Why I Write in My Mother Tongue

By Sherma E. Benosa


“Why Ilocano?” people often ask me, with their brows creased and their eyes mirroring surprise, sometimes even thinly-veiled ridicule, when they find out that I write fiction in Ilocano. This is true even among some Ilocano acquaintances who couldn’t see why one would write in a language not as prestigious as English or at least as widely read as Tagalog (or Pilipino/Filipino). “You’re limiting your readership,” they would add, in a tone that subtly suggests their low opinion of vernacular literature.

Such comments often sadden me because they somehow affirm what we already know: that we generally tend to look down on regional languages. I feel even sadder when the comments come from fellow Ilocanos because it suggests that they too think their own language is not as good as the “more prestigious” ones.

So why Ilocano? Or, to make the question more encompassing, why write in the vernacular?

I have several reasons. First, because I think it is great to be able to write in my own language. Having done things backward (writing in English first before learning and mastering the grammar of, and then writing in, my native language), I see writing in my own tongue as the next step to my evolution as a creative writer. Although I’ve always been exposed to Ilocano literature, I never endeavored to write in the language until about two years ago. I was so fascinated with English that I always wrote in this borrowed tongue. I used to even argue that not being able to write in my native tongue does not make me less of an Ilocano because I can speak fluently and read well in the language and my thoughts and values are reflective of my roots.

As I matured though, I began to understand just how important the native tongue is in many aspects of our life. Slowly, I had a change of heart. Soon, I began to see how sad it was that I could write in other languages but not in my own. I began to ask myself: If all of us would set aside our own language, what would become of our own literature? Our heritage? So I endeavored to learn to write in the vernacular. It was difficult at first, but I persevered, until I could already write essays and short stories in it.

Second, I want to contribute to the Ilocano literature, and ultimately, to the national literature. Because Tagalog and English are taught and used as mediums of instruction in school, even non-native speakers write in these languages. The opposite is true with the vernacular languages. Only the native speakers can ever write in their respective mother tongues and thereby enrich their own literature. The sad part is that very few choose to follow this path. Interest in vernacular literature, especially among the young, is low, mainly because these languages are not as prestigious as English and Tagalog. Works written in vernacular languages are even considered ‘bakya’ or ‘baduy.”

Enriching our mother tongue literatures not only in turn enrich, but also complete, the landscape of Philippine literature. Right now, there is a popular but misguided thinking that national literature is Tagalog and Philippine English literature. But that is not so. Without the vernacular literatures in the picture, we don’t have a complete picture of Philippine literature. And until we have read the greatest works written in the vernaculars, we do not really know what Philippine literature is.

Third, I feel I owe it to the younger generations to join hands with other Ilocano writers in providing them with reading materials mirroring their culture and speaking their tongue. I think we, who have been blessed with a language other than English and Tagalog, should realize that we have a duty to our children to provide them the oral and written literature they need in order for them to have a good grasp of their identity, their culture. It begins with providing them with short stories and picture books in their own language — reading and listening materials that mirror and put to good light their own culture, customs and traditions, and highlight the values we want them to have. They need heroes they can identify with, heroes who eat the food they eat, wear the clothes they wear, and face the realities they face. With our focus on English, what we are providing our children are heroes not only with foreign looks and language, but also with foreign thoughts, customs, and values. And we wonder why they do not have a good grasp of their own identity or feel proud of their culture?

We complain about the younger generation being so colonized in their ways and in their thinking, not realizing that we were party to their colonization. Their colonization began when we read to them stories about heroes that are foreign to them, stories that venerate values that are contrary to theirs, and show ways of life very different from their own without first ensuring that they have a solid foundation of their own history, culture and identity. This could be detrimental because they could end up loving everything foreign, as we do now, having been taught that way.

Finally, I don’t want my mother tongue to be lost to oblivion. Language is part and parcel of culture, as well as a vehicle of culture. If we lose our language, we’d lose our culture as well. Similarly, if we lose our culture, we are also in danger of losing our language, our identity. Writing in the mother tongue is documenting it and the culture of the people who spoke it. It helps ensure that the language would stay; or, if it must fade, at least it wouldn’t fade away without a trace.

As to the question of limited readership, I don’t find that as a problem. I can always have my works translated to English or Tagalog. My main goal is to contribute to the wellbeing of my native tongue by helping ensure that it will have a sizable body of (quality) written literature. I emphasize this because the sad scenario in the country is that, up to now, many minority languages still do not have established writing system, much less written literature. And to make matters worse, many of these languages have dwindling number of speakers, and are on the verge of extinction. This is why we should appreciate, instead of look down upon, our vernacular writers for taking it upon themselves to ensure that their native languages have a written literature to speak of.

As for me, appreciated or not, I will continue to write in my mother tongue while also dabbling in English. I hope that through time, people will learn to appreciate their vernacular literatures, and that columns defending why one writes in the mother tongue (such as this) are no longer necessary because people no longer ask, “Why write in the vernacular?” or have low opinion of vernacular literature because they already know better.


First published in the April 16, 2010 issue of Manila Times. Pages C1-C2.

Also included in the book, “Starting Where the Children Are: A Collection of Essays on Mother-Tongue Based Multi-Lingual Education and Language Issues in the Philippines” edited by Ricardo Ma. Duran Nolasco, Francisco Andes Datar and Arnold Molina Azurin published by 170+ Talaytayan MLE, pp. 189-191.