Ibainmo ti ag-Ilocano?
“Ang hindi marunong magmahal ng sariling wika ay mas masahol pa sa malansang isda.”–Jose Rizal
Agsipud ta naangotmi ti nabangbangsit pay ngem nalaes a lames a cayarigan dagiti dadduma a pada nga Ilocano gapu iti panangibainda nga agsao iti nacayanacanda a pagsasao segun ti pammaliiw ni Firth McEachern [maysa a Canadian a nagturpos sadiay Harvard University ken agdama nga empleado ti ciudad ti San Fernando, La Union, cas representative ti Sustainable Cities (Canada)] a naipablaac iti Sun Star (Baguio), napanunotmi nga uliten nga imaldit ida ditoy:
WHEN I first arrived in the Philippines and journeyed north to my new home, La Union, the first thing I noticed was how many people inhabited this country. The road north from Manila exhibited a near continuous line of sari-sari stores, food stalls, local government halls, churches, and many other buildings, all overlooking a road teeming with children, animals, trucks, buses, farmers, and people sitting wayside to observe the activity. In Canada, journeys between cities are much more desolate, and the transition between wilderness and settlement is abrupt. Here, the activity and people lent a sensation of being perpetually on the outskirts of Manila, and just as I thought to be leaving civilization, another town plaza would appear. Given that my country has a third the population of the Philippines in 30 times the area, the difference in density is expected. But there was something even more shocking that I was not prepared for. In just 6 hours, my new office friends had noted passing four realms of languages. As we crossed into Pampanga from Bulacan, my escort and soon-to-be officemate mentioned, “Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is from here. They speak Kapampangan.”
“Kampan…Kampandunkin?” I repeated woefully inaccurately, the word having gone by too fast. “Do they actually use it or do you mean historically?”
“No, they actually use it,” he said.
How cool! My eyes drifted to the window, amazed by the fact that the endless line of seemingly identical sari-sari stores and general humanity did in fact harbor great variety. It soon became a game in which, whenever we crossed into a new province, I would ask, “What language do they speak here?” To which my officemates would reply something new. In Pampanga, it was Kapampangan; in Tarlac, mostly Tagalog; in Pangasinan, the Pangasinan language, and finally in La Union, Ilokano. My initial judgement of everything being the same was based—rather naively—on appearance. The Philippines has in fact much greater diversity than the cosmetic differences I was looking for, a fact I have gradually come to appreciate more and more. In Canada, one can travel 1000 km and not even detect a difference in accent. While the scenery is many-hued, people are for the most part talking the same way, eating the same things, and interacting with each other in similarly predictable ways. Of course there are immigrant communities, class differences, and some regional variations, but the country’s young age ensures these differences are small, and further dulled by the overriding imprint of American culture from the south.
I came to Northern Luzon originally thinking I would learn Tagalog, but when I heard other languages (especially Ilokano) being spoken everywhere in the streets, the markets, and indeed our office in the San Fernando City Government, I decided I would try out Ilokano. I am glad to have made that choice, for it has prompted many an intriguing conversation. When I ask people for the meaning of a certain word, they often tell me the Tagalog one, assuming that is the language I wish to learn. Many regard me quaintly for wanting to learn a local language, and others have even been hostile about it. “Why aren’t you learning the national language?” they say. “You must learn it.” These interactions exposed me to a deep set of issues regarding language that I probably would have overlooked had I passively learned Tagalog as per common advice. It has prompted me to learn more about how Filipinos view linguistic diversity, mother tongues, and education, the history of language planning in the Philippines, and the current government attitudes surrounding it. Finally, it has lead to the inescapable conclusion that huge linguistic and cultural transformations are taking place in this country, which is affecting everyone—whether you speak Ibaloi, Pangasinan, Ilokano, or even Tagalog. Please join me on this 10-part series to explore these transformations from an outsider’s perspective. What is happening in the world of Filipino languages and why? Are there questions we should be asking? Should the country’s current language trends be redirected somehow? If so, how? See you next week!
(Firth MacKenzie McEachern is a Canadian who graduated from Harvard University. He is currently employed in the San Fernando City Government as a representative of Sustainable Cities, a think-tank and do-tank for sustainability based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. His interests include languages, scuba diving, singing, ballroom dancing, photography, nature, meeting new people, learning about new cultures, swimming- ed).
Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on July 7, 2010.
I WAS at the supermarket a month ago and decided to try out my fledgling Ilokano on a pretty staff girl.
