[lg policy] Court decision on language provokes cries of neo-colonialism

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Mon Jun 10 10:52:38 EDT 2019

Court decision on language provokes cries of neo-colonialism
*Rosemary Salomone
  08 June 2019
The Supreme Court of the Philippines’ recent decision upholding plans to
remove Filipino language and literature from the university core curriculum
has sparked heated debate over national identity and the country’s
conflicted relationship with English and its colonial past.

Filipino and English are both considered official languages in the country,
although English is more commonly used in business, official documents and
particularly in higher education.

While most of the population speaks Filipino or one of the more than 170
Philippine languages, most also speak some degree of English, which the
upper classes especially favour.

The court controversy goes back to 2013 when the Commission on Higher
Education issued a Memorandum Order removing the Filipino language and
Panitikan – Philippine literature – courses from the core college
curriculum. The change built on the K-12 Enhanced Basic Education Act
adopted that year.

In addition to mandating instruction in the regional or native language in
the early primary grades, the act added two years to secondary school. That
addition allowed for certain courses to be shifted down from higher
education. It also opened the way for a trimmed down core curriculum to
focus on higher level reading, research and writing competencies,
presumably in English, to prepare students for the global knowledge

The changes overall were intended to put the country’s educational system
in a more competitive global position where Filipino carries far less

*Defenders of Filipino*

As language policies often do, the court order ignited a debate well beyond
its pedagogical merits, plumbing the depths of nationalism, globalisation
and the legacy of colonialism.

A group of professors from more than 40 colleges and universities along
with students, writers, artists, lawmakers and cultural activists formed
the Tanggol Wika – Alliance of Defenders of Filipino – to legally oppose
what it called “attacks against the national language”.

The petitioners argued that the changes would reduce Filipino to basic
language skills taught in secondary school while college programmes that
foster the language and its literature would meet their demise. They
further warned that upwards of 10,000 full-time and 20,000 part-time
teachers would lose their jobs in higher education.

Consolidated petitions filed with the Supreme Court in April 2015
challenged certain provisions in the K to 12 law in addition to the removal
of Filipino and Panitikan from the university core curriculum.

On the higher education claims, petitioners relied on two provisions in the
Constitution. The first, Section 6, Article XIV, declares Filipino as the
“national language” and mandates that the government take steps to
“initiate and sustain the use of Filipino… as language of instruction”.

The second, Section 7, provides that “for purposes of communication and
instruction, the official languages of the Philippines are Filipino, and
until otherwise provided by law, English”. The court issued a temporary
restraining order, preventing the government from implementing the
contested provisions until a decision was reached on the merits.

In October 2018, the Supreme Court sitting *en banc* issued a 94-page
opinion, unanimously upholding the validity of the K to 12 law and
affirming the constitutionality of the Commission on Higher Education’s
order removing Filipino and Panitikan from the core curriculum.

Responses to the decision were quick and pointed. Tanggol Wika petitioners
denounced the ruling on Filipino as a “blow to nationhood and Filipino
identity” and asked the court to reconsider its decision. Some critics,
prominent writers among them, branded the justices as “anti-Filipino” and
even questioned their sense of national commitment.

*The language of business and technology*

Others, however, pragmatically supported the ruling, pointing to Filipino
as the main cause of “economic stagnation”. English, they argued, is the
language of “business and technology”. It is the engine driving the
Philippine business processing industry and outsourcing of labour abroad.

*The Manila Times*, the country’s longest-running daily newspaper, agreed
with the court in deferring to the political branches on education policy.

Calling the opposition “largely emotional and at times irrational”, the
editors noted that it would be “absurd for anyone, more so those in
academia, to make the Supreme Court the final arbiter of university

With the court agreeing to rehear the case, the Commission on Higher
Education once again delayed implementing the Order, pending a final
decision. In the meantime, it agreed to study the concerns raised by the
petitioners so that the commissioners, all appointed since the 2013
memorandum had been issued, could thoroughly consider the matter.

