[lg policy] Philippines, Pakistan: Language loss and social stratification

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jun 29 15:22:16 UTC 2011

McEachern: Language loss and social stratification

By Firth McEachern

TARIQ Rahman is a professor at Quaid-i-Azam University and has written
about the damage inflexible linguistic policies have had on Pakistani
society. Like the Philippines, Pakistan reacted to colonialism in a
very nationalistic way, defining only one native national language
(Urdu) and elevating its role in education and government, alongside
English, while essentially ignoring the other languages of Pakistan.
When Tagalog was declared as the basis of the national language in
1937, it was spoken by less than 20% of the Philippine population.
Similarly for Pakistan, less than 10% of Pakistanis spoke Urdu, with
the bulk of the people speaking one of the regional languages such as
Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi, and others. Prof. Rahman writes in
his paper, “Language policy, multilingualism and language vitality in

“The state’s use of Urdu as a symbol of national integration has
jeopardized additive multilingualism as recommended by UNESCO and, of
course, by many eminent linguists and educationists. As Urdu spreads
through schooling, media and urbanization, pragmatic pressures make
the other Pakistani languages retreat…. As people learn languages for
pragmatic reasons, they are giving less importance to their heritage
languages and are learning Urdu. Instead of being an asset, [their
native tongue] becomes a liability. It prevents one from rising in
society. In short, it is ghettoizing. Then, people become ashamed of
their language, or, even if not [explicitly] ashamed, they do not want
to teach the language to their children because they think that would
be overburdening the children with far too many languages.”

When I first read this passage, I had to wipe my glasses clean. Was I
reading about the Philippines? The similarity of the Pakistan and
Philippine case is striking. Just as with Urdu, the
Tagalog-cum-national language of the Philippines has been given a
boost in prestige and prevalence through its use in schooling and
media. The exclusion of other Philippine languages from these domains,
meanwhile, has rendered them less useful and less desirable. You can
see the evidence of this on the streets of Baguio, Taguegarao, Angeles
City, Urdaneta, Dagupan, Tacloban, and many other cities. If I spot a
group of teenagers here in San Fernando, La Union, for example, I can
guess what language they are speaking to each other with about 90%
accuracy. If they look well-dressed, maybe with some brandname
clothes, the girls sporting salon-sleek hair—they are almost always
speaking Tagalog when I walk past. If on the other hand their clothes
seem rather cheap, the boys aping a grunge gangster look, their
complexions a little darker—they are usually speaking Iloko.

The same experiment can be repeated with other variables. Tell me the
profession of an Ilokano parent based pretty much anywhere except
Ilocos Sur and Norte, and I’ll be able to tell you what language he is
speaking at home with his kids. Doctor? Professor? Engineer? Med-Tech?
Teacher? Tagalog. Laborer? Tricycle driver? Guard? Plumber? Vegetable
seller? Iloko.

Tell me a 10 year old’s school, and I’ll tell you the common language
he uses both with his friends and parents. Private? Near the center of
town? Takes vehicular transportation to get there? Tagalog. Public
school? Not in the city center? Has to walk to school? Iloko.

Boy eating a Yum Burger in Jollibees and a little on the plump side?
Tagalog. Skinny boy sitting by the side of the road in a plastic
chair, watching people go by? Iloko. I wish it were not so painfully
consistent, but it is. Everyone in La Union therefore has developed an
in-built language radar to adjust to these language divides. If a
scruffy boy with sandals and carrying a water jug walks into our
office, the staff addresses him in Iloko. If however the visitor is a
pretty, fair-skinned student, for example, they speak in Tagalog. And
90% of the time their guess as to which language the visitor most
commonly uses is correct. In this way, “sosyal” Ilokano youth who lack
the ability to speak Iloko (due to their parents’ emphasis on Tagalog
and English) are conveniently spared the few potentially embarrassing
consequences of their parents’ language abandonment, because no one
even bothers attempting to speak Ilokano to them.

When I remark on the prevalence of Tagalog now, people commonly say:
“Oh well, San Fernando is mixed now. It’s part Ilokano, part Tagalog.”
But this belies a crucial point. It’s not as if these two languages
have been mixed randomly or isotropically into the La Union
population. Who speaks Tagalog and who speaks Iloko in the home follow
very clear patterns along class divides. And this divide---like skin
color, clothing, and all the other characteristics that enable a wider
gap between rich and poor in this country---further stigmatizes local
languages and those who speak them. Just as Prof Rahman described in
his paper, an asset has been turned into a liability; and that does
not bode well for these languages’ survival.

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on June 29, 2011.


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