Seeking Unity in Diversity: Sustaining Our Multilingual and Pluralistic Culture

A Boholano’s View by Jose “Pepe” Abueva

The Bohol Chronicle

September 8, 2013

Many Filipinos make the mistake that the only languages spoken in the country are Tagalog-based “Filipino, the expectedly evolving National Language, and English, our other official language and international lingua franca. Our English-based public education during American colonial rule from 2001 to 1946 and beyond made most Filipinos assume that we had no languages of our own but only dialects!

But our 1987 Constitution recognizes our many indigenous languages. It recognizes Filipino and English as our two official languages [Art. XIV. Sec. 6 and 7]. It also says that “regional languages as the auxiliary official languages in the regions xxx shall serve as auxiliary media of instruction therein.” In fact, we have some 181 languages, 17 of which are qualified for our new Mother Language-Based Education and are being used in kindergarten and the first three years of primary education nationwide.

Languages and Dialects. In Linguistics, the scientific study of the nature of languages, when two Filipinos speaking their mother tongue cannot understand each other, they are speaking different languages. Thus if someone speaking Sugbuanon (Cebuano) and another speaking Ilocano do not understand each other, each of them is speaking a distinctive language. In other words, Cebuano and Ilocano are languages.

On the other hand, Cebuano has several dialects or variations which are spoken and understood by the people in Bohol, Southern Leyte, Negros Oriental, Siquijor, and many provinces in Mindanao. These are also known as Sugbuanong Binisaya. In Western Visayas provinces people speak Ilongo, Hiligaynon, or Hiligaynong Binisaya and still other languages and dialects.

Speakers of various languages in the Philippines. Columnist Michael L. Tan of the Philippine Daily Inquirer [August 30, 2013] notes that, according to the Ethnologue of the Summer Institute of Linguistics: “two languages in the Philippines [are] classified as ‘national’: English and Tagalog (with 21.5 million speakers). The second category is ‘wider communications,’ and includes Cebuano (15.8 million), Ilocano (6.9 million), Bikol (4.5 million), Hiligaynon (5.7 million), Waray (2.5 million), Pampangan (1.9 million), Pangasinan (1.1 million), Maguindanao (1.1 million), Tausug (1.06 million), and Masbateño (700,000). [2000 National Census].

“Tagalog Imperialism” and “Imperial Manila.” Before Tagalog was propagated as the national language and used as the major language of the mass media and cinema, centered in Metro Manila, there were more Filipinos who spoke Cebuano and its dialects. This is why some Cebuanos speak of “Tagalog imperialism.” Many more Filipinos rile against “Imperial Manila” in our highly centralized unitary system of governance that concentrates political power and authority and financial resources in the national government. This works to the disadvantage of most local governments and the people nationwide that are made dependent on the patronage of national government leaders and agencies.  

My promotion of Filipino as our national language. As president of the University of the Philippines (1987-93), I instituted the Sentro ng Wikang Filipino to promote the use of our national language at par with English, as well as the advancement of our other regional languages. The impressive research and promotion of the Sentro has boosted the development and use of Filipino in U.P. For this I would receive recognition and awards in succeeding years. But there were Cebuano-speaking legislators who regarded me as a traitor to Binisaya, and I had to explain to them our language policy in U.P. As it turned out, it has fallen on our other U.P. campuses (in Cebu, Iloilo, and Baguio) to promote the development and use of Cebuano, Ilongo, and Ilocano, respectively.

I would later help initiate the Kadugong Bisaya to promote Cebuano and other Visayan languages and culture, particularly music. I strongly believe we should have powerful television and radio stations that can broadcast programs nationwide in Cebuano, Ilongo, Waray, and other regional languages, like Bicol and Ilocano. This is one way to nurture our regional languages and promote national unity in cultural diversity.


