Revaluating Regionalism, Revaluing Our Languages—
Or Why We Need to Advance Linguistic Democracy
And Cultural Pluralism Education in the Philippines
Aurelio Solver Agcaoili
This is written with so much hope—a hope that multicultural and linguistic justice education will soon see the light of day in the form of an enabling law in the 2008 Multicultural and Literacy Education Act of the Republic of the Philippines, or House Bill 3719.
Hope is summoned here, as this piece narrates as well of the disappointments of many advocates for cultural pluralism in the Philippines, their disappointments from people who are in the struggle to fight for our right as a nation-state, a struggle that taps into what we have been fighting for centuries and centuries and yet there seems to be no let-up in this struggle for justice and fairness and cultural democracy what with the latest challenges to the HB 3719 initiative. That initiative puts together the work of many enlightened and visionary cultural and political workers of the Philippines—an initiative that attempts to give a framework for an honest-to-goodness literacy education for all peoples of the Philippines.
The framework calls for a multicultural education philosophy that requires the reintroduction of the mother languages of educands into the classroom, prior to the expansion of their world through their knowledge of second or third languages such as Tagalog (or Filipino) and English.
That initiative, seen in the 2008 Multicultural Education and Literacy Act, is a bold admission of a very simple fact of human understanding of the world and life, of cognition, and of knowledge—a simple but an emancipatory principle of education: that each educand learns better and more productively if what he is supposed to learn learns it in his own language, and thus, in accord with the tools of his own culture.
Translated: we productively and effectively come to know the unknown by starting off from the known—from the knowledge you know because it is mediated by the language you know to the knowledge that you have yet to know, and still mediated by the language you know precisely because it is your language.
Why nostalgic writers and activists and educators who cannot come to terms with the demands of liberatory education—or cannot understand our own mothers who taught us their stories in their own language and their stories are forever stored in our living memory—baffles me. While nostalgia may offer some soothing to the tired nerves, it does not lead us to the road to liberation when in that nostalgia, we dream of a nation-state with a center, and that center is the absolute, and that center holds everything true, good, and beautiful.
This reflection hopes to offer a way out as well, as it tries to face squarely with the vicious causes of these twin disappointments—a way out followed by two institutions that have shown us the courageous way to get out of this cultural and linguistic and educational quagmire: the Commission on the Filipino Language and the Linguistic Society of the Philippines.
While it is written with a hopeful note, it also unravels the poverty and the evils of the despotic philosophy of a supremacist claim to any language, whether national or official or auxiliary, as in the case of the Philippines, and whether that language is called forth in the name of the nation, in the homeland or in the diaspora, or in the name of nationalism, especially when that nationalism is vending only the statist kind and does not, in any way, look into multicultural nationalism as a more productive philosophy of national development in a country that is linguistically and culturally diverse such as the Philippines.
The hope is that those who are well-entrenched in the cultural life of our peoples of the Philippines shall have the courage to own up our diversity and find ways to articulate that diversity in the everyday life of our peoples in the homeland, and in the everyday life of those in exilic communities that are, because they have become cultural and linguistic zombies courtesy of the statist notions of national language and national culture that they get from ‘unthinking’ popular cultural forms such as The Filipino Channel, now advocates of unilingualism, in the Philippines and in the various exilic Philippine communities abroad.
The disappointments are coming from two events.
First, the continuing and calculated—even calculating—failure of those in the struggle in the name of our people to see that the one-language-one-nation policy does not work as this self-serving policy has not resulted in the dreamed-of, even fantasized, ‘unity’ of all the peoples of the Philippines, a unity they defined as one speaking, not in glossalalia, but unison, with only one kind and form of speech coming from the lips of every person from Aparri to Zamboanga—and now also, as the argument goes, in exile, or in all exilic communities of the peoples of the Philippines.
Never mind that these peoples, while they are also peoples of the Philippines, are also Ilonggos, Sebuanos, Bikolanos, or Ilokanos—peoples with their own nation before the Philippine nation was ever invented or dreamed of.
The inutile argument—as is the case of many language groups in the United States of America that recognize only ‘national’ languages as legitimate members of their groups even if these groups summon the energies of exilic communities in this country by their come-on about languages as ‘heritage’ and ‘least commonly taught’—about speaking in one and only one language is counter-productive to contemporary nation building, with our multiple, diverse, and potentially powerful experiences becoming a firm foundation for that kind of a nation, nation-state, or polis. The errors of history, indeed, are not the monopoly of one country. Afraid to dispel our ignorance because of the comfort and convenience it gives us, we go the route to oppression and injustice and despotism in the name of a glorious nation, nation-state, country, or polis.