“Manu daytoy?” I asked her, as I picked up a can of corn beef. I don’t even like corn beef, but it was a convenient opportunity to gain a smile from a cute girl.
“Oh, you speak Tagalog!” She said, impressed.
“Actually, Ilokano” I told her, confused.
“Oi!” she bleeped in that universal Filipino exclamation of surprise. I assumed the wrong word came out, and didn’t think anything more of the incident.
The same bizarre thing has happened five times since. Granted, my skewed accent probably makes it difficult for listeners to identify certain words, but I don’t think that “Agyamanak” could possibly be construed as “Salamat,” no matter how bad my accent is. There was even a time when a person who had mistaken my Ilokano speaking for Tagalog continued to rattle away in the latter language, despite my showing no signs of comprehension and repeatedly addressing him in Ilokano. I finally had to directly tell him, “Look buddy, I don’t speak Tagalog so I don’t know why you keep talking to me like that.” He acted surprised, as if all the evidence pointed to the contrary.
There was something deeper behind these seemingly innocent mixups, and I wanted to find out what. It turns out that it is so rare for foreigners to learn other Philippine languages other than Tagalog (especially on Luzon), that there is a deep rooted assumption that if a foreigner knows a language of these islands, it is probably Tagalog. Unless one is listening attentively, an exception to this rule may be missed. Another factor in these mixups is my own unwitting fault. Upon hearing Tagalog on the television, I was shocked to discover that many of the words in my Ilokano repertoire are in fact Tagalog—no wonder it’s not immediately obvious to people what language I’m trying to speak! I had no idea that people had been teaching me words from both languages; even more shocking was the realization that the regular “Ilokano” heard on the street is heavily mixed too. How can I learn a foreign language properly when it is being so bastardized by another?
This problem motivated me to find out more. Why do so many Filipinos, especially the youth, speak a “halo-halo” version of their mother tongue and Tagalog? The mixing phenomenon is only slight among adults, as in my office, but a walk through a plaza and you will hear many conversations peppered with “wala”, “mayroon”, “hindi”, and “dapat.” Mixing two languages is not necessarily a bad thing; speakers of Spanglish in the U.S., for example, have recently become advocates for the flexibility and wealth of expressions that mixing can afford.
But if mixing becomes so habitual that you cannot speak formally in either language, this is a problem. If you have never been challenged to speak your own language properly, your vocabulary can be stunted, reducing the complexity and scope of conversations you can have. Thus limited, you shall never be able to fully appreciate the depth and power your own language can offer, and in frustration or indolence, continue to drift away from it. If you, your friends, or your children are doing the same, this is not just symptomatic of the decay of your own linguistic abilities, but of the entire language.
Presented with this possibility, it was crucial for me to find out whether the adoption of Tagalog words by non-Tagalog youth was merely a playful social affectation or a symptom of widespread language decay. Are Filipino youth gradually losing vocabulary in their native tongues? If 30 percent of the words used by non-Tagalog youth are Tagalog, will it be 50% in a few years time? 60 percent? 70 percent? Will the streets of Dagupan, San Fernando, Baguio, Naga, Angeles City, and maybe even Davao be 100 percent Tagalog some day? The thought worries me, and next week, I’ll tell you why.
Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on July 14, 2010.
THERE are very significant and unfortunate reasons why Filipinos devalue their mother tongue. Whether you are Iloco, Bikolano, Pangasinense, or from any of the other 120+ language groups, you are more likely to view Tagalog and English as more important, and might even fail to teach your child your own language. Why is this? The first factor I’ll deal with is education.
Teaching Filipino (which uses Tagalog as its basis), is mandatory in all schools, but there is no formal instruction of vernaculars like Ilocano alongside it, at any level. Rumours have it that next year DepEd will start incorporating local languages in early primary school curricula, which would be an excellent idea. Like many great ideas, however, it may fall short in implementation. So far the vernaculars have been consistently excluded from educational settings, and have even been outright banned: the antiquated penalties for speaking local languages in schools are widely practiced in private schools and unofficially practiced in some public schools, decades after European countries have removed such discriminatory policies for their minority languages.
At first I did not believe this barbaric practice could still be found in the Philippines. But a few days ago I was in the La Union College of Nursing, Arts, and Sciences, and got proof! I was waiting in the hall and happened to overhear a teacher leading his classroom. He was speaking in English most of the time, but would occasionally switch to Tagalog. Most of the children were chattering in Tagalog with each other, which the teacher didn’t seem to mind. But one time a boy said something in Ilocano to his friend, and the teacher said, “No Ilocano here!” I was shocked. If this is a so-called English school, why would the teacher allow Tagalog and not Ilocano? If he thinks speaking Ilocano is unhelpful to learning English, then the same should apply to Tagalog. Either they should both be allowed in school, or neither. But outlawing one language and not putting restrictions on another is pure and simple discrimination, whether or not one is the national language.
