Siling Labuyo: The Filipino Language Controversy

When the Philippine Supreme Court declared the constitutionality of the K-12 education program, it also declared that the teaching of the Filipino language and Panitikan (Philippine Literature) can be optional in college. The “controversial” ruling was met with great dismay by many including the senate’s knight in a shining armor, Sen. Vic Sotto declaring among other things that the ruling was “unconstitutional.”

Language controversy is really nothing new and can be traced back to the beginning of the human race. Mind you and up to this day, the language controversy is unsettled as to the language spoken in the Garden of Eden. Christians claim that it was Adamic (Adam’s verbal cue to Eve not to eat the apple), but the Jews claim it was Hebrew (Adam called Eve by a Hebrew name – Isha & Chava). The Italian poet Dante of the Divine Comedy fame, however, believed that it was “divine language” spoken in the Garden that got Adam talking was just influenced by it – and therefore by extension, Hebrew is then a byproduct of Adam’s invention. Meaning, the thunderous warning from heaven “don’t eat the apple!” takes precedence.

In the beginning experiment, there was only Adam, Eve, and the Devil. The instruction to Adam in God’s language was clear – “you can eat everything in Paradise, except the fruit of wisdom.” The Devil’s spoken language must have been more powerful or enticing) as Eve and Adam did the unthinkable. Paradise is lost with the original sin and the Confusion of Tongues continues with this court ruling. Frankly, it was a good thing because by his disobedience, Adam paved the way for the thinking Filipino.

Sotto’s beef is that making the teaching of Filipino and learning the Panitikan optional in college would doom the Filipino race. This is the same hypocritical guy who wanted to tinker with the lines of Lupang Hinirang. The rest of the inhabitants of the 7,000 plus island met the Supreme Court decision with a ho-hum yawn and rightfully so.

First, compulsory teaching the Filipino language and Panitikan in the primary and secondary level makes good sense. That is practically twelve years of trying to learn everything there is to learn about the Filipino language. Not to mention the year round learning from watching your favorite sitcoms: “Ang Probinsyano” or “Eat Bulaga” not to mention the side conversations during a Pacquiao fight or a Miss Universe Pageant.

The problem with Sotto is that he just cherry-picks a portion of the Constitutional provision to make his point but fails to see the big picture. Yes, the 1987 Constitution declares Filipino as the national language but also included English as the second official language “for purposes of communication and instruction” and also included the regional languages as “the auxiliary official languages in the regions.”

In practice, the Philippines has many languages and dialects. The dominant languages spoken every day are Filipino (also Tagalog by extension), Cebuano, Hiligaynon, Iluko, Bicol, and English. According a Social Weather Survey back in 2000, over

85% of Filipinos can read and understand Filipino. The number of course is higher in Luzon (over 90%) given the proximity to the Katagalogan, and lower in Mindanao (~60%) where the dominant language is Cebuano. This is actually a good thing because the statistics show that the Filipino language is effectively used for communication. There will always be a debate regarding the nuances between Tagalog and Filipino but that is more for the purists to tackle. For the rest of us, we’re fine.

The overriding Constitutional mandate is for the Filipino language to be developed and enriched by the other languages already used in the country. Thus it seems to me that in a school setting, that a regional language for example, can be used to supplement and help in communicating or understanding. More than that, television and the internet are also playing important roles in expanding our lexicon. Truly, the Philippine lexicon is evolving – evidence that the Filipino language is constantly being developed and enriched. “Hanep,” “Petmalu,” “Gimik,”Pipol,” Dedma,” “Syota,” “shit,” among others have added colors to the day-to-day vocabulary of the Filipino.

What is it really about the language that is difficult to learn that we must continue even in college? Some will argue that language is the key to nationhood, to learning about our culture but these are concepts that are hard to grasp and apply to everyday life. Sure you can make students sing the anthem or recite the Panatang Makabayan but you cannot force them to love their country. They have to define nationhood and cultural relativeness on their own terms as viewed from their own lenses. NPAs and government soldiers show their love of country by killing each other or blowing up bridges and other structures for their beliefs. They both love to sing “Bayan Ko.” Who is more righteous and patriotic?

I remember in my senior year, our Filipino teacher would make a student carry a fist-size rock if caught speaking in Bicol while in class. She was serious about forcing the subject but the method was for us to learn for the graded test – not for love of country or some higher purpose. This thing about nationhood and love of country is not teachable and certainly cannot be accomplished by carrying a rock all day or even reciting from memory supposedly Jose Rizal’s memorable lines “ang hindi magmahal sa sariling wika ay masahol pa sa hayop at malansang isda.” Inflaming the passion of generations require more than just a rock or a memorable line, you must inspire them to dream.

Colonial mentality will always be a hindrance to helping the country develop a national soul, if you will but that is a fact of life. Rather than making it a lifelong obsession to transform Filipinos with its own undefined identity, we should embrace it for the advantage of the modern Filipinos. We must also admit that the country has more than 7,000 islands that literally imposes physical boundaries. What is important is to recognize that there have been many Filipinos from different parts of the country albeit who probably did not even speak Filipino who paid the ultimate sacrifice in defense of their country of birth. People will feel good about their country and their culture when democracy functions as it is supposed to, better roads and infrastructure, honest government officials and employees, better governance, clean and robust environment, and better living. It’s hard to think about patriotism and nationalism much less breathe fresh air if you are swimming deep in fecal matter.

In real life, nobody cares if we speak taglish, broken Tagalog, or speak with our dialect. What is more important is that we are able to communicate and understand each other in our effort to survive the doldrums of everyday living. Chemistry, physics, trigonometry, and structural dynamics will be better taught in English. I would not even try to explain the Avogadro Constant in Bicol or legal precedents from other countries that found their way into the Philipine legal system. The vagaries of life can swing widely in any directions but we must maintain some practicality and common sense if we want to develop astronomers, world-class architects, or another “don’t stop believin’” Arnel Pineda that Filipinos can be proud of as their own. If there is one thing I would like to see change in the Philippine educational system is to revise the curriculum to better train students to acquire critical thinking skills. Having such skills will help prepare them to become better Filipinos.