MELBOURNE, Australia (MindaNews / 4 Aug) – The month of August in the Philippines has been traditionally celebrated as Buwan ng Wika. Ironically, the language attributed as pambansang wika is still very much highly contested. Critics rile against the designation of Filipino as the national language because it is essentially Tagalog, an indigenous dialect spoken extensively in the capital region. The other aboriginal languages, specially those spoken in the Cordillera Region and Mindanao, have been effectively overlooked in this linguistic creation.
It is no surprise then that academics in Metro Manila would express anger over the plans drawn up by the Commission on Higher Education to drop the mandatory Filipino subjects in the college curriculum [See Memorandum Circular No. 20 series of 2013]. Note that it is not the use of Filipino as a medium of instruction in college subjects which is being prohibited. Rather, it is the practice of making it compulsory for all university students to undertake subjects on Filipino as the purported national language that is being set aside. And because Filipino has practically become optional as a tool for instruction, these academics, particularly those in the University of the Philippines, are wary that many universities would now use with impunity English as their teaching language.
Expectedly, their colleagues in other Metro Manila universities have deemed this change as unpatriotic whilst contrasting the examples of Indonesia and Malaysia as countries that still require the teaching of their respective national languages in the college curriculum. Indeed, they warn that by the removal of Filipino as a mandatory subject in higher education institutions, the goal of producing students who recognize their history and responsibilities as Filipinos will be severely undermined. I find this conclusion strange, to say the least, because I took four Philippine history subjects in college and they were all taught in English. I certainly do not consider myself ignorant of Philippine history or un-Filipino. And neither would the other hundreds of thousands of Filipino students who learned of Rizal, Biak na Bato, the Jones Bill, etc. in the same way I did.
I suspect the true reason why there is strong resistance to this change is the real possibility of many academics losing their jobs. As mentioned earlier, school administrators may actually be more inclined to let their subjects be taught in English which could eventually result in the lay-off of college instructors whose only expertise is the Filipino language. Needless to say, this is an undesirable result which must be prevented to whatever extent possible. But I believe there is an opportunity here, although not readily apparent, that far outweighs the loss perceived by these academics. The prospect beneath this controversial change requires a little bit of audacious thinking from all of us. It entails a paradigm shift in two fronts.
First, the linguistic diversity of the Philippine islands should be entrenched further and deeper in national education. I daresay that the imposition of Filipino as the national language has prevented Filipinos from celebrating the richness of our linguistic heritage. This is an unfortunate situation that can still be reversed if Philippine universities offer subjects teaching indigenous dialects instead of just Filipino. On the employment side, this could mean more teaching positions opening up for our educators. But more importantly, this could lead to young Filipinos learning the vast local histories and the eclectic culture of our island nation. My nephew, who is a freshman in college, could actually have the choice of studying in-depth the Tausug vernacular, the epic stories of the Sulu sultanate and the roots of Islam in the country. This is a chance at a deeper level of cultural scholarship that was never available to me and many from my generation.
Second, English should now be unequivocally accepted as the official language of the Philippines. In fact, this proposition more accurately reflects the reality we all experience in our day to day lives because the language of government, of legislation, and of the courts in the Philippines is English. Obviously, the latter is a colonial language. But considering that American colonization is a fact of life that is universally shared in the Philippines, the use of English as an official language would certainly be more unbiased for all Filipinos than Filipino. Ultimately though, there can be no denying that the use of English impacts the lives of Filipinos a great deal.
In fact, proficiency in the lingua franca of the day has gained tremendous economic benefits for many Filipinos arising from international demand for nurses and engineers. Foreign investors, particularly those engaged in business outsourcing, have gravitated towards the Philippines precisely because of our unmatched ability in English. I have personally heard industry leaders during an IT exhibition in Sydney praising Filipinos for our neutral and intelligible accent when compared to other English speakers in Asia such as Indians, Malaysians and Singaporeans.
Indeed, it is precisely our facility with English that has transformed the Filipino into the quintessential global citizen. A recent news article has proudly declared that “Filipinos live practically all over the world!” For sure the Filipino’s sublime capacity to adapt and even thrive in harsh conditions has contributed greatly in achieving this universal acclaim. Certainly, our impeccable work ethic is the very reason we are in demand all over the world. Our happy and open disposition is just an icing on the cake, so to speak. But I believe it is fundamentally our ability to speak the international vernacular that allowed us to attain this global stature. Without a doubt, it is through this very important skill that we are able to effectively communicate with other nationalities. This quite unique ability in turn has made us perform exceptionally well in whatever roles we assume in wherever place in the world. In light of this realization, it becomes almost incumbent on all of us to make our grasp of the English language even better for we obviously all want to consolidate this competitive advantage of ours in this still growing global economy.
With the Filipino now being a genuine citizen of the world, insisting on having just one national language seems anachronistic. Our sense of nation ought to be founded on deeper grounds than just having a common tongue. Therefore removing Filipino as a mandatory subject for university education may not necessarily be a bad move. However, an indispensable corollary to this radical reform is a robust and concerted effort to promote and preserve the linguistic and cultural diversity of the Philippine islands. Inevitably, embracing our vibrant and colourful history would give more integrity to our conception of a national identity. Even as such a stance challenges the monolithic (and even colonial) understanding of our nation’s past.
Letting go of the idea of having an artificially made national language allows us now to gladly settle on English as the true and lone official language of the Philippines. In conjunction with the entrenchment of the major regional dialects in the curriculum, massive efforts must be implemented to ensure that all Filipinos become ardent users of the English language. It should not be farfetched that down the line, the Philippines would be able to produce another Shakespeare, Steinbeck or Spielberg but this time with a uniquely Pinoy quality about him or her.
Indeed, we want to characterize the global Filipino as one firmly rooted in his cultural milieu (be it Ivatan, Igorot, Tagalog, Bicolano, Boholano, Manobo, Maranao, and so forth) and yet also intently outward looking to the arguably shrinking world.
(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. PeaceTalk is open to anyone who wants to contribute his/her share to peace building in Mindanao. Atty. Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco is a practicing lawyer. He is presently completing a Masters of Law and Development in Melbourne Law School. He recently published a book entitled “Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective.”)