Firth McEachern was working in San Fernando, Philippines in waste management.
Is Tagalog replacing the local languages in Northern Luzon? Or are people just playfully mixing the two languages without neglecting their mother tongue? The answer in the cities, I’m afraid, is the former. And as someone who has been sent to the Philippines from a Canadian organization called Sustainable Cities, I am obviously worried by the fact that cities in the Philippines are not sustaining their linguistic diversity.
The realization first came to me at a carenderia near my house. A cute little girl was wandering between the tables, and I decided to engage her in small talk. “Anya ti nagan mo?” I asked her in Ilokano. She responded with a blank stare. “What’s your name?” I repeated in English. Still no reply.
“Isuna Tagalog,” her father (the carenderia owner) told me.
“Oh, I’m sorry! What province are you from?” I asked him, thinking he would tell me Rizal or Quezon or something.
“Here in La Union.” He replied.
“You mean you are Ilokano?” I asked incredulously. “Then why doesn’t your daughter speak it?!”
“We are speaking Tagalog to her.” He said cheerfully.
“Why?” I asked, confused. “Is her mother Tagalog or something?”
“No, she is Ilokana.”
I was shocked. I have met Filipinos abroad whose children only speak English; for the sake of integration, they spoke English at home. But I have never met a mother who, in her own linguistic homeland, has neglected to teach her children the mother tongue.
“This is Northern Luzon, the bastion of Ilokanos. Ilokano has been a dominant language here for hundreds, if not thousands of years. And you parents are both Ilokano, and speak Ilokano to each other. Yet you only want to speak Tagalog to your child?” I pressed.
“Because it is our national language.” He replied.
This statement made me pause for a moment. So what if Tagalog (or Filipino, technically) was the national language? Why did the existence of a national language have to do with parents not passing on their own tongue to their children? Why can’t children learn to speak both?
“Ok,” I said. “And?”
“So it’s good to know it.” He replied.
I still wasn’t following his logic. I don’t dispute the fact that speaking another language is useful to know, especially one so prevalent as Tagalog, but why would a parent not want pass on their mother tongue?
“Well, don’t they learn Filipino at school?” I asked. Why do you need to speak to her in Tagalog at home?”
“That is the trend. If she doesn’t know Tagalog by the time she already goes to school, she will be made fun of. Ilokano is considered too ‘native’.”
“’Native’? I asked, even more dumbfounded. “What does that mean? What’s wrong with that?”
“Corny, old-fashioned, low class,” the father explained.
Things were just going from bad to worse. Why should a native language have such a low reputation? La Union is 93% Ilokano. It is a traditional Ilokano province. Why should Ilokanos be ashamed of their own language, especially when they are mostly surrounded by other Ilokanos? Do people not realize that Ilokano has just as rich a language as Tagalog, and a long history of literacy too?
Healthy cultures do not dismiss themselves so readily. If the majority of mothers in Philippine cities are now speaking mostly Tagalog to their children (and a smattering of English), they threaten to kill the languages they grew up with. This is disrespectful to one’s language, one’s culture, and the generations of parents who came before, all of whom, until now, succeeded in passing on their native language.
Why are local languages associated with words like “native”, “corny”, and “old-fashioned”?