I HAVE to confess that I was surprised by the good and wide reception that my article from last week, dedicated to the Creole languages of the Philippines, received, especially from the speakers of those languages and their descendants. Some of these descendants came to tell me, with some sadness, that they did not speak the language because, having grown up in a different region from the one where their parents grew up, they decided not to transmit the language to them.
Many years ago, I read a scientific article about the languages spoken in Palawan. The Filipino professor who signed the article confessed that the results obtained were probably not accurate since she had noticed, while she was doing her field work, that many speakers deliberately concealed the fact that they knew how to speak minority languages, such as Cuyonon, Batak, etc. That is, most people in the area I studied were bilingual or trilingual, but they tended to say they only spoke Tagalog even when Tagalog was not their first language. The reason, argued the teacher, is that many people tend to hide the fact that they speak these minority languages because they perceive that speaking them indicates that they are people of low social status.
The Philippines is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. However, it does not seem that this cultural richness is a treasure that the speakers are willing to preserve. Very often I have come across students whose parents were from two different regions — Catanduanes and Ilocos, for example — but they could not speak either of their parents' languages because the parents had simply decided not to pass it on and spoke to them in Tagalog. I understand there are three reasons for this: First, many Filipinos do not feel a strong identity connection to their native languages, probably because they perceive them to be languages of low social status. Proof of this is that they mistakenly call their languages "dialects."
Secondly, there is an obvious desire for their children to be able to prosper in society, and in this sense they think that transmitting to them, for example, the Ibanag or Masbateño language may be completely useless if they are going to develop their lives in regions where those are not spoken — especially in Metro Manila. Lastly, many parents are unaware that children have an extraordinary ability to learn languages and that acquiring several at the same time (two at home and one at school) can facilitate the learning of other languages in the future.
The consequence is clear, although it is not clearly perceived at the moment: the current trend indicates that in less than a hundred years most of the languages of the Philippines will cease to be spoken or will be in danger of extinction. Even languages that seem to be very alive today, such as Ibanag — which has, according to ethnologue.org, at least 300,000 speakers — are losing speakers, despite the fact that the ethnic population is growing, due to the pressure exerted by languages such as Ilocano and Tagalog. It is not uncommon to find middle and upper-class parents in Metro Manila who only speak English to their children, and who reject Tagalog and Visayan, as they are the languages in which their maids speak.
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Some years ago, I had a student who was married to a Dane. Their children spoke Danish and English, but not Tagalog, their native language. In his opinion, it is more important to know Danish — a language spoken by six million people — than Tagalog, a language with more than 120 million speakers. This case gives a lot of food for thought.
A few years ago, a law was passed that encouraged children to receive most of their basic education in their mother tongues. As far as I know, the law has not been able to be implemented for two basic reasons: many of the teachers do not know — or know poorly — the mother tongues of their students, and starting to produce new textbooks in those languages requires a lot of effort, time and money. However, there is unanimity among linguists on one important issue: knowledge is transmitted much more effectively when it is carried out in the students' mother tongue. Students who learn subjects in their second or third language tend to perform worse.
Some languages will disappear already in the next few years: most Aeta native languages have fewer than 5,000 speakers, and some even have fewer than 10 speakers, so some foreign linguists are trying to describe them and record their speakers before the language is gone. The Sambal language, belonging to Zambales, which today has less than 70,000 inhabitants, none of them monolingual, seems certain to disappear in two generations. Curiously, the first language described by the Spanish missionaries was the Bolinao language of Sambal, in a manuscript dated 1601. A paradox of fate, those friars thought that all languages were equally worthy as they were all God's creation. Today, 400 years later, many of its speakers do not think the same.
It is true that many of the Philippine languages, including the aforementioned Ibanag, could revive and prosper with the creation of some institutional incentives, some actions focused on improving the perception that speakers have of their languages, or simply by making the region where these languages are spoken more prosperous, which would force — although it does not always happen — immigrants to learn the language. In any case, it is the linguistic communities themselves that decide the fate of the languages they speak and, in some cases, the smartest and most practical thing to do is to simply study and describe the language before it stops being spoken altogether.