In truth, banning any language in a school-especially a native one-is against international human rights standards. The Philippines is a signatory of the UN Charter on the Rights of the Child. Article 29 clearly declares: “State Parties agree that the education of a child shall be directed to [among other goals]…The development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms,” the child’s “cultural identity, language, and values,” and “peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin.” How, may I ask, can Filipino schools pretend to be respectful of students’ “identity, language, and values,” or true advocates for “tolerance,” if they discourage or even sometimes penalize the use of the mother tongue? They cannot.
Let me proceed to the next section of the same document that the Philippines has signed:
Article 30. In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities or persons of indigenous origin exist, a child belonging to such a minority or who is indigenous shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of his or her group, to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practice his or her own religion, or to use his or her own language.”
Every language group in the Philippines constitutes a minority, because no language is natively spoken by more than 50% of the population. Tagalog is native to around 30% of the population, Cebuano by 20%, Ilokano by 10 percent, and so on. Therefore, all these languages are protected by the UN Charter on the Rights of the Child, and Filipino children should be allowed to speak whatever vernacular they desire. I urge private schools, public schools, and the educators who run them to stop the barbaric practice of suppressing children’s natural inclination to use their native tongue. Teachers should feel free to use the local language in addition to English and Tagalog, as one is no more inferior to the other.
To suppress the use of local languages contravenes the promises the country has made to the international community, and is in fact unnecessary from a pedagogical perspective. Many studies have shown that integrating the mother tongue in the classroom can help a child understand better, encourage participation, enhance cultural awareness, and raise their confidence, resulting in improved learning-including the learning of English!
Someday I hope to walk into a fancy school like Lorma Colleges in La Union and hear Ilokano, Tagalog, and English being spoken freely. In an equal society, all languages would be perceived equally and could be used by rich or poor without judgment.
Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on July 28, 2010.
“ADDA Black Forest Sundae yo?”
“Wala po” the Jollibee cashier replied.
“Adda Beef with Mushrooms?” I asked again.
“Ilocano ka?” I probed.
“Tapos, apay agtagtagalogka ket Ilocano ti pagsarsaritak kenka?” I asked her, curious.
She blushed and looked surprised. “Diak ammo sir.”
This is the scene I go through practically every time I go to establishments like Jollibee’s, McDonald’s, Greenwich, KFC, and the CSI mall here in San Fernando. Even though I speak to them in Iloco, they frequently respond to me in Tagalog, even if they are Ilocano!
Whatever happened to the maxim, “The customer is always right?” If I am a paying customer, it is up to the establishment to be as accommodating to the customer as possible. If I speak in Tagalog, they should respond in Tagalog. If I speak in Iloco, they should respond in Iloco. Of course, this is not always feasible because not every waiter is guaranteed to know the local language, but if he or she does, there is no reason not to.
I wanted to find out why it was so hard to get staff at medium and high-end establishments to speak to me in the regional language. So one day I asked the manager of a local Max’s restaurant about it. The very friendly, thoughtful man told me that many managers will tell their employees to only speak in Tagalog and English.
“What’s wrong with that?” You might ask. “Tagalog is the universal language here in the Philippines so everyone understands it. And English is also an official language.”
Both are true statements. But if a customer begins speaking in the local language, what better proof does the staff member need in order to know that the customer speaks the local language?! The evidence is in her face! In other words, the decision of an Ilokano employee to continue talking in Tagalog with someone who is blatantly speaking Iloko to her is no longer about ensuring understanding. The employee is simply being inattentive and rude to the wishes of the customer. Therefore, it would be in the best interest of everyone if managers told their employees to speak in whatever language their customers used, when possible.
There is one impediment to this idea. Since it has been such a habit of fast food chains and department stores to speak Tagalog to their customers, many customers are already shy or unaccustomed to addressing staff in the local language.
There are two preferred options to overcome this minor glitch. Out of respect for the local language, commercial establishments should by default greet their customers in it. In Hawaii, for example, it is common to hear establishments greet their customers with “Aloha” instead of “Hello”, even though English is much more commonly spoken. This practice gives Hawaii a fun and unique flavor. The same could be applied to the Philippines. Establishments could greet customers in the predominant language of an area (in Ilocos and Cagayan Valley-Iloko) and then the customer can feel free to reply in that language, Tagalog, or English-whatever he’s most comfortable with.
