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A Question of National Language: What Language Should the Filipino Speak?
by [Virgilio S. Almario]
Date: 7/29/2006

For reasons of geography and history, the islands of the Philippines have more than a hundred languages aside from Spanish, English, Chinese, and Arabic. The native languages belong to the Malayo-Polynesian family, but differ in many ways other than vocabulary. Some major regional languages have dialects, while some are spoken by ethnic groups of only a few thousand. Sometimes only a river or a mountain separates two groups that speak different languages.

Despite the political unification of much of the archipelago under the Spaniards, the country remained divided linguistically. In fact, the Spaniards did not pursue a one-language policy in the islands and even encouraged linguistic differences so they could better dominate the Filipinos. The Americans reversed this when they established a massive education system with English as the medium of instruction. However, English never gained acceptance as a common language of the masses.

The 1935 Constitution provided for the “development and adoption of a common national language based on one of the existing native dialects.” Accordingly, a National Language Institute was created which, after a study and survey of existing native languages, recommended the adoption of Tagalog as the core of the national language.

A census made in 1939 identified the eight major languages in the country, on the basis of number of native speakers: Tagalog (4,068,565); Cebuano (3,620,685), Ilocano (2,353,318), Hiligaynon (1,951,005), Bicol (1,289,424), Waray (920,009), Pampango (621,455), and Pangasinan (573,752).

On January 12, 1937, Manuel L. Quezon appointed Jaime C. de Veyra, a noted scholar from Leyte, as director of the National Language Institute, with Cecilio Lopez, a Tagalog, as secretary and executive officer. Other appointed members were Santiago A. Fonacier, an Ilocano; Felimon Sotto, a Cebuano; Casimiro F. Perfecto, a Bicolano; Felix S. Salas Rodriguez, a Hiligaynon; and Hadji Butu, a Moslem. Sotto did not accept the appointment and he was replaced by Isidro Abad. Hadji Butu could not work regularly because of an illness and he was later replaced by Zoilo Hilario from Pampanga. When the membership was increased to nine, Jose I. Zulueta of Pangasinan joined the Institute.

In 1940, the Institute was authorized to print its dictionary and grammar book in preparation for the teaching of the national language in all secondary and normal schools. In the same year, Commonwealth Act No. 570 was passed, providing that the Filipino national language would be an official language of the Philippines effective July 4, 1946. The national language was officially designated Pilipino in a Department Order of Jose E. Romero, education secretary, in 1959.

The language issue remains controversial to the present. Recent censuses reveal that there are more speakers of Pilipino than English, despite the continued use of the latter as the medium of instruction and as the official language of government and commerce. However, the efficiency of Pilipino as a national language has been continuously challenged by pro-English sectors, as well as by advocates of other native languages.

Cebuano advocates, for example, argue that native speakers of Cebuano outnumber those of Tagalog and thus, Cebuano should rightfully be the basis of the national language. The issue is further complicated by proponents of a national language based on many native languages instead of just one.

The predominance of Tagalog-based Pilipino, though, cannot be underestimated. Aside from the fact that Metro Manila, the center of government and commerce, uses the language, it is unrivaled in its agents of propagation: komiks, film, and newspapers. Many non-Tagalogs claim to learn the language through these media.

The inability to resolve the national language issue is viewed as a sign of the country’s weakness. Language is a link for political unity and economic growth. The sooner the language problem of a country is resolved, the easier it will be for its people to work together towards common goals.

Source: Filway’s Philippine Almanac (1996), pp. 344-345.

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