Linguistic degradation in the urban setting

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”?


About sustainablecitiesnetwork

Sustainable Cities International is a registered not-for-profit organization based in Vancouver, Canada. Operating since 1993, the mission of Sustainable Cities is to catalyze action on urban sustainability with cities around the world. We work by connecting and mobilizing people through the process of co-creating. We facilitate a thriving, international network of cities that act as urban laboratories: adopting, testing and improving on innovations. Ideas are accelerated through sharing of experience and cities are making transformational change a reality
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3 Responses to Linguistic degradation in the urban setting

  1. Guilherme Fragomeni says:

    Really sad to read your story…at the beginning, I was thinking “well…people evolve, language and cultural habits change, and sometimes historical heritage is limited to public archives and history classes”. But than I got the impression of abandonment, not change.
    We have some similar discussions in Brazil regarding Portuguese. Our way of speaking Portuguese becomes more and more diverse from the “original” Portugal way. Many say we are loosing the language, many say we are creating our own. But its different when you are talking about a language that will be completely lost if not spoken in the Philipinnes.
    Its hard to change cultural processes like the one you mentioned “its a national trend to speak Tagalog and not Ilokano”, maybe the only alternative is to save and catalog as much of Ilokano (audio, video, written) for the time when future generations start to give more value to history and native traditions (if the time ever comes!)
    About not giving value to “native” and “local” assets…unfortunately I see the same in many poor and developing countries. Here in Brasil, many artists just get recognition after the have been recognized by Europe or North America critics. Many people see local traditional movementes as corny and unfashionable like you said…the fashion and cool thing to do is to wear nike shoes and look like the latest hollywood face. I think that is changing here…but its a slow process when all the media is own or paid by multinational corporations.
    Good Luck!

  2. Brendan Baines says:

    I immediately thought of my exposure to one of the more startling examples of linguistic erosion while living on a Métis Settlement in Northern Alberta. But instead of Cree being literally beaten out of children in residential schools, parents here are actively encouraging cultural dissipation – what a sad thing to witness.

    “Healthy cultures do not dismiss themselves so readily.”
    To the heart of the matter in a mere eight words. Excellent article.

  3. vanessa says:

    hi! Interesting article! This made me think and remember my childhood as a local of San Fernando, La Union. Everything you have observed is true. But in my case I’ve been taught Ilokano and English simultaneously at home, my father hated it sooo much if we try to speak Tagalog at home. He has this remark if he hears an ilokano trying hard to speak tagalog “mangmangan met lang ti bagoong agtagatalog pay laeng”. Outside of our home is a completely different culture yet again. I mastered to hide my “regional defect” as an ilokano if that make sense, because like what that father in your article said I will definitely be the laughing stock in the crowd. I can’t speak in English all the time as well because people might think I am “paconio”. So my generation uses tagalog, english and the native language all at the same time in a conversation and sometimes we even are not aware of it. We also have to know the “in” words like “jologs”, “chenez” and now the rising “elow poh!” aka JEJEMON lingo. I now live in Canada and going back home for a visit I have to remind myself of the dos and don’ts of our culture. I had that mistake of talking to my aunt in a language different from what she was using that I was reprimanded by my sister to watch how I talk. Thus to conclude, I cannot do anything but to conform with the norm…

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