The fate of our mother languages

This school year, when public school teachers begin using 12 of the country’s mother tongues as languages of instruction in the first three years of grade school, they may find that employing the local language for writing and reading won’t be as easy as speaking it. They have to persist and not give up easily.

Our languages have suffered immensely from our failure to regularly use them for written communication. One can imagine how difficult it must have been for the Department of Education to produce mother tongue-based teaching materials overnight for the new K+12 basic education program. This is not the fault of our languages. It is, rather, the result of the confused language policy of a political system torn between two social tasks—the building of a national community and rapid economic development. Except for the rare writers and culture-bearers who continued to express themselves in their mother tongues, hardly any educated Filipino today uses the local languages in their written form.

Tagalog has survived as a written language mainly because it had been mandated to be the base of Filipino, the national language.  Even so, it can hardly be regarded as the principal language of the literate Filipino. That place belongs to English. Proof of this is the almost total absence of foreign books translated into Filipino. It is bad enough that only a few literary and scholarly works are published in Filipino or in any other Filipino language. Worse, not one of our local languages is used as a medium for transmitting the knowledge and literature of other cultures.

Compare this with the situation in other countries. While English has become the world’s most widely spoken second language, everywhere in Europe, people prefer to read English and American works in their French or German or Italian or Dutch translations. In bookstores in Germany or France, newly released novels originally written in English exist side by side their translations in German or French, but the market clearly favors the translations. The logical explanation for this is that, while they speak good English, Europeans also think they don’t know it well enough to grasp its idioms and nuances.

In an essay in the New York Review of Books, Tim Parks offers a different explanation for the preference for translations. He says that “in most translations there will usually be some memory or trace of the original language, which, for those who are familiar with it, will reinforce their sense of knowing that other world…. But rather than feeling persuaded as a result to give up on translations and tackle the novels in their original language, they seemed to take pleasure in criticizing the translator for having allowed this to happen…. Again, the reading experience reinforces self-regard.”

We find this, by the way, not only in Europe but also in Southeast Asia, where one would stumble upon translations of, for example, Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather” or Max Weber’s “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” in Bahasa or in Thai. Again, this is hardly surprising in countries where home-grown academics and writers themselves regularly publish their works in the local languages rather than in English.

It is typical for educated Filipinos to take pride in their command of both spoken and written English. This, no doubt, has come about largely because English is the only language they learn to read and write. But one must wonder whether this is necessarily a good thing. “When you learn a language,” says Parks in the NYRB article, “you don’t just pick up a means of communication, you buy into a culture, you get interested.” For many English-speaking Filipinos, who have lost their mother tongues, there is no other world against which they can compare the one they read about in English. This could partly explain the great cultural gap that divides educated Filipinos from the rest of the Filipino nation.

But, as significantly, the great haste with which we embraced English as our lifeline to the modern world made us throw away our own languages. Many of these languages had already acquired formal structures when the Americans came at the turn of the 20th century—thanks to the Spanish friars who, rather than teach Spanish, had taken pains to prepare vernacular dictionaries and grammar books in aid of religious instruction. It may be true that the persistence of this Babel of languages made it difficult for the Filipinos to unite against their Spanish oppressors. But then, the resistance against the American colonial power fared no better after America made English the language of instruction in the public schools.

Today, in the age of globalization, the Babel of local languages, or what remains of them, might be the last refuge of the ethical.  This is a point made by the renowned scholar of postcolonialism, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her most recent work, “An aesthetic education in the era of globalization.”  She writes: “Even a good globalization (the failed dream of socialism) requires the uniformity which the diversity of mother-tongues must challenge. The tower of Babel is our refuge.” Much of the ethical component of a language is what usually gets lost or distorted in translation—“as the unaccountable ethical structure of feeling is transcoded into the calculus of accountability.  The idiom is singular to the tongue.”

In a previous column, I have written that perhaps of the various components of the K+12 program, it is the use of the mother tongues for the early learning years that may yet prove to be the most important. I have a strong hunch that the recovery of what is ethical in our culture begins from this.