Making sense of 187 Philippine languages: An apology for the background noise

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Can you imagine being a student in Ifugao, studying English and Filipino at school, speaking Ilocano with your peers, conversing in Ifugao at home, then coming to church and hearing all four at once? How does one juggle and negotiate the varying weights of a colonial language, a national language, a vernacular language, and an indigenous language? ILLUSTRATION BY RAXENNE MANIQUIZ

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The congregation at the Vibrant Evangelical Church of Amganad in Banaue sings in four languages: Ifugao, Ilocano, Filipino, and English. When the pastor delivers the sermon, he switches seamlessly from one code to another. Can you imagine being a student in Ifugao, studying English and Filipino at school, speaking Ilocano with your peers, conversing in Ifugao at home, then coming to church and hearing all four at once? How does one juggle and negotiate the varying weights of a colonial language, a national language, a vernacular language, and an indigenous language? Surely, one remains the same person while ferrying from one space — one language — to another: when they sit in church and hear the Word flowing through four different tempers, it’s almost like speaking (or hearing) in tongues — a single narrative tapestry weaving itself with very differently colored threads. And they understand.

In her bilingual (English and Filipino) poetry collection, “Ang Lipad ay Awit sa Apat na Hangin,” Merlinda Bobis describes her multilingualism as “always a part of me which unconsciously moved back and forth [between] Filipino and English, even when I was supposed to be writing a poem only in one language — that part which believed not in two voices but a two-timbred voice.” Bobis recognizes the individual soul and space-specific reality of each language, but also believes it is possible for one to travel back and forth between each system of meaning — often involuntarily — and retain the same reality without adulterating the self. “I have three tongues — Bikol, Filipino, and English. I write, work, fret, love and dream in all of them — sometimes speaking them all in one breath. It is no trouble at all,” adds Bobis in her 1994 doctoral dissertation.

church The Vibrant Evangelical Church of Amganad in Banaue sings in four languages: Ifugao, Ilocano, Filipino, and English. Photo by KABEL MISHKA LIGOT  

It’s difficult to imagine a Filipino, anywhere on these seven thousand or so odd islands, being monolingual, or even exposed to just a single language. English and Filipino have reached every corner of the country, thanks to the public school system, radio, television, and the tower of Babel that is the internet. Every Filipino is at least bilingual, with the majority outside Manila and the surrounding areas having a mother tongue outside the matrix of both English and Filipino. Over 60 percent of Filipino households speak a language other than Filipino or Tagalog. There are more Merlinda Bobises and Banaue churchgoers in this country than we take into account. But why is it so that whenever we speak of language, we rarely take into account that other voices do exist in and around us?

I wish I could write instead about the enchantment of a language of the margins. I wish I had the experience to speak of how a single word in Isneg or Aklanon or Bagobo-Klata evokes a bodily feeling I have no other name for, an earthy tang of an heirloom recipe, the way midday sunshine reclines gently on a mountain range, an answer for a question that doesn’t exist. But unlike thousands of other silenced voices, that isn’t my reality; growing up in a middle-class, Manilenyo environment placed English at the center of everything, and Filipino (Tagalog as I falsely knew it then) was left only a handful of spaces: interacting with extended family members, playing outside, the Filipino and Araling Panlipunan subjects at school, episodes of “5 and Up” and “Batibot,” and occasional outbursts of emotion.

Every Filipino is at least bilingual, with the majority outside Manila and the surrounding areas having a mother tongue outside the matrix of both English and Filipino. Over 60 percent of Filipino households speak a language other than Filipino or Tagalog. But why is it so that whenever we speak of language, we rarely take into account that other voices do exist in and around us?

That doesn’t mean I didn’t have any access to any language outside those two. It’s just that everything else — the househelpers’ Bicol Sentral and Bol-anon, my grandfather’s Ilocano, or my grandmother’s Kapampangan, etc. — were brushed gently to the sides, existing solely under the false label of “dialects.” I was too busy worrying about that line of 7 or 8 on the Filipino row of my report card to bother about anything else. It was only English is for this, Filipino is for that. And everything else became background noise. My Filipino-American friend in the Bay Area — thanks to news programs, noontime variety shows, and telenovelas on TFC and other overseas channels — grasps the full emotional breadth of standardized Filipino, but identifies his parents’ Pangasinan solely as something that “sounds sad, almost whiny, but not annoyed,” the language reserved almost only for sentimental phone calls back home. 

This makes me wonder: what do these languages sound like, and why can’t I pin them down? These languages I can’t understand, but know; these languages I can’t speak, but recognize, since they exist around me. Have I reduced them only to a certain sound, certain feeling? Can I only grasp these languages by comparing them to referents or concepts I already know, framing them on my own terms instead of being aware of the universes of meaning they carry on their own? Like the friend in California understanding Filipino but only “hearing” Pangasinan as a chatty yet melancholic sound, I can only describe my lola’s Kapampangan as “makutyâ” like clucking chickens, or my grandfather’s Ilocano as “masungit,” a question asked with a furrowed brow. Our kasambahay Ate Arlene’s Bol-anon is someone exasperatedly telling someone off on the phone, while my father’s halting Bicol exists solely in teases and quips towards my grandmother.

But is that all what these languages are? Sounds? Background noise? Distracted by the perpetual tug-of-war between only English and Filipino, I am blinded to the multitude of languages that exist around me, immediately available to me, a phone call or village street away, waiting for anyone to listen and interact with the realities they have to share. I’ve focused too much on an argument between two voices, and all other equally viable and vibrant tongues have receded, faded away into the background.

hymnal A spread from the hymnal used in the Vibrant Evangelical Church of Amganad in Banaue. Photo by KABEL MISKHA LIGOT  

This discussion on our vernaculars isn’t new, nor is it a conversation that can be held in one sitting. This isn’t about sterilizing the soul of these languages that can’t be put into words, or separating them from the often highly-localized social spaces that we often cage them in. This is about letting those languages in and around us speak — not drowning them out. Let’s learn songs and riddles from our cousins and neighbors, let’s ask our grandparents and househelpers questions. Let’s add more languages to our bilingual children’s books. We’ll find that not only are these languages more accessible than we think, but also the small steps we can take towards amplifying them can be extremely simple.

In order to fully understand who we are as a people, we need to see beyond this rigid English/Filipino binary and treat these other languages more as voices, less as background noise. By doing so, we open ourselves to over 187 new ways of understanding ourselves: this isn’t about regional divisiveness or completely dismantling the large project we’ve begun on solidifying a national language. This is about reiterating our story to ourselves over and over again, with a new timbre in our voice in every repetition, rediscovering who we are each time.

In order to fully understand who we are as a people, we need to see beyond this rigid English/Filipino binary and treat these other languages more as voices, less as background noise. By doing so, we open ourselves to over 187 new ways of understanding ourselves.

“The voices are different, yet they belong to one hand or one body,” Bobis writes in her collection. “And as such, the preferred language at any moment [is] not a conscious choice at all.” These voices we’ve treated as background noise have existed for thousands of years; all we have to do is listen. They are far from lost or dead, they just require our amplification. We must give them the leeway they fully deserve. And like a Bicolano poet in Australia, or the community in that small Ifugao church, perhaps a good number of us will be fortunate to find that these other voices have been in our mouths all along, existing alongside the voices we knew prior, ready to speak just as clearly.