Celebrating Cultural Pluralism, Welcoming 2008 as the International Year of Languages (Second part)

Following the Napoleonic idealization of French as a national language for France by that conqueror of the same name who had to forgo his being Corsican, and thus, Italian, in order to assume a new identity, that of being French, and following the template for nation building put together by three other countries, to wit, Spain, Germany, and Great Britain, with one and only one language at the center of the national political discourse, then President of the Philippine Commonwealth Manuel Quezon dreamed of the same thing.

We do not forget that the United States , while not nationalizing English, is, by force of practice, causing English, obliquely at least, as the de facto language of this nation.

It is the same habit of the mind and habit of politics that we inherited from the West and which the Philippines continues to keep.

In that Quezonian dream, he—we learned to dream in black and white in the way he did, with white the ‘national language’ and with black, those other Philippine languages that had to be eradicated—forgot that the Philippines was a mixed brew of colorful and culture-rich languages, with 175 languages according to Ethnologue, four of which are already extinct, and six more, according to Lawrence Reid, about to become extinct.

The road to nation building was that of the four countries of Europe, and we followed suit. The project to build the nation began, and the project to erase the memory of a people, the project to eradicate their life, and the project to diminish their sense of self and identity also began.

We are not far-off from our European masters until today. The Philippines is one nation-state that has remained unclear as to its path to celebrating multilingualism and making it as a template for affirming basic human rights.

We are far away from the UNESCO ideal. Today, the Philippines has remained schizophrenic in its approach to the languages of other Filipinos—other because ‘othered’ peoples of the Philippines, with a road it has taken that is ‘easier’ and ‘more practical,’ with the declaration of the language of the center of power, Tagalog, as the basis of the dreamed-of and imagined, ‘national language.’

We know the political reasons. But we know the back stories as well, the back stories informing the choices of those in power to tinker with rules and procedures in order to make their purposes fit into the bigger scheme of things.

We can no longer be triumphal in our approach to valuing human languages everywhere whether we think of the Philippines or other nation-states that are veritably ‘nations among nations.’

For the only way out to affirming the virtues of social justice is to affirm as well what gives life to peoples, communities, nations, and the body politic.

What gives life to them are food for their bodies as well as food for their souls—and this requisite is non-negotiable. You cannot say that a country is fixing its economy in order to give jobs and food to its citizens and at the same time depriving him of his right to his language and culture.

The same holds for all the peoples of the Philippines and in the diaspora. We cannot be triumphal here: that declaration of a ‘national language’ as having become global but has not served the ends of social justice in the ‘nation’ in that ‘national’ has no place in the discourse of human rights, in the justice of retribution, and in cultural and linguistic democracy—ideals all demanding translation into action.

So much entitlement and privilege given to a language at the expense of other languages makes a nation-state sick.

The road to nursing a nation-state back to linguistic and cultural health is to demand the execution of cultural pluralism as a premise for sustaining a ‘nation among nations.’

There is another name for this: diversity. In the State of Hawai’i where about 23 percent of the population is Filipinos, we cannot simply lump all our people as Filipino-speaking; that is a wanton lie that we must all unmask.

Historically, the Ilokano people—truly a ‘nation’ in the loose sense—have more than 100 years of presence in Hawai’i.

Soon, the Bisayans will celebrate their 100 years of coming to Hawai’i. These two ethnic groups—the Ilokanos and the Bisayans—form the backbone of Philippine historical presence in this State.

To make the Ilokanos and the Bisayans forget their language and culture by way of importing the national language of the Philippines and force it upon them even in their exile and diaspora, is, at the very least, not in accord with what UNESCO declares as a commitment to multilingualism, a commitment based on the demands of human rights.

Human rights is the same everywhere; cultural and linguistic right is same everywhere as well.

This 2008, the International Year of Languages, reminds us of one thing: that we cannot give citizenship to any human language because the human spirit, the human soul, and humanity—the abode of language—is beyond body politic, is borderless, is universal.