The Philippines is an archipelago of over 7,000 islands, with between 120 and 170 distinct languages, according to various scholars.
Ours is a nation of many cultures and many permutations on those core cultural roots, written and spoken languages and religious beliefs and practices.
As lovely as this sounds, unifying all this diversity, in the Philippine experience, has generated much hurt: The definition of the Philippines as a Catholic country has often left Filipinos of other faiths outside the norm.
The adoption of Tagalog-dominated Filipino leaves Filipinos who speak the other languages feeling offended that only token words from their mother tongues are included in that mishmash patois called Filipino.
This list of hurts and feelings of division can go on without surcease. So let’s focus on the latest efforts to forge unity and define a national identity out of all the diversity that is as much a part of being Filipino as pointing with one’s lips is.
Pangasinan Rep. Leopoldo Bataoil recently filed House Bill 1022 seeking to declare the pre-Hispanic writing system of Baybayin as the official written language of the country. HB 1022 is practically identical in text to Senate Bill 433, filed on July 16, 2016 by Senator Loren Legarda.
On the surface, the intent of both measures is to help strengthen the people’s literacy of their own ancient script. But what both measures refer to as a single writing system actually has several variations.
The Tagalog spoken in Bulacan province varies significantly from the Tagalog of Batangas, Manila and, the province of Quezon. In like manner, distinct varieties of Baybayin, once erroneously called Alibata, exist—and these include the samples of Baybayin script found in Bicol, Pangasinan, the Visayas, Ilocos and Pampanga.
There are, too, other pre-colonial writing systems: The Hanunó’o of the Mangyan, which those indigenous people still use today, and the Eskaya script of Bohol among them.
The truth of our indigenous writing systems is this: They are diverse in the same manner that our spoken languages are diverse. They are also not taught in schools except in passing, as part of history lessons.
Our people do not have any degree of fluency in these written languages, unless you count the tribes that still use these scripts and people who have pursued the study of these languages as part of courses in linguistics or anthropology.
The common tao does not write in them. 105 million common tao do not know their own native scripts well enough to read them as easily as they read words written in the Latin alphabet system that they were taught from pre-school to college.
How, then, can HB 1022 and SB 433 be effective in their stated intents to keep the memory of who we are, as a people, alive? How can we forge a unified national identity when there isn’t much that unifies us in the first place?
NEED FOR EDUCATION
One of the weaknesses both pieces of legislation lack is the education of the people who will have to read the writing in Baybayin.
Both bills seek to have publications include Baybayin translations of their official names. Both bills also seek to have street signs, signs in government offices and facilities carry Baybayin translations of their text. Product labels must also carry Baybayin translations of the words on their labels.
Translating words from a logographic writing system (such as English, and the written Filipino using the letters of the Latin writing system and the Arabic numeric system) into a syllabic writing system like Baybayin is no easy task.
The Latin alphabet spells out phonemes, or single sounds, what the Baybayin syllabary compresses into syllables representing clusters of sound. The alphabet we were taught to write in that is not our own is much more familiar.
Teaching language begins from early childhood—this is why the concepts of a mother tongue and of native speaking exist.
We learn how to use the Latin alphabet and Arabic numeral system from pre-school, progressing from learning how to identify the symbols of that writing system to writing them in block letters, in the upper case and lower case, then capitals and lower case as needed. By the third grade we are taught how to write in that same system using the cursive script form of it.
We are taught to read this writing system until we no longer need to think too hard on what the letters represent so much as the concepts and words that are written in this system.
There is no such method for teaching Baybayin on a large scale. Yes, there are seminars and courses we can take, but how many of us will actually go out of our way and spend hard-earned money for this?
How many people will buy books and periodicals that are written in it, with no translation to help them out? How many can actually say that Baybayin is their mother language? And, if they do, which of the many versions of Baybayin will they claim as their own?
HOW LANGUAGE IS LEARNED
One of the reasons early childhood, primary and secondary education span the first decade and a half of a person’s life is that these are the years when a person learns best. This is when concepts are understood and ingrained.
Language is one of the most basic of lessons, yet it is one that is taught over and over again and the learning does not really end—and without language, nothing else can be taught because humans learn best when in a social setting where communication is part of the process.
While the intents of both measures are good, the extent of the legislators’ aims and provisions in the bills only cover training personnel in government offices “in the use of” Baybayin.
There is no provision at all for including lessons in reading, comprehending and writing in Baybayin in the language curriculum of schools nationwide.
This is problematic if one seeks to improve comprehension and use of the script as an official written language.
One may learn what symbols mean by repetitive use and visuals, but comprehension, which is the point of learning a language, cannot be gained by rote memorization—which is the expected result of seeing these translated words over and over again.
Then there is the question of whether text in English or one of the many Filipino languages will be the basis of the translation into Baybayin. This, too, is not specified in the measures. How many translations will we be looking at and, how much will be lost in translation?
There is another problem, too: The Latin alphabet and Arabic numeral system depends on phonemes—including some sibiliants and some gutturals that do not exist in the 17-symbol Baybayin. This is a consequence of the fact that the last widespread use of Baybayin was centuries ago.
The writing system has not evolved because it has not been used as much as it should have been for evolution to happen naturally. This, too, is not considered in either HB 1022 or SB 433.
What these two measure show is a lack of research and consultation prior to the writing of the proposed laws. What it shows is a lack of scholarly input and deep consideration on the part of the lawmakers and their staff.
These bills may need much more input before they can be considered useful as laws. Perhaps the lawmakers concerned should revisit what they propose and work out the devil in the details.