The second option would be to do what many Canadian agencies and establishments do in bilingual areas. In my hometown of Ottawa, which has a large English and French population, employees will often greet clients with two languages simultaneously. “Hello, bonjour!” they tell you as you walk in. This way a client immediately knows that the establishment has both English and French-speaking employees, and can speak in either language. In government offices this is in fact mandatory by law. It would be cool if establishments in the Philippines got in the same habit, so that if you walked into Vigan Jollibee’s for dinner some evening, the cashier would alternately say, “Naimbag nga rabii! Magandang gabi!” kind of like the news anchor on GMA’s Balitang Amianan.
These changes are small but potentially revolutionizing. They would make the experience of going to restaurants/shops in different regions more unique, raise the reputation of local languages, and most importantly, improve customer service by demonstrating greater flexibility.
I leave you with one revealing comparison: why is it more likely to hear Spanish at a McDonald’s in Los Angeles than it is to hear Iloko in McDonald’s here, despite the fact that Spanish has no official recognition in the United States and that there is only 41 percent Spanish-speaking people in Los Angeles compared to 93 percent Ilokanos in La Union? This fact should illuminate the extent to which local languages are discriminated against here, and that something should be done about it.
Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on August 11, 2010.
I WAS standing in a school courtyard in Sagada, Mountain Province. Some boys, not more than 10-yrs-old, were noisily playing a make-shift bowling game. A few of their words sounded Ilokano, but I assumed it was my imagination. When I spoke to them, I was just as much surprised that they understood Ilocano as they were surprised to hear a foreigner speak it.
“Aren’t you Kankana-ey?” I asked them.
“Yes” they replied.
“So how come you are speaking Ilokano?”
“Because most of the people around here are speaking Ilokano. It’s mixed.”
Many a time have I spoken out against the supplanting of Iloko by Tagalog in traditional Ilokano areas like La Union and Ilocos Sur. But now I was faced with a different situation: Iloko was not the victim in Sagada, it was Kankana-ey! The irony hit me like a brick. Here in Mountain Province many of the Kankana-ey prefer Iloko. In La Union, many of the Ilokanos prefer Tagalog. And in Manila, many of the Tagalogs prefer English. Why does everyone prefer a language different from their own? It’s a domino effect, and nobody is happy with who they are.
This mentality permeates other aspects of Filipino society. People frequently admire my American-bought shoes, my “guapo” Caucasian nose, my white skin, my surfer shorts, and other artifacts of my foreignness. What is so great about these things? My American shoes, which so many of my Filipino friends have requested, have fallen apart after only 3 months of use. Meanwhile, the cheap shoes that I bought here for only $3 have lasted me 6 months! Just because it comes from abroad does not mean it is good. And what’s so great about Caucasian noses? Who said large slender noses are better than cute button noses? A nose that looks beautiful on one person’s face may not work for another, so there is no such thing as the ideal nose. And as for skin…I would gladly trade my white skin for the smooth brown skin of a Filipino. Brown skin is more resistant to sun damage, it looks more youthful, moles and other blemishes are more camouflaged, and it simply looks better!
Another manifestation of Filipinos’ dismissal of local creations is the music scene. American pop and RnB are by far the most popular music here. Even popular Filipino music sounds like American music, with very similar styles, instruments, and content that American bands are producing. Most of the music that reaches these shores is simply the redone, overplayed, simple, and uncreative pap found among the Top 40 list, but there is so much more music to experience that simply isn’t heard here. Why don’t Filipinos-like South Asians, Africans, and Middle Eastern people-develop their own brand of music influenced by their own traditions?
My point in describing all this is that there pervades (and please speak up if you disagree), a deep-seated apathy for local traditions in this country, whether it be local music, local clothing, local anatomy, or local vernaculars. In addition, whenever a trend comes along, masses of people chase it without questioning whether or not it is actually good. Ilokanos and Pangasinenses sometimes call their mother tongue “corny” or “not useful”, and try to teach their children Tagalog instead. I’ve asked many Ilokano mothers, “Why are you only speaking Tagalog to your child?” and many say, “Because that is the trend.” And? So what if it’s a trend? PERHAPS IT’S NOT A TREND WORTH FOLLOWING! Wouldn’t it be better if you taught your child both languages? And won’t your child learn Tagalog at school, from Tagalog friends, and from television anyway!?
