Other Discussions on Language

The Baneful Prospects of Language in the Phillipines

Now the language issue has raised its ugly head in the Phillipines.The total area of the 7,100 islands is slightly larger than Arizona. There are two official languages: Pilipino (based on Tagalog) and English. The president elect, Joseph Estrada, has promised to make Tagalog the de facto only official language. He presumably avoids the word Pilipino, since it suggests the nation's name, which nationalists want to obliterate as a relic of Spanish colonialism. He is on about the same level as Frank Sinatra, who died at the same time. In many countries, actors are entering politics. Since name recognition and acting are key elements in politics, perhaps we are moving toward a world ruled or misruled by actors of dubious reputation. They are demagogues who pander to the people. Estrada played the people card partly as protection against the kind of mob violence which has swept Indonesia.

Language, a key element in tribalism, is used to gain some advantage. The proponents of ebonics hoped thereby to obtain additional funding like that won by Spanish-speaking bilingual teachers. The promotion of Welsh means that highly qualified people who do not speak the language are not attracted to teaching jobs in Wales, to its great loss. In Catalonia there is great tension because a new language law requires that government employees speak Catalan. Valencian is essentially Catalan, but Valencian politicians appeal to the local population by angrily denouncing this hard fact. Only a small percentage of Basques know Basque, but it is promoted by nationalists. If this process continues, we shall revert to the primitive state in which the people of one valley could not understand the language of the next valley. That would delight some anthropologists, who rejoice in linguistic oddities. They promoted a pidgin language, taki-taki, as the national language of Surinam.

The idea that every state must have its own language to promote national feeling is silly and dangerous. Ecuadoreans and Peruvians are acutely nationalistic, albeit both speak Spanish. It would be folly to pour language oil onto the fire. In fact, the Spanish and Portuguese languages unite Latin America, which would be much more disunited without them.

Countries like the Philippines and Indonesia are special cases. Indonesia, with its 17,000 islands and a population of over 200 million, has made Bahasa Indonesian the sole official language. A case can be made for breaking up Indonesia, but not the Philippines. Meanwhile, promoting Tagalog and Bahasa Indonesian may help tie the islands together. The Philippines have a great advantage in that an international language, English, has official status. If the government apparatus is restricted to Tagalog, the economy and the educational system will suffer. The inhabitants will become insular in the cultural sense, or nonsense.

Ronald Hilton - 05/17/98