“One nation, many languages and cultures.” In his Commentary in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Representative Magtanggol T. Gunigundo I. [2nd district of Valenzuela City] underscored the fundamental reality that we Filipinos are “One nation, [with] many languages and cultures” [August 19, 2013]. Indeed, our Constitution recognizes the need for promoting “unity in diversity” as a pluralistic nation. At the same time, we should also pursue our modernization and development to “build a just and humane society xxx and a democracy under the rule of law and a regime of truth, justice, freedom, love, equality and peace [Preamble].

Representative Gunigundo then makes very appropriate critical comments about the way Filipino is being propagated. So I wish to quote him at length.

“The designation of Tagalog/Pilipino/Filipino as wikang pambansa has led to a dangerous misconception that any work written in a language other than the national language is not considered part of the national literature.

“This ‘over-privileging’ of one region’s language and literary imagination also affects the writing of our nation’s history. The struggles in the various regions for freedom and democracy have been ignored in favor of the political center’s narrative of the making of the nation.

“Hence, the pantheon of heroism in the national struggle marginalizes the roles of Dagohoy

of Bohol, Leon Quilat of Cebu and Sultan Kudarat of Mindanao, among many others in successive generations of Philippine heroes.

“To correct these historical and cultural inequities, a kambyo sa pananaw—as some Bisayan friends call it—is very much in order, especially on how we value our linguistic and cultural diversity.

“By this diversity, we shall be able to evolve an emancipatory education that teaches our people 

the collective virtue of a Philippine nation built upon the variety of the memories, experiences, dreams, aspirations and ambitions of our different ethno-linguistic communities. Out of this ‘many-ness,’ we are committed to be one national community.

Mother language-based multilingual instruction. Rep. Gunigundo continues: “The country’s native languages, including the Filipino Sign Language, have been given official status through the institutionalization of mother tongue-based multilingual instruction in our education system. Under Republic Act No. 10533 signed by President Aquino on May 15, basic education shall be conducted in the learner’s native language throughout kindergarten and the elementary grades. English and Filipino shall be gradually introduced beginning Grade 4 until such time that these can become the primary languages of instruction in the secondary level.

“Muddling by the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino.” “However,” according to Rep. Gunigundo, “these goals have been muddled by the very institution we have entrusted to take care of our languages. Recently, the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (KWF) announced that it was changing the official name of our country from ‘Pilipinas’ to ‘Filipinas.’ The KWF obviously is not aware that there are two official versions of the 1987 Constitution, one in English and one in the national language. Each version was approved and signed by the members of the Constitutional Commission. In the national language version, we read that our country is officially referred to as Republika ng Pilipinas.”

Representative Gunigundo concludes. “I think it is time to reinvent the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino into a Komisyon ng mga Wika sa Pilipinas, or a Commission on Philippine Languages. xxx One nation, one language, one culture” is out. “One nation, many languages, many cultures” is in.” He also strongly recommends that our schools refrain from enforcing the rule that only English or Filipino should be spoken in our various schools and colleges. To him this is prejudicial to our other indigenous languages; it even violates our human right of free expression.

Failure to evolve Filipino as our national language.  I should add that a common and valid criticism of the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino is its failure to effectively evolve our national language as mandated by our Constitution. Being largely Tagalog, “Filipino” should  consciously incorporate  and adapt words from our various regional languages as well as foreign languages such as Spanish, English, Bahasa, and Arabic. The Komisyon has not learned the lesson why English has become the most popular and accepted international language or lingua franca. This is because English continually borrows and incorporates foreign and technical words into its usage and dictionary.

In the Visayas (Bohol and Cebu) where I grew up, we count in Spanish and adopt various  Spanish words. Counting in Tagalog is awkward and difficult as you go to the larger numbers and dates. Unibersidad ng Pilipinas retains “U.P.” while Pamantasan ng Pilipinas makes “U.P.” “PP.” Kalinaw in Binisaya is shorter and sounds better than Kapayapaan.” Indonesians and Malaysians are more practical in adapting English words as in konfrontasi (confrontation), komisi (commission), korupsi (corruption) burukrasi (bureaucracy).   

Let us consciously sustain our multilingual and pluralistic culture as we seek national unity, modernize, democratize, and develop!


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