Celebrating Cultural Pluralism,
Welcoming 2008 as the International Year of Languages
By Aurelio Solver Agcaoili, Ph.D.
The continuing practice of cultural tyranny and linguistic injustice of many countries around the world has remained unabated.
Many of those nation-states that have signed the various United Nations international covenants that are aimed to protect the linguistic and cultural rights of peoples—rights that are fundamental because they are human—have only paid lip service to what the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization calls as “promotion and use of multilingualism.”
The UNESCO, cognizant of the urgency of saving human languages and their import in human civilization and human life, has declared 2008 as the International Year of Languages.
In a message from Koichiro Matsuura, Director-General of UNESCO, he says that UNESCO is “fully aware of the crucial importance of languages when seen against the many challenges that humanity will have to face over the next few decades.”
“Languages are indeed essential to the identity of groups and individuals and to their peaceful coexistence. They constitute a strategic factor of progress towards sustainable development and a harmonious relationship between the global and the local context,” he adds.
Ethnologue lists 6912 known world languages.
At the current extinction rate, about half of these would be able to survive within the next two centuries.
And of the top ten languages whose survival and thriving is certainly assured, all these are languages of countries whose economy is far different from the rest of the countries of the world and whose political supremacy remains entrenched in their histories of colonization and or dominance of other languages and cultures are a given.
Chinese Mandarin tops the list of the ten countries with most number of speakers, with more than one billion, says the Summer Institute of Linguistics, the Encarta Encyclopedia, and Language Today.
But while it is true that the number of speakers determine the life and the future of any language, it is also true that the spread and diffusion of any language over other cultures and climes—over a more widespread geography—may be factored in as another condition for survival and thriving.
With English spread and used in 115 countries many of which consider it as their official languages, English has an edge over Chinese Mandarin as it is boxed in some sort of way in only a few countries, except in academia outside these countries where the language is treated as an academic interest.
Spanish comes in second in number of speakers, and its spread is far better than Chinese Mandarin, but it does not have the same widespread presence as that of English.
Among the citizens of the net—the ‘netizens’—English has the most number of users, with almost 400 million, with Chinese Mandarin coming in second at about 185 million while Spanish is a low third at 113 million, says the Internet World Stats.
Compared to English, the rest of the world’s languages using the Internet are at 206 million, almost twice less than the Internet users using English, and only roughly that of Chinese Mandarin.
But while we are dazzled by these numbers, there are difficult realities out there that the rest of the thinking members of humanity need to consider, critique, and contemplate: there is that ugly underside to all these.
There ugly realities are these: That while some languages prosper, some die; that while develop, some go the road to extinction.
By 2050, according to estimates, Chinese Mandarin shall have overtaken other Chinese languages and shall have virtually marginalized two other Chinese languages widely spoken in China because of the ‘officialization’ of Chinese Mandarin in the name of the Chinese ‘nation’ and in the name of Chinese ‘nationalism’ as well.
The route to legitimizing a language by legislating it as either ‘national language’ or ‘official language’ has been one route to nation building used in the 18th and 19th century Europe, which is the same idea that afflicted the framers of constitutions of many countries.
The affliction is by force of imitation, and it is like a plague that hit many multilingual countries, hitting them in the soul, making them forget that nation building need not be a program of one-track mindedness but one where respect for the fundamental rights of citizens—the right to life and language and culture included—is of paramount import.
Contemporary world history is replete with fissures of many nations because of this disrespect for language and culture right of peoples.
Following the Napoleonic idealization of French as a national language for France by that conqueror of the same name who had to forgo his being Corsican, and thus, Italian, in order to assume a new identity, that of being French, and following the template for nation building put together by three other countries, to wit, Spain, Germany, and Great Britain, with one and only one language at the center of the national political discourse, then President of the Philippine Commonwealth Manuel Quezon dreamed of the same thing.
We do not forget that the United States, while not nationalizing English, is, by force of practice, causing English, obliquely at least, as the de facto language of this nation.
It is the same habit of the mind and habit of politics that we inherited from the West and which the Philippines continues to keep.
In that Quezonian dream, he—we learned to dream in black and white in the way he did, with white the ‘national language’ and with black, those other Philippine languages that had to be eradicated—forgot that the Philippines was a mixed brew of colorful and culture-rich languages, with 175 languages according to Ethnologue, four of which are already extinct, and six more, according to Lawrence Reid, about to become extinct.
The road to nation building was that of the four countries of Europe, and we followed suit.
The project to build the nation began, and the project to erase the memory of a people, the project to eradicate their life, and the project to diminish their sense of self and identity also began.
We are not far-off from our European masters until today.
The Philippines is one nation-state that has remained unclear as to its path to celebrating multilingualism and making it as a template for affirming basic human rights.
We are far away from the UNESCO ideal.
Today, the Philippines has remained schizophrenic in its approach to the languages of other Filipinos—other because ‘othered’ peoples of the Philippines, with a road it has taken that is ‘easier’ and ‘more practical,’ with the declaration of the language of the center of power, Tagalog, as the basis of the dreamed-of and imagined, ‘national language.’
We know the political reasons.
But we know the back stories as well, the back stories informing the choices of those in power to tinker with rules and procedures in order to make their purposes fit into the bigger scheme of things.
We can no longer be triumphal in our approach to valuing human languages everywhere whether we think of the Philippines or other nation-states that are veritably ‘nations among nations.’
For the only way out to affirming the virtues of social justice is to affirm as well what gives life to peoples, communities, nations, and the body politic.
What gives life to them are food for their bodies as well as food for their souls—and this requisite is non-negotiable.
You cannot say that a country is fixing its economy in order to give jobs and food to its citizens and at the same time depriving him of his right to his language and culture.
The same holds for all the peoples of the Philippines and in the diaspora.
We cannot be triumphal here: that declaration of a ‘national language’ as having become global but has not served the ends of social justice in the ‘nation’ in that ‘national’ has no place in the discourse of human rights, in the justice of retribution, and in cultural and linguistic democracy—ideals all demanding translation into action.
So much entitlement and privilege given to a language at the expense of other languages makes a nation-state sick.
The road to nursing a nation-state back to linguistic and cultural health is to demand the execution of cultural pluralism as a premise for sustaining a ‘nation among nations.’
There is another name for this: diversity.
In the State of Hawai’i where about 23 percent of the population is Filipinos, we cannot simply lump all our people as Filipino-speaking; that is a wanton lie that we must all unmask.
Historically, the Ilokano people—truly a ‘nation’ in the loose sense—have more than 100 years of presence in Hawai’i.
Soon, the Bisayans will celebrate their 100 years of coming to Hawai’i.
These two ethnic groups—the Ilokanos and the Bisayans—form the backbone of Philippine historical presence in this State.
To make the Ilokanos and the Bisayans forget their language and culture by way of importing the national language of the Philippines and force it upon them even in their exile and diaspora, is, at the very least, not in accord with what UNESCO declares as a commitment to multilingualism, a commitment based on the demands of human rights.
Human rights is the same everywhere; cultural and linguistic right is same everywhere as well.
This 2008, the International Year of Languages, reminds us of one thing: that we cannot give citizenship to any human language because the human spirit, the human soul, and humanity—the abode of language—is beyond body politic, is borderless, is universal.
(For publication, Fil-Am Observer, Hawai’i, April 2008)