*A final ruling?*

The court’s recent decision, dated 5 March but released on 26 May,
unanimously and “with finality” denied the motion for rehearing. The
petitioners, the court stated, had failed to present any substantial
argument to warrant holding otherwise.

Affirming their prior ruling, the justices pointed out that while the
Constitution mandates including Filipino and Panitikan in the curriculum,
it does not “specify the educational level in which [they] must be taught”.

The commission’s order, the court explained, merely provides for “minimum
standards” in the general education programme. Universities and colleges
still have discretion to “require additional courses” in Filipino and
Panitikan in their “respective curricula”.

In closing, the court made it clear that “no further pleadings or motions
shall be entertained in this case”. Despite that definitive language, the
petitioners intend to request another rehearing.

*Survival versus freedom*

The brevity and probable finality of this latest court ruling have stirred
up passionate emotions among key stakeholders, with graphic images of a
hard battle to be fought and won. In a posting on Facebook referencing the
country’s “long colonial past and neo-colonial present”, the petitioners
accuse the commission and the Supreme Court of “kill[ing]” the nation’s
“soul” and the people’s “capacity to think freely”.

They frame the issue as a “choice between our collective survival as a
nation, and our collective death as a free country”. They also call upon
the commission, along with college and university administrators, to
refrain from implementing the ruling pending a second motion for

Taking the court at its word, the Commission on Higher Education
nonetheless has issued a public statement advising the nearly 2,000 higher
education institutions to fully implement the plan.

At the same time, the statement encourages them to adopt “innovative
reforms”, including language proficiency in Filipino and other Philippine
languages. The commission has also agreed to provide professional
educational assistance to Filipino and Panitikan teachers who might lose
their jobs as a result of the changes.

Other groups have likewise used social media including Facebook, along with
fiery rhetoric, to gather public support for judicial or executive

For the League of Filipino Students, fighting for the Filipino language is
a way to assert the nation’s identity “free from any form of colonial
intrusion”. The new policy, the group charges, is “mould[ing] the schools
to create a cheap and oppressive workforce that will serve foreign

In a similar vein, a petition posted on Change.org by the University of the
Philippines Department of Filipino and Panitikan calls literary languages
“weapons for the promotion of truth and righteousness, especially in times
of falsehood, injustice and social crisis”. The Change.org petition has
logged more than 25,000 signatures.

The Commission on the Filipino Language, the government agency charged with
promoting Filipino and other local languages, in a more measured way warns
that, although the order expressly allows core courses to be taught in
English or Filipino, because of the country’s “colonial history”, many
administrators prefer English to Filipino. A number of colleges, it notes,
have already closed their Filipino departments.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Commission on Higher Education has tried to
dial down the political rhetoric and allay fears that excluding Filipino
and Panitikan from the core curriculum would erode a sense of nationalism
among the younger generation.

“Nationalism,” he has told the press, “is not created only by language.”

*Language politics*

It remains to be seen whether the Tanggol Wika petitioners can convince the
court to grant them another full hearing. Yet regardless of the
constitutional merits of their claims, their concerns are not unreasonable,
nor are they inconsequential.

In fact, they say much about the power of language in preserving or
threatening national identity, the growing tension between global and
national interests and the baffling state of Philippine politics.

Eliminating Filipino and Panitikan from the core curriculum will further
weaken the intellectual worth and unifying role of Filipino in a country
where English is a status symbol and source of economic benefits despite
nagging memories of the American occupation, when English was used as a
tool of cultural conditioning.

The changes, moreover, coming from a government agency, defy the country’s
decided turn toward an extreme nationalism, mistakenly confused with
patriotism, under a president who prefers to speak in neither Filipino nor
English but in his own Philippine vernacular.

However the court decides, the litigation has brought to the surface, for
better or for worse, a host of political and social issues extending back
to the country’s past and into the present.

*Rosemary Salomone is the Kenneth Wang Professor of Law at St John’s
University School of Law, United States, where she teaches constitutional
and administrative law. She is the author of *True American: Language,
identity, and the education of immigrant children* (Harvard University
Press) and is currently completing a book on global English, identity and
linguistic justice for Oxford University Press.*

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 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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