I have spoken with some people in the nationalist movement of the Philippines—people who advocate whole-scale reforms for and in the name of all peoples of the country—and from their lips spring ideas about language and culture that follow the same route to the ‘Mandarinization’ of all Chinese peoples, the ‘Niponggoization’ of all peoples of Japan, the ‘Bahasa Malaysiaization’ of all peoples of Malaysia, the ‘Bahasa Indonesiaization of all peoples of Indonesia, and the Englicization of all peoples of New Zealand and Australia and all other territories of the English-speaking peoples, as is the case of all French-speaking peoples declaring ‘liberte’ and ‘fraternite’ and ‘egalite’, among other abstractions, to themselves and to the peoples they colonized.
Some uninformed language planners, speaking from a Third World, even a Philippine perspective, call this the road to decolonization, and thus nationalization, and thus, the speaking not in tongues but in the language of the center of power, which center, by the way, is deemed the source of all that is good for the nation.
I call this route a glamorized vision of oneness, unable to see that Babel has its own virtues even if it has its own vices, but the virtues are more because they speak more of the diversity of peoples, the diversity of their experiences, the diversity of their dreams, and the diversity of their gifts and potentials to draw up a blueprint for a homeland of justice and fairness. And linguistic and cultural democracy.
Second, the position and disposition of blindness adopted by those who are supposed to be in the know about the requisites of a liberating form of education, culture, arts, and literature—a liberating because critical and committed consciousness—for and in the name of all ‘peoples’ of the Philippines.
Here, I am refusing to call the people of the Philippines with no ‘s’.
I am particularly cognizant of the fact that the Philippines, as a political product of history and collective action, is an artificial ‘name’ that we seized from the colonizer in an effort to make a name for ourselves, but that name, unfortunately, was initially the name of the enemy until we have come to appropriate it as our own.
The enemy’s name becoming ours is something curious, and that is what is not too clear to people who are writing about out pains as ‘a people’ but the big trouble with their writings is that this ‘a people’ is a sterile collective, good for its nominalist and centrist historical worth, but does not capture the diversity that is us as ‘peoples’ of the Philippines.
Not a long time ago, an individual originally from the Philippines but now working as a paralegal writing legal briefs for some lawyers in New York reminded me of the ungrammatical sense of the phrase ‘peoples of the Philippines’.
I wrote back: the grammar of our life as a nation-state is in the acknowledgement—unconditionally an active and proactive recognition—that we are not simply a ‘nation’ understood in its 19th century European sense, but we are a nation among nations:
the Ilokanos had their nation before we ever had the Filipino nation, the Bisayan peoples had theirs, and the list goes on and on.
This failure in literature, in all other forms of consciousness-production related forms of our life such as education, the media, religion, and the arts are all guilty of permitting themselves to be used as instruments of this continuing linguistic injustice and cultural tyranny befalling us as peoples of the Philippines, Tagalog and non-Tagalog alike.
The problem with all ‘peoples of the Philippines’ is that we have developed a kind of a partnership of pain-inflicting and pain-enduring, one side of us the sadist, the other side the masochist—and through the blessings of our continuing ignorance about how to build a just and fair, and honestly democratic country, we have come to enjoy this partnership, and now, it has become us, and all those who wish to see our collective experiences using another lens are deemed needing redeeming because they are lost, and thus, like the Good Shepherd in that other part of us, we have to call them back into the fold, rain or shine, in good or bad weather, and if still they do not want to hear our voice, we call them—as I have been called many times by people with the Tagalogistic bent—reactionary.
Curiously, one of the aims of the “Filipino as a Global Language” conference held at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa in 2008 and attended by two national artists of literature and a top-brass government administrator of historical knowledge and historical knowledge production is “to avoid regionalism”—a goal that to me, is not only insulting as it is insensitive, but is also hopelessly ignorant of the realities of Philippine life and its complexities.
One good guess for the faddish popularity of that immoral phrase—‘to avoid regionalism’—that denies as it deprives the rest of the peoples of the Philippines the public space they deserve is the kind of sociological and anthropological inquiry in the 1960s that was fueled by an attempt to rush the ‘Filipinization’ of everything and anything Philippine, including the ‘Philippine’ language—declared the ‘national’ language—that was to be the embodiment of our collective life, as this collective life demanded to be expressed in a national conversation that required one and only one language, as this one and only one language is the only that is capable of doing so.
With the imposition—that is the key word here: imposition, by law, and by the navy and the army that attended that law—of the ‘national’ language, academic scholarship went on a roll and then, lo and behold, someone talked about the ‘patterns of culture’ of the peoples of the Philippines, and these patterns evolved into stereotypes and profiles that until now, are still being used to explain who we are and our defects, and the possibilities for these defects to be corrected, if at all.
