Language and the search for national identity

Published November 28, 2018, 12:00 AM

by Charissa Luci-Atienza & Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat



Jejomar BinayA recent Supreme Court decision on the teaching of Filipino in our colleges has once again triggered a debate on the national language. By extension, the debate has also touched on the topic of national identity, or our lack of it.

The debate, more vitriolic online, stemmed from a recent Supreme Court decision upholding the validity of a directive from the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) excluding Filipino from the list of required subjects in college.

The high tribunal, in a 94-page decision, lifted the temporary restraining order (TRO) against Memorandum Order 20 issued by the CHED. The memorandum excluded Filipino, Panitikan, as well as Philippine Constitution from the “core courses” in college.

The Supreme Court said it disagrees with the position of the petitioners that excluding Filipino from the General Education Curriculum (GEC) violated Section 6, Article XIV, of the Constitution. The provision mandates government to “take steps to initiate and sustain the use of Filipino as a medium of official communication and as language of instruction in the educational system.”

College professors, language advocates, and some national figures were quick to denounce the ruling as a “blow to nationhood and Filipino identity.”

The teaching of Filipino, they maintain, goes beyond grammar, since discussions also tackle culture and identity. One professor even spoke harshly: “While other countries show appreciation for their language and culture, we ourselves kill our own.”

Those who agreed with the ruling, on the other hand, point to Filipino as the main culprit behind our economic stagnation. Filipino cannot even be considered a true national language, they maintain, because it only institutionalized Tagalog, the language of so-called Imperial Manila. Our national language policy, so the argument goes, is the product of  oppressive Manila-centric, or rather Tagalog-centric, political elites, who wish to dictate their language and culture on the nation.

Both sides need to calm down.

For one, the anger at the High Court is misplaced.  Legal observers note that the high tribunal did not ban the teaching of Filipino but merely upheld the authority of CHED to formulate policy to implement a national law, which in this case is K-12. It is not within the scope of the court’s powers to decide which courses are included in the curriculum.

While there are advocates for the primacy of their own regional languages, there are also advocates for  English as a primary language. The latter group argues that the focus on Filipino has contributed to our economic decline, considering that English is the language of business and technology.

These advocates need to be reminded that for decades – and even until now – we have proudly proclaimed our country as a predominantly English-speaking country in Asia. This has been the main reason for the boom in the BPO industry starting in the late 90s.

Yet our non-English speaking neighbors in Asia — Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, China — managed to overtake us economically despite their non-proficiency in English. They did so by building their economies on a strong educational foundation of mathematics, engineering, and sciences.

In his latest book, Identity, the historian Francis Fukuyama cites the observation of sociologist Ernest Geller who noted that the need for “precise communication between strangers” during the rise of the industrial age necessitated a uniform national language, and an educational system to promote a national culture.

Writes Geller: “The employability, dignity, security, and self-respect of individuals…now hinges on their education…modern man is not loyal to a monarch, or a land or faith, whatever he may say, but to a culture.”

Applying Geller’s thesis — that economic necessity dictated the development and propagation by the State of a common language — we may conclude that centuries of economic underdevelopment under colonial powers did not create the conditions that would have necessitated the need for a common language. In fact, some have argued that language was a cultural weapon in the hands of our colonizers. The Spaniards withheld the spread of Spanish as a common language, while the United States employed English as a tool for cultural conditioning.

What this most recent debate over a national language exposes is the strong undercurrent of “tribalism” in our country. It validates my observation that when we still debate about our national language, we have yet to evolve a sense of identity. We remain predisposed to identify ourselves as belonging to “tribes” rather than a “nation.” It is a tribalism that will further deepen under a federal set-up.

Breaking our nation into federated states — as proposed by advocates of federalism — will only deepen tribalism. While the draft federal constitution prohibits secession, it does not provide a constitutional injunction on the establishment of state or regional languages. The existence of a separate states, in fact, encourages it.

Since language is an important marker of culture and identity, federalism will render our search for a national language, and by extension our search for national identity, more elusive and contentious.

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