New York—As this city closed (who would have thought?) and braced itself for the fierce hurricane called Irene, a close encounter of a different kind took us by surprise.
It came from the Philippines and it was called James Soriano, who caused an online storm with his Manila Bulletin essay “Language, Learning, Identity, Privilege,” in which he makes the claim that “Filipino is not the language of the learned.”
He adds, “We are ‘forced’ to relate to the tinderas (store clerks), manongs (usually the driver) and katulongs (the help) of this world.”
Soriano claims his mother made home conducive to learning English since he was a “toddler” to the point that she even hired English tutors. So we know who’s to blame now?
Well, not so fast. After all, our educational system and form of business communication is still English. Which brings us to the question: Why do we imbibe the language of the empires when they come and go, anyway?
Soriano proceeds to say he “learned Filipino because it was practical. (It) was the language outside of the classroom; it was how you spoke to the tindera when you went the tindahan (convenience store). He says he needed to speak the language “to survive the outside world.”
It’s unfortunate how the boy chooses to live in a bubble, but he is just a symptom of a larger problem.
The glaring social stratification in the Philippines is connected to one’s chosen language, too. The use of English among the rich sets them apart from the rest who speak Tagalog. The Tagalogs may feel superior toward other Filipinos who speak a different dialect.
At a disadvantage
So when Soriano says Filipino is not the language of the learned, is he suggesting Filipino speakers are at a disadvantage compared to him? Did he mean his relatives, too, since they speak Filipino like everyone else? Who feels insulted in all these?
The “interruptions” of foreign colonizers on our shores have, of course, hindered the full flowering of our language but it doesn’t mean Filipino language development should stop.
If the use of one language can be ultimately unifying and there are more Filipinos speaking Filipino, some sort of compromise could be reached.
Already, Filipinos combine both Filipino (and a dialect) with English and the combination of the two is already acknowledged. While some purists may frown on “Finglish,” this writer thinks language has to catch up with the times.
Having one language certainly can help break down social divisions. America has only one language that allows both rich and poor to communicate with each other on an equal footing.
If we use Filipino only, imagine poor Filipinos having access to knowledge. Isn’t that going to make them more functional members of a nation, able to compete against our most educated?
For Filipino-Americans reading this piece, the struggle over the Filipino language is an issue that does not concern them directly, but it may just give them further insights as to why Filipinos who move to America never teach Filipino to their children. It’s not for any deliberate hatred for the language but for knowing that it is a language they can simply give up without consequences.
This is because most Philippine schools treat Filipino language dispassionately—and an impressionable student may think about its limitations when it is how we have mishandled the language that is the issue.
As Soriano says, Filipino is treated as the “other subject (in school), tedious and difficult,” which is why Filipino “did not come naturally” to him.
Teaching Filipino certainly has to evolve. One can mine our popular entertainment’s use of the language from an etymological, unbiased stance.
From the sublime (Eraserheads music) to the world of TV soap operas, there is a wealth (or heap of trash for some) of pop culture to dissect. The process can actually be fun if analyzed in any number of ways—as a cultural medium, the effective facilitation of relationships and even as emotive expression.
It would be great to teach students of this common declaration, “mahal ko ang bayan ko” (I love my country), as a purely emotive expression, devoid of meaning until converted to action.
While we’re at it, it’d be great to get rid of derisive reactions such as “ang lalim naman ng Tagalog mo” (your Filipino is so profound); “saan bang probinsiya galing ’yan? (From what province did he come from? or “Ay, hindi marunong mag-English!” (He or she doesn’t know how to speak English!)
The latter was a comment directed at Venus Raj in the 2010 Miss Universe Pageant. But if you recall, the more disturbing thing for Americans back then was not her grammar but her non-answer to the question, “What is the one big mistake in your life and what did you do to make it right?”
World is much bigger
These common put-downs may also account for the disinterest toward learning the Filipino language, as Soriano could be accountable for when he didn’t bother to look for translations for bayanihan, tagay, kilig and diskarte.
But the world is much bigger. In a multicultural America where they must convey messages to non-English speakers, those words Soriano cannot translate will need to be translated or “transcreated” (a term used in the ad agency world). Depending on context, variations to these Filipino words are “community spirit,” “cheers,” “titillated” and “technique,” respectively.
Those words can translate to $600 million—the advertising budget spent by American companies in Asian American advertising. Unfortunately, the Filipino American market gets only a meager sum, because we are less language-dependent than other Asians and is therefore almost absconded as a viable market.
The Internet has, of course, blurred the line between journalism and blogging—or writing in general. What passes for journalism these days is one’s solipsistic opinion devoid of any solid research or verifiable truths.
This can be in the form of a blog, which has diminished the value of journalism to a certain extent, because a blogger who gives writing a bad name at least, can easily get published online without culpability whereas a journalist is liable to an organizational structure with strict editorial policies. Count the fact that some journalists blog, too, and the result is utter confusion.
Summing up, Soriano says, “I have my education to thank for making English my mother language,” discounting Filipino altogether.
For a very young person to put himself in a mental box seems too final and unduly conclusive. Doesn’t that rob you of the enjoyment of seeing the multidimensionality of the world? Besides, we know where boxes go—in corners.