Thus evolved what we call the ‘hiya’ school of thought—one that included, among others, issues about smooth interpersonal relationships, and why corruption from the highest echelon of government to the lowest-ranking barangay tanod or barangay paramilitary force continues to hound and haunt us until today.
The ‘hiya’ in the ‘hiya school of thought’ became so powerful that most academics believed in it, and because the whole exercise of knowledge production was reinforced by repetition especially in the popular media and in the school system that was held hostage by a cabal of educationists who did not know any alternative to explain who we are according to the framework of the essentialist concept of ‘hiya’ and other characteristics of all peoples of the Philippines.
Other key institutions of Philippine society and the churches caught this Philippine-produced ‘knowledge of the Philippines and its people’, and albeit tacitly, also believed and promoted it. Think of songs and rites and rubrics and ceremonies in churches in the Tagalog language in Ilokano churches in the Ilokano-land. Think of the Laoag International Airport with that banner, huge in the blue Ilocos skies and constantly made to dance gracefully by the Ilocos breeze, announcing that here, here in this Ilokano-land, you are to be permitted to speak only in Tagalog (well, Filipino is written in that banner) and English. And in Ilokano schools, young educands in the grades are prohibited from speaking in Ilokano, at the cost of their snack or lunch money or both.
The education sector produced a metaphor for all this systematic act of valorizing the experience from the center, with scholars and artists and social scientists giving their blessings to this reclaiming of ‘brownness’—indeed, a reclaiming devoid of historical correctness but uselessly repeats the mistake of Gat Jose Rizal the national hero about a ‘Malayan’ heritage—with the production of a thick book supposedly about ‘Filipinoness’, thick at 885 pages, but with the culture of the center at its center, with only a sprinkling of what passes for the diversity of peoples in the Philippines as a token recognition that there is that other Philippines that has been historically, culturally, educationally ‘othered’. And yet, that book, Brown Heritage, adopted a totalizing strategy to account everything Philippine—or Filipino.
That fantastic claim to a “brown heritage”—something that would creep into the pronouncements of Ferdinand Edralin Marcos in his delusion of grandeur about a New Society would continue, and today it continues to creep into our understanding of what is the ‘nation’ in the national language, the ‘nation’ in the national culture, the ‘nation’ in the national literature, and the ‘nation’ in national education.
We are not going to include here the two other social structures of the Philippine homeland, as these are utterly devoid of redemption unless we go the route of a federalized way of life minus the political warlords and kingpins and henchmen: our economic and politic life.
This means that we have to re-view and re-visit Imperial Manila as the center of everything and plan ahead with the idea of a decentralized, federalized economic and political development for all the regions and univocally declare that for four centuries we have given Manila the chance to dictate everything to us, and that today is the time for this Imperial Manila to go to the regions, because the regions have the resources Imperial Manila does not have; the regions have the diversity of peoples and their talents that Imperial Manila does not have; and that the regions have fed and nurtured and propped up Imperial Manila for so long at the expense of their own peoples.
This leads us to education, and the advocacy of two of our institutions, their advocacy a cause for celebration. With them, we who believe that we deserve something better, that a multicultural education will propel us into something more redeeming, needs to be known to all those who have not seen this view.
These institutions could have come from two opposite ends but they are not—not today—as their positions of support for a new vision for all of us are imbued with the wideness of vision no one ever had in the past.
One of these institutions is a government institution mandated to make good with the promise of the three Philippine Constitutions we have had since the Commonwealth Period under the Americans (1935, 1974, and 1987) to have a national language.
In the last three years, the Commission on the Filipino Language evolved from an institution of linguistic and cultural fossilization—and linguistic and cultural hegemony—into an institution that we can truly claim as having finally come to its senses of recognizing that you cannot develop the Filipino language without developing all the other Philippine languages.
Why it took seventy years for well-meaning scholars, top-notch academics, and cultural leaders to realize this simple truth and fact of life is beyond me. They say the nose is the most difficult part to see. And yet it is so close to the eyes.
And seeing and re-seeing we must, because this is the challenge of historical truth, the challenge of the dynamism of our collective life, the challenge of responding to the issues that matter most to us: that challenge, for instance, of an education that is emancipatory because you are giving back the educand her own voice—her own language—the tools through which she gets to mediate her own world, her own life, her own visions, her own dreams, her own sense of self and community.
Even before it became a fad, the Commission on the Filipino Language dared to re-think of its position on the languages of the peoples of the Philippines, while at the same time guarding—and guarding well—its role of making it certain that the seeds of what could be termed a true Philippine national language could be sown.
We cannot hold—and the Commission’s chair, Dr. Ricardo Nolasco, has gone on record to say this—that when two languages are mutually intelligible, one is another language, a different one. This dilemma is what afflicts Tagalog, in principle as in practice, and its turning into ‘the national language’ by a stroke of a pen, even if there is a qualification somewhere that it serves only as the ‘basis of the national language.’
