[lg policy] Language and the search for national identity

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Thu Nov 29 14:04:18 EST 2018

Language and the search for national identity
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Updated November 28, 2018, 6:20 PM



[image: Jejomar Binay]A recent Supreme Court decision on the teaching of
Filipino in our colleges has once again triggered a debate on the national
language. By extension, the debate has also touched on the topic of
national identity, or our lack of it.

The debate, more vitriolic online, stemmed from a recent Supreme Court
decision upholding the validity of a directive from the Commission on
Higher Education (CHED) excluding Filipino from the list of required
subjects in college.

The high tribunal, in a 94-page decision, lifted the temporary restraining
order (TRO) against Memorandum Order 20 issued by the CHED. The memorandum
excluded Filipino, Panitikan, as well as Philippine Constitution from the
“core courses” in college.

The Supreme Court said it disagrees with the position of the petitioners
that excluding Filipino from the General Education Curriculum (GEC)
violated Section 6, Article XIV, of the Constitution. The provision
mandates government to “take steps to initiate and sustain the use of
Filipino as a medium of official communication and as language of
instruction in the educational system.”

College professors, language advocates, and some national figures were
quick to denounce the ruling as a “blow to nationhood and Filipino

The teaching of Filipino, they maintain, goes beyond grammar, since
discussions also tackle culture and identity. One professor even spoke
harshly: “While other countries show appreciation for their language and
culture, we ourselves kill our own.”

Those who agreed with the ruling, on the other hand, point to Filipino as
the main culprit behind our economic stagnation. Filipino cannot even be
considered a true national language, they maintain, because it only
institutionalized Tagalog, the language of so-called Imperial Manila. Our
national language policy, so the argument goes, is the product of
oppressive Manila-centric, or rather Tagalog-centric, political elites, who
wish to dictate their language and culture on the nation.

Both sides need to calm down.

For one, the anger at the High Court is misplaced.  Legal observers note
that the high tribunal did not ban the teaching of Filipino but merely
upheld the authority of CHED to formulate policy to implement a national
law, which in this case is K-12. It is not within the scope of the court’s
powers to decide which courses are included in the curriculum.

While there are advocates for the primacy of their own regional languages,
there are also advocates for  English as a primary language. The latter
group argues that the focus on Filipino has contributed to our economic
decline, considering that English is the language of business and

These advocates need to be reminded that for decades – and even until now –
we have proudly proclaimed our country as a predominantly English-speaking
country in Asia. This has been the main reason for the boom in the BPO
industry starting in the late 90s.

Yet our non-English speaking neighbors in Asia — Japan, South Korea,
Vietnam, China — managed to overtake us economically despite their
non-proficiency in English. They did so by building their economies on a
strong educational foundation of mathematics, engineering, and sciences.

In his latest book, Identity, the historian Francis Fukuyama cites the
observation of sociologist Ernest Geller who noted that the need for
“precise communication between strangers” during the rise of the industrial
age necessitated a uniform national language, and an educational system to
promote a national culture.

Writes Geller: “The employability, dignity, security, and self-respect of
individuals…now hinges on their education…modern man is not loyal to a
monarch, or a land or faith, whatever he may say, but to a culture.”

Applying Geller’s thesis — that economic necessity dictated the development
and propagation by the State of a common language — we may conclude that
centuries of economic underdevelopment under colonial powers did not create
the conditions that would have necessitated the need for a common language.
In fact, some have argued that language was a cultural weapon in the hands
of our colonizers. The Spaniards withheld the spread of Spanish as a common
language, while the United States employed English as a tool for cultural

What this most recent debate over a national language exposes is the strong
undercurrent of “tribalism” in our country. It validates my observation
that when we still debate about our national language, we have yet to
evolve a sense of identity. We remain predisposed to identify ourselves as
belonging to “tribes” rather than a “nation.” It is a tribalism that will
further deepen under a federal set-up.

Breaking our nation into federated states — as proposed by advocates of
federalism — will only deepen tribalism. While the draft federal
constitution prohibits secession, it does not provide a constitutional
injunction on the establishment of state or regional languages. The
existence of a separate states, in fact, encourages it.

Since language is an important marker of culture and identity, federalism
will render our search for a national language, and by extension our search
for national identity, more elusive and contentious.

jcbinay11 at gmail.com

 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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