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Urgent need for a universal Philippine Language

Benjamin R. Punongbayan Benjamin R. Punongbayan

A SIGNIFICANT obstacle to political development and economic growth is the lack of a common language for all sectors of Philippine society. We did not have it during the Spanish or American periods, and we still do not have one today.

As a result, there is a serious lack of effective communication among the governing class and elite citizens and the masses. This unfortunate condition inhibits our development as a nation.

Our public policies are formulated, articulated, and implemented in English. National newspapers — where local news, government policies, and global developments are published — are in English.

On the other hand, the majority of our people — those in Classes C, D, E, and F — can hardly understand what is being expressed in English. They can comprehend some words if they try to read and listen, but I doubt they understand the meaning of what is being expressed.

As a result, most of our people are not engaged in national conversation and, therefore, development. There are a number of important issues being discussed, such as TRAIN; Build, Build, Build; federalism; ConCon/ConAss; GDP, GDP growth, and per capita GDP; budget deficit; inflation; EJK; and BBL. Many people do not have a clear understanding of how these issues affect their lives and, therefore, are not motivated to influence the course of these events. They are affected by these issues when these become public policy, but such an occurrence is much too late.

The foregoing situation is aggravated, or probably brought about, by our public school system.

First of all, the required medium of instruction up to Grade 3 is the language of the region where the elementary school is located. After that level, English is the required medium. We therefore have a dual system.

My informal inquiries indicate that the use of Filipino or regional languages between teachers and students at higher school levels (from Grade 4 to high school) is increasing, exacerbating the situation. Admittedly, this observation is hearsay; nevertheless, it appears there is truth to this observation, if one considers the evidently worsening English speaking and writing proficiency among our college graduates.

Clearly, there is a trend, a widening of the gap between English speakers and the majority of our citizens who are not proficient in English. Mainstream television, which generally uses Filipino, further widens this gap. It is not difficult to see that this situation hinders our development as a nation and the reduction of income inequality.

Many would say the problem is not language, but the attainment of a higher level of education among our people. There could be some overlap, but these are two separate and mutually exclusive problems. If we continue to allow two or more languages as the media of school instruction, there will be a tendency for students and, therefore the majority of Filipinos, not to be proficient in either.

What I am advocating is to choose a language for universal use, particularly as the exclusive medium of instruction in all schools and which, eventually, will become THE language for everyday use. We need to decide now. Embedding such a language in Philippine society may take at least a generation or two. We need to develop a comprehensive plan and execute it assiduously.

Countries similar to the Philippines have already done so. The best examples are Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. All three countries were colonized at some point and have experienced the use of a foreign language in their societies. Indonesia chose Bahasa Indonesia right on Independence Day. Today, Bahasa Indonesia is a universal language in Indonesia, and government policies, business/commercial communications, and learning materials are generally expressed in that language.

Singapore chose English as its principal language, but does not prohibit the use of ethnic languages such as Chinese, Malay, and Indian. The medium of instruction in the public school system, including in universities, however, is exclusively English. Government communications are expressed in English. As a result, English is widely spoken and everyone understands each other in that language.

Malaysia chose Bahasa Malaysia, which is Malay and is the same as Bahasa Indonesia, although they enforced this choice several years after independence. Malay is exclusively used as the medium of instruction in public schools and universities. Government communications are expressed in Malay, but English translations are produced. As a result, all citizens — including those of Chinese and Indian heritage — can easily converse in Malay.

If one looks at our other neighbors, they also have a language commonly used in their societies, in most cases their indigenous language: Thailand, Vietnam, China (Mandarin), Japan, and Korea.

We need to adopt a common-use language so that every Filipino can easily understand one another, more especially in communications between the government and the masses.

There are only two choices: Filipino, which is Tagalog-based, and English. Each choice has its own difficulties, but we need to deal with those difficulties. If the choice is Filipino, we need to enrich the language by necessarily including foreign words in it. Moreover, we need to translate and document world knowledge into Filipino, just like what Indonesia and Malaysia did with Malay. If it is English, we need to ensure that its propagation leads to an acceptable and appropriate expression of the language, just like what Singapore did. This option is also not overwhelming. Just look at the indigenous people of the Caribbean and Central/South America; they are speaking in Spanish or Portuguese.

Choosing one option over the other should not be too difficult, as the arguments can be developed and demonstrated through a rational analysis. What is difficult is making the decision to adopt that preference. That decision can only be made by someone who clearly believes in the need for a common-use language to move the Philippines towards mature political development and sustainable economic growth. The decision maker must have strong political capital and the ability to make judicious use of his political power. Of course, that decision must be ratified in a nationwide referendum.

Present circumstances may not be conducive to making such a hard decision. However, we need to keep this important issue in mind and decide when the right opportunity comes. We can no longer afford to keep this problem from lingering.


Benjamin R. Punongbayan is practically a retired accountant. He is the founder of Punongbayan & Araullo.


As published in BusinessWorld, dated 08 November 2017