Inclusiveness begins with language

In the three years he has been president, P-Noy has been able to maintain exceptionally high trust and approval ratings.  This is perhaps not too difficult to explain.  Observe him: He is the first chief executive of this country to consistently speak to Filipinos in the Filipino language.  He has done this in every State of the Nation Address he has delivered.  But, on top of this, he always makes it a point to respond to media questions in an idiom that the masses can quickly grasp. By doing so, he makes ordinary Filipinos feel they play a big part in the national conversation.

For a long time it has always seemed as if this country belonged only to the rich and educated, where educated means primarily the ability to speak English.  While English is still very much the preferred language of law and government, one cannot underestimate what P-Noy has done by unfailingly communicating to the nation in Filipino. He has, almost single-handedly, begun to break down the wall of suspicion that, from colonial times, has alienated ordinary citizens from their government.

Undoubtedly, we need more than a shift in the language of government to achieve the goal of an inclusive society.  We need to broaden the field of economic participation, develop our people’s skills and economic potential, and disperse wealth.  But none of these are possible when the vast majority of our people are systematically excluded by language from the higher rungs of economic opportunity.

Some say we should spread the benefits of a modern language by teaching the poor English.  But this is hardly possible without implying that their own native tongue is fatally doomed to inferiority and extinction.  Thus, instead of promoting and building on the strength of our existing languages, we have tended to undermine them.

Today, that attitude is slowly changing.  More people now recognize that basic concepts are best taught in the mother tongue, and that facility in other languages—including mathematics—is probably best acquired at an early age using the native language as a platform.

But, we give up something else when we rely on the resources of a borrowed language to be able to communicate with one another.  We give up the chance to develop a national consciousness—that is to say, a view of the world that reflects our shared experience and aspirations as a people.  This consciousness is what cognitively unites us and compels us to develop a language.  It is what permits us not only to imagine a common past but also to agree on common purposes.

Here I am drawing freely from an insight by Nietzsche on the connection between consciousness and language.  By consciousness, Nietzsche meant a kind of mirror on which a portion of our thoughts and feelings are reflected and registered.  “Man, like every living being, thinks continually without knowing it; the thinking that rises to consciousness is only the smallest part of all this…”  Only this part takes the form of words, he adds.  “The whole of life would be possible without, as it were, seeing itself in a mirror.” That being the case, the logical question he asks is: “For what purpose, then, is any consciousness at all when it is in the main superfluous?”

Nietzsche’s answer is intriguing.  He surmised that consciousness develops only “under the pressure of the need for communication.”  Solitary beings that live solely for themselves would have no need for consciousness, and thus no need for language.  But man is a social being.   “As the most endangered animal, he needed help and protection, he needed his peers, he had to learn to express his distress and to make himself understood; and for all of this he needed ‘consciousness’ first of all, he needed to ‘know’ how he felt, he needed to ‘know’ what he thought.”

Nietzsche’s conclusion is as simple as it is powerful:  “The development of language and the development of consciousness go hand in hand.”  But Nietzsche was such a staunch critic of national identity that he would have regarded national consciousness as an example of herd mentality.  He thought of himself not as a German but as a European.  Still, I would extend his idea and argue that the growth of a national language goes hand in hand with the growth of a national consciousness.  In turn, the growth of a national consciousness is dependent on a people’s need to communicate their distress and their aspirations to one another.

If this view is correct, we might begin to understand our failure to develop a national language, and our persistent longing to have one.  For as long as Filipinos needed only to communicate their fear and their loyalty to their colonial masters, they saw no need for a common national language.  It was when they had to communicate with one another for the purpose of uniting against a common oppressor that their consciousness as a nation began to flourish, and they felt the need for a common language. Therefore, I would surmise that the period of the anticolonial revolution was also the highest moment in the development of our national language.

In many ways, P-Noy has picked up a vital thread from that revolution. It is for this reason that I personally derive more than just symbolic satisfaction from seeing a Filipino president use the language of his own people to discuss the nation’s problems, what has been achieved, and what more needs to be done.  For once, the nation’s highest leader is talking to its citizens rather than to some international financial institutions or foreign dignitaries sitting in judgment.  This, to me, more than the rise in growth rates, is what is worth celebrating.