In ontological philosophy, this dilemma is solved by the rule of quiddity: a thing is what it is.
In saying that, we have yet to do a lot to evolve an honest-to-goodness national language that reflects us as peoples of the Philipppines, with our gifts and blessings of diversity and uniqueness—our offerings to the homeland.
The computational linguist Carl Rubino wrote that unless Tagalog goes though a linguistic re-structuring, the stigma that Tagalog is equal to P/Filipino remains and the isomorphism, Tagalog=P/Filipino, inutile as it is, continues to be suspect. The job of the Commission, thus, hews on these challenges.
Ask an Ilokano writer writing in ‘Filipino’ in what language he is writing when he writes in ‘Filipino’ and he will tell you he is writing, not exactly in Filipino, but in reality in Tagalog. Even with the kind of language engineering that I consciously employed and deployed in my Tagalog novel, Dangadang, with the Ilokanisms everywhere that critic Roderick Galam has observed, that novel remains a Tagalog novel.
But the key point that we wish to see resolved is the continuing struggle of the educands in all Philippine classrooms with second and third languages that they have to grapple with in order to understand the basic concepts of life, concepts behind the skills that they are to be equipped with, and concepts about their need to understand more creatively and productively about their world.
When an Ilokano child of seven is brought to a Philippine classroom, he learns his ABC in Tagalog and English, and learns the shapes of the land around him in Tagalog, and the numbers in Tagalog and English, but never knowing how these things are in the language of his home, his community, and the people around him.
Ilokanos who do not know any better—in the Philippines as in Hawai’i, and perhaps in other Ilokano exilic communities, as in Southern California where Ilokanos do not want to be caught speaking in Ilokano except when they talk about the scandals of Philippine politics at the parking lot of Seafood City in Carson City—argue that their children know how to speak Ilokano already and that they are not supposed to be learning that in their schools. Ilokano students or Ilokano-descended students who are taking other language courses argue the same way: they do not need to study Ilokano because they already know their and their parents’ language because they use it at home. Make a leap of that argument and you have Ilokano and Ilokano-descended students choosing Tagalog over Ilokano because Tagalog is the national language. That, to me, is an educational choice—and it is the right of every student to decide in accord with what she thinks is best for her. But in that statement is a subtext of entitlement, and a faint sense of cultural denigration. And if there is an example of cultural denigration, this is it.
Our definition of cultural denigration, prima facie made sufficient by these examples replicated everywhere where internal colonization by Tagalogism and Tagalogization has taken roots, stops here. I am certain that the exemplification of the Ilokano experience is exhibited in all internally colonized countries, the colonization of one of the entitled languages with an army and a navy no less benevolent than the external colonizer. Colonization in all its forms is evil and cannot be morally justified. And all forms of colonization are all the same in their evilness.
The cultural denigration that has become rampant in all of the Philippines and in the diaspora —that hatred of peoples of the Philippines have of their own languages and cultures, a hatred born of the constant conditioning that the language of the periphery, their own language, is not any better and would only do them any good—has turned into a cultural and linguistic bomb. No one ever voluntarily wills for a linguicide, much less for culturicide. Countries have split because of language and culture issues; countries have been formed because of mutual respect for their peoples’ languages and cultures. The Philippines can try ways either for unity or division. This choice is not only political, but is moral as well, as this spells the death of languages, and thus, the peoples whose lives are mediated by these languages.
If we look at the rationale of the Linguistic Society of the Philippines for their support for the intents and purposes of House Bill 3719, we ought to believe again in the healing capacities of our minds when our minds are open to the vast possibilities of our hope, not only for the future but also for the present.
Here is a position that takes in all the virtues of what a culturally plural society is all about.
Here is a position that helps to finally formulate a liberating education for all our peoples of the homeland.
We can only hope that, with the constant triumphalism of all teachers of Tagalog in the diaspora for and in the name of the national language some call justly Tagalog, as in the University of California at Los Angeles and as in a Tagalog language program in a university in Russia—an honest acknowledgement of linguistic facts and not being beholden to a nation-state’s hegemonic project that resulted in cultural and linguistic marginalization—this revisiting of cultural diversity will become an honest educational act of educationists who are open to the truths of diversity and pluralism, and not beholden only to the Fascistic notion of a statist idea of nation and nationalism and ‘national’ language.
In May, the participants of the 2008 Nakem Conference endorsed the Gunigundo proposal for a multicultural education that will bring back the glory of the mother languages, the various lingua franca of the country, the first and native languages, and the second and third languages of the Philippines, Tagalog and English included.
We can no longer act like Manuel Luis Quezon now. Or should we pray that his mistake takes on a new form of linguicide?