For those who want to follow the trend and abandon their native tongue, I should probably add: teaching your children Tagalog will not miraculously fix their situation. One trip to Central Luzon and you will realize there are millions of Tagalog-speaking poor people. The people you see on television are a very small minority of wealthy, fair-skinned celebrities, and getting your children to talk like them won’t make them any closer to stardom. Unless other self-help measures are taken, a poor person who switches languages is still a poor person-all she has accomplished is the loss of her culture and heritage. So now, in addition to having little money, she has lost a piece of her identity as well.
Poverty, in essence, is relative. It’s not just about a lack of money; it can be many other things too. Poverty is an existence in which everything valuable is defined by someone else. Poverty is the acceptance of trends without room for your own creativity. Poverty is when everyone has to be the same, rather than respect and learn from each other’s differences. You are poor if money is the only way you measure progress. If you lose your culture, and then for some reason lost all your money, what would you have left to support you?
Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on September 1, 2010.
“ANO ang paborito mong pagkain?” the emcee asked.
“Pizza po,” said the little girl.
I guess they think Ilokano is not “cool” or “fancy” enough for a Little Miss Barangay contest, I thought, as I watched the event. Don’t they realize that Ilokano is just as rich and old a language as Tagalog? And don’t they realize that by excluding the local tongue from high profile events like Little Miss contests, they further undermine its prestige?
I turned to the gentleman to my right, the Hon. Vice-Governor Aureo Q. Nisce, and said, “I’m sad that these little girls are being forced to answer in Tagalog. The emcee should set an example and speak Tagalog AND Ilokano interchangeably, so that the girls know it’s acceptable to answer in either.
Otherwise they will just grow up thinking Tagalog is superior to Ilokano, which is not a positive belief.”
“Yes, I noticed this too. They should not be ashamed of using Ilokano,” the Vice-Governor said.
“Is there anything that could be done about it?” I asked.
“You know what? If I am reelected I will suggest more events for Ilokano, like poetry readings and song competitions.”
“That’s great!” I said, glad that someone high up in government noticed the marginalization of mother tongues too.
In previous columns I’ve discussed the exclusion of local language in business, education, and other places, but as demonstrated by Tagalog and English-dominated events like pageants, the vernacular is also excluded from many social situations. That’s why Sir Aureo’s idea to create more Ilocano events is very important. My suggestion is that these events not just be ABOUT the Iloko language, since that is too specific for most people’s taste. (And anyway, there are already such events organized by organizations like GUMIL, the Association of Ilokano Writers). In order to expose the vernacular to a wider audience, therefore, it’s important to also have events that simply USE it. We should establish all sorts of events – such as science fairs, health drives, pageants, job fairs, or musical performances – with the only difference being that that they are conducted in the local language. They are ordinary events with a twist, that send a message to the public that it is acceptable to use Ilokano in many situations, not just when the topic is about Ilokano itself.
The most common argument against using the local vernacular in public events is, “What if some people don’t understand?” For me, that is precisely the reason why we SHOULD use the vernacular at public events. If some people don’t understand the local language that means some people are failing to learn it, and the tongue is destined to decay. Therefore, we need to provide non-speakers of Ilocano the opportunity to hear and learn it, so that the linguistic heritage of La Union is kept intact. The same goes for any other part of the Philippines. The only way to ensure the survival of local languages is to use them, so their use in public should be encouraged.
The older generation, especially the politicians, instinctively know this. They are not ashamed to speak in the local tongue even in the most high profile events. When his Hon. Jejomar Binay came to La Union, the Governor, the two congressmen, and the ex-Mayor of San Fernando all managed to incorporate Iloko into their speeches, even though Binay is a native Tagalog! Binay was not fazed or upset that his hosts used the local language; on the contrary, he wryly told the audience that, although he could not speak the local language, his skin at least looked dark enough for Northern Luzon! It was a humorous and completely relaxed atmosphere.
By contrast to the free way adults use the vernacular, the younger generation is reluctant to do so. I don’t know why, but it might be a shame that is hammered into them in school. Most of the young people who walk into my office introduce themselves in Tagalog. When I ask them why, they say they are trying to be polite and are also not sure if the staff speak Ilokano. In reference to their first concern, being polite is not about what language you use, but rather HOW you use it. And as for the second concern, so what? Use your mother tongue first, and if the listener gives you a blank stare, switch languages. It’s as simple as that. No hard feelings, no problem. It’s high time young people start respecting their heritage.
Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on September 9, 2010.