University of the
Philippines; in my junior college year and even today, while fairly
comfortable with spoken Filipino, I still have problems with reading and

And I am ashamed about being a Filipino who is not so comfortable with
Filipino. And yet, I know I am not alone, and sometimes it isn't just a
matter of class. Filipinos in general have suffered from the neglect of a
language policy, with tremendous losses in all spheres of public and
private life, economically, politically, culturally. I will even argue
that we lose international competitiveness because of lack of mastery of
our national language.


We've suffered a kind of linguistic schizophrenia. The Department of
Education, as well as individual schools, kept vacillating about the
language to use for teaching, lacking clarity and consistency. We've tried
an English-only policy, then Filipino-only, then bilingualism. It didn't
help that Filipino itself, decreed by President Manuel L. Quezon in 1935
as a Tagalog-based national language, developed in fitful spurts.  An
Institute of National Language was supposed to enrich this language by
bringing in words from all our languages, but did this with mixed success,
hobbled by disagreements among linguists. In the late 1960s and into the
early 1970s, riding on a wave of nationalism, purists tried to create
"indigenous" words. If the purists had their way, a school dean would now
be called "gatguro," and department chairpersons, well, that would have
been problematic because "chair" had been translated as "salumpuwit," the
holder of the ass. After 60 years of a Tagalog-based Filipino, we're not
quite sure yet about what we have. The other week at a meeting of
department "salumpuwits" in the University of the Philippines, we grappled
with the theme for our college recognition ceremonies. A committee had
proposed "Patuloy na paglinang ng kahusayan para sa kaunlaran ng bayan."
It was promptly torn apart, word by word, as grammatically imprecise, and
now reads:  "Pagpapatuloy na paglinang sa kahusayan para sa kaunlaran ng

But that only shows how difficult it is to craft a national language.
Tagalog uses a lot of duplication of syllables, which the Visayan
languages don't. Note though that grammar doesn't always correspond to
colloquial use. Even a native Tagalog speaker like news anchor Mike
Enriquez of GMA Network 7 was once criticized for thanking viewers, at the
end of each newscast, for their "pagtiwala" [trust]. He has since changed
that to "pagtitiwala."

Inferiority complex

But the quibbling is all too often over form, rather than substance. We've
lagged behind our neighbors in developing a national language. After
Indonesia declared independence in 1945, a wise Sukarno chose Malay, a
language spoken by a small minority, as the basis for their national
language, Bahasa Indonesia. He could have chosen Javanese, which like
Tagalog was spoken by the political elite, but this would have created
resentment among hundreds of other ethnicities. Today, Bahasa Indonesia is
a true national language, used in homes, schools, offices. I'm afraid
we've never really taken our languages seriously. We still call them
dialects, the "vernacular," sometimes with an almost derisive tone.  When
Filipinos migrate, they drop Tagalog or the other "dialects," almost as if
the language reminds them of the poverty and deprivation they left behind.
The inferiority complex we have with our languages reflects a broader
national inferiority complex.

And we're paying the price for that. A group of graduate students in my
linguistic anthropology class reported the other day on the Metro Manila
Development Authority's Filipino traffic signs, and said that
non-Tagalogs, as well as some Tagalogs, actually could not understand some
of the signs. Now if our Filipino is inadequate for communicating with
each other on traffic rules, how can we even begin to talk about national
values and concepts like nationhood and nationalism?

On Friday, I'll explain why our lack of nationalism, in language and all
other spheres of public life, actually makes us less competitive in this
age of globalism.


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