There is so much to celebrate this month, from Valentines Day when lovers of all combinations anticipate with varying intensities of ecstasy, to the more somber remembering of the first EDSA Revolution whose lessons we never learn and whose legitimacy some of us continue to doubt and probe. In between, we celebrate this day the International Mother Language Day. Now on its fifteenth year since it was first observed in February 2000, this day is a celebration of linguistic rights and cultural diversity and a timely occasion to reflect how far we have gone in promoting understanding and tolerance among our people deeply polarized by politics and faith that an open, honest conversation about renewing the ties that bind us becomes an imperative especially in light of public outrage and renewed calls for an all-out war in the South.
According to Ethnologue, there are 185 listed languages for the Philippines. Of the 185, 181 are living languages, and four extinct. Of the living languages, 41 are institutional, 71 developing, 46 vigorous, 13 in trouble, and 10 dying. We might as well add that at least 10 of the 41 institutional languages are now being used in public schools instruction as prescribed by Sections 4 and 5 of Republic Act 10533, more popularly known as the K-12 Law. The said provision draws its rationale from Department of Education Order No. 74 issued in 2009, mandating the institutionalization of mother tongue-based multilingual education. As soon as issues regarding orthography are resolved, more regional languages will be added as medium of instruction.
Clearly, the sheer number of languages indicates a vibrant diversity. But where does this diversity lead us? Does this explain why we are such a fragmented people? Is diversity something to celebrate?
The debate on the divisive national language, for one, remains open not because of the continuing resistance to privileging one language over other equally vibrant, widely spoken and circulated and studied languages but because the process of assignment was less than fair, honest, democratic, transparent, and credible. The greatest irony of it all is that of a people having a national language without a clear sense of nationhood. This anomaly clearly magnifies indifference to historical realities that this republic is a communion of nations of the Ilokanos, the Tagalogs, the Cebuanos, the Maguindanaoans, the Tausugs, the Yakans, the Talaandigs, and the Matigsalogs and whose patriots fought gallantly and shed blood to resist the forces of homogenization.
Besides language, our geography seems to offer an explanation why we can never be united, politically and otherwise. The discontinuity of our lands not only separates us as mainlanders and islanders, this with supreme ridiculousness as we are an archipelago, but also means exclusion for those outside the reach of the messenger on a bicycle, those beyond centers of power and economic production. Our insular attitude is not helpful either in bridging this archipelagic divide.
So where do we find the answers?
Our much-maligned geography actually teaches us about interdependence, the middle ground that tempers both our apartheid and unionist tendencies. This interdependence has long been in place for centuries until our colonizers, starting with Spaniards and later on the Americans, started centralizing our political, economic, and bureaucratic life, the eventual establishment of which made us overly dependent on the capital—the center of power—for decision-making.
Nature configured our geography in such a way that it nurtures diversity and interdependence of organisms, of people, without our destructive intervention. However, the disruptive rise of capitalist trade and globalization externally and the expansion, centralization, and consolidation of political power in the hands of the few families internally have altered this ecosystem. Many don’t realize, or refuse to recognize, that our geography is the perfect habitat of vibrantly federated communities where people pursue their communal goals peacefully and productively with less reliance on, if not total independence from, a central authority to decide which language to be used for what function, what form of government they should adopt, or what kind of future they would like to imagine for themselves.
However, our polarizing politics, parochial governance, and incompetent leadership have a peculiar way of reverse engineering what nature, science, and logic ordained to be the sequence of sensible institutional response to certain situations. I remember how the noted architect Felino Palafox Jr. lamented that his suggestion to regulate housing developments within the Marikina catch basin was repeatedly ignored by succeeding administrations despite findings from several studies all saying the area is too risky for settlement. Then Typhoon Ketsana (Ondoy) came lashing, submerging the area that left thousands cut off from the rest of civilization for days. What is exhibited in this tragedy—and the series of tragedies in Zamboanga, Eastern Visayas, and now Mamasapano—is the seemingly irredeemable inability of our leaders to rise above the pettiness of politics and bureaucratic wrangling that resulted in the massive loss of life and property, subtracting further our diminishing pride and self-respect as a people. On occasions of great necessity, we do not only hold the answer to the questions we have; we are the answer to these questions. We are the ransom to our self-abduction.
We have searched far and wide, spent infinite sums of money, even pleaded to deities for answers to problems whose solution lies nowhere but here, on the very lands on which we built our houses and our dreams, and on the very seas we sail on to beautiful sunsets. Our search should be reoriented inward, to our open hearts and minds willing to embrace the lessons that marginal people’s histories, unevenly scattered islands, untamed oceans, and the melodious chorus of the 181 tongues teach us.
Finally, not to be lost as an important lesson is that the key to ending adversity lies in our bold openness in celebrating diversity, nourishing it with understanding and tolerance, and making it thrive within the rigid confines of our pharisaic morality and unbending laws (but with non-binding effect on the lucky, chosen few). This is not going to be easy, especially to the many among us who “increasingly live in hermetically sealed ideological zones,” to borrow a phrase from the esteemed political economist Robert Reich. And the road to redemption for those trapped in these zones is nothing lofty but an open mind that welcomes opposing ideologies and their tenable synthesis and a humble heart that delights in surprises and possibilities, including the possibility of a lasting peace in our troubled and unjustly divided lands.