pop goes the world: language and identity

POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 5 May 2011, Thursday

Language and Identity

In a multi-lingual country such as ours that has been colonized by foreigners, language and its use are inextricably linked to issues of national identity and geography.

Tagalog, or “Filipino”, is used as the country’s primary language, and is taught in schools along with English, embedded in the culture during the forty years of the American Occupation. Spanish, spoken by families of the elite during 400 years of Madre España en Filipinas, has sunk into obscurity.

The Philippines, center -the green group of islands that looks somewhat like a dinosaur. Image here.

At different times over the years, either Tagalog or English has been the main medium of instruction, a matter that has always heavily been debated, even fought over.

Cebuanos have contended in the past that there are more Cebuano, or Visayan, speakers, and that it should be the primary language. Tagalog is said to have been designated the national language only for purposes of convenience, being the language spoken in “the center” of the country, where the seat of the national government is located. It’s a case of a language being in the right place at the right time.

We are in a period where Tagalog is the medium of instruction, but many schools are placing an emphasis on the practice of English conversation, giving gold stars and other incentives to class sections that use it. Colegio de Santa Rosa in Makati, which my two daughters attend, is one such example.

Schools are said to be doing this to increase the chances of their graduates obtaining jobs in high-growth sectors such as business process outsourcing, where English fluency is a must, and overseas, because in the past couple of decades the Philippines’s number one export has been human labor.

However, the issue of language has been linked to national identity, and that is another source of contention. As a writer in and speaker of English, I have faced discrimination from native Tagalog speakers, including writers in Tagalog and other Philippine languages, for being “colonized”; I am perceived as somehow unpatriotic.

I write in English and speak it fluently because of circumstances of birth and because I grew up during a time that English was the primary medium of instruction. My sister and I were born and grew up in Manila speaking English, not Tagalog.

My parents were not unpatriotic, it was just that they were not originally from “the center”. My mother is from Bacolod City and speaks Hiligaynon, English, and Spanish; my father was from Cotabato City and spoke Chavacano, English, Spanish, Tausug, Hiligaynon, and some Cebuano and French.

Neither of them spoke Tagalog well; I never heard them speak it at home until I was in my teens. When I did, they sounded barok.

Was it any surprise, then, that they decided to teach English to us, their children? My father also felt it would give us an edge in school; back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the medium of instruction was English. How could they have taught us Tagalog, when they did not speak it fluently themselves and were not comfortable using it?

In 1993 a romance novel of mine in English – Fire and Ice – was released by Solar Publishing, which put out other titles in that series. This was during the heyday of the Tagalog romance “pocketbook”.

Around this time a writing workshop for romance novels was given at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. I eagerly signed up. The main speaker was an established writer in Filipino who shall remain nameless. When she learned that my published novel was in English, she said, “Hindi ka Pilipino.” And glared.

I replied, “So you’re saying Nick Joaquin and F. Sionil Jose and Jose Rizal are not Filipino?” And walked out.

When my marriage fell apart because my ex-husband fell in love with someone else, my former in-laws told me, “Kaya ka iniwan ng asawa mo dahil Englishera ka.” Like it was a bad thing, that fluency in English was an evil thing, a right and proper reason for breaking up a family.  That made no sense, and all I could reply was, “But you knew that from the start!” It was in fact a matter of pride for them at first that I and my children have an excellent command of English, and we were paraded around to their family and friends in a Laguna town.

You can say that language plays a big role in my life.

So I read with great interest a Facebook Note posted by broadcaster Rico Hizon, now based abroad and working for BBC World News. It was the speech he gave at the Toastmasters International District 75 Annual Conference, and it was titled, “Being Proud of our Own Filipino-English Diction.”

Hizon said:The Filipino diction is clear, simple, neutral, easy to understand. The Filipino enunciates clearly, pronounces every syllable in a pleasant, even, and non-threatening tone modulated for every ear to capture its essence. And when we speak English, for instance, it is neither American nor British English. It is a Pan-Asian diction. It does not pretend to sound western but both Asians and non-Asians can easily comprehend what is being said.”

He went on to say:  “Speaking in English is not unpatriotic. We are not less Filipinos for mastering another language. We are only making good use of our gift for languages to forge ahead. English should be the medium of instruction in schools.”

I agree with Hizon. I too have the fluency and clear diction, trained as I was by my broadcaster father, who belonged to the old school and insisted on clarity in enunciation. He would have been appalled to hear the squeaky voices and mumbling indulged in by a great many TV and radio broadcasters today.

Pops and me at the ABS-CBN employees’ family day picnic, c. ’70s.

Back when I was growing up, a “golden voice” was required for one to be on radio and TV. Think Harry Gasser, Rey Langit, Orly Mercado. Who do we have on now and what do they sound like? You tell me.

I have parlayed my English fluency in writing and clear diction in speaking into skills that have gotten me work in media when my marriage broke up and I had to support my children. My writing and my voice put food on the table. Would I have been able to do this otherwise? I don’t think so.

In addition to English and Tagalog, I also speak Hiligaynon and some Spanish. I am grateful I grew up the way I did, speaking the languages I do. But just because I am more comfortable using English and Hiligaynon rather than Tagalog, does this make me less Filipino?

If you think I am, then them’s fighting words; say it to my face, so we can step outside and duke it out. If we identify as Filipino, live as Filipinos, and anticipate dying as Filipinos, then we are Filipino, no matter the language we speak, the color of our skin, even the nationality of our birth.

Because love of country resides in the heart and mind, not on our tongues.   ***

Nick Joaquin here. Rico Hizon here. Orly Mercado here.

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5 Comments on pop goes the world: language and identity

  1. Bea
    5 May 2011 at 12:19 pm (2362 days ago)

    Not being able to speak Tagalog fluently (but we do speak Tagalog fluently) not only discriminates English speakers but also speakers of other languages and dialects (like the Cebuanos for example). Hehe.

  2. Reggie
    5 May 2011 at 2:45 pm (2362 days ago)

    Ah, but can those critics speak Panda? Ivan and Boris
    Or even Ewok? Trekker

    (Jenny, lilipad na ang fur sa tinalupan!)

  3. huamulan03
    5 May 2011 at 3:55 pm (2362 days ago)

    I’ve also battled glares whenever I spoke in English, but it’s the language I’m most comfortable in so, *shrug*. I don’t think patriotism or nationalism should be tied with the language in which one best communicates :D So I really lurve your tuff “love of country resides in the heart and mind, not on our tongues”stance.

    Insightful article, JennyO-san ^^ And me wants a copy of your romance novel xD

  4. pinoytransplant
    7 May 2011 at 4:52 am (2361 days ago)

    If I remember it right, your Tagalog sounded perfect to me. I’m now speaking English most of the time, but sometimes I still sounded “barok”. :)

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