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James Soriano and Tagalog

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Today’s wired world has given a voice to the once voiceless. Not a long time ago, public opinion was lorded over by the fortunate thinkers and sociologists in print. Bejewelled celebrities had their share of those precious pages writing nonsense. But thanks to social networking tools, even beetle collectors now have their say — not to mention a huge fanbase. Almost everyone with an internet account can stir up a hornet’s nest in just a couple of posts and clicks.

But not all become online celebrities due to keyboard wit. Take flood victim Christopher Lao, for example. His “miscalculations” of flood depth and his subsequent rants against people waiting to laugh at other people’s misfortunes (or so he thought) became a magnet for cyber bullies and other smart alecks. And if Willie Revillamé’s antics were done in the 1980s, it would surely have remained mere barber shop talk.

Indeed, visual artist Andy Warhol’s 1968 tongue-in-cheek prophecy is now transpiring: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”.

Some remain famous for fifteen days, though. Even more.

Very recently, local netizens are abuzz and fuming mad over Atenista James Soriano’s Manila Bulletin article that came off the online press. The bone of contention? That English is the language of the learned, and that Tagalog (masking behind the term “Filipino” to project authority over other Filipino languages) is nothing but a contact vernacular to enable him to talk to Erap Estrada’s beloved masa. Lest Manila Bulletin is compelled to take down the controversial article again (it did so just a few days ago), I print the Soriano article in full:

Language, learning, identity, privilege

August 24, 2011, 4:06am

♪ Ow, parey kow. Merown akowng prowbleymah... ♫

MANILA, Philippines — English is the language of learning. I’ve known this since before I could go to school. As a toddler, my first study materials were a set of flash cards that my mother used to teach me the English alphabet.

My mother made home conducive to learning English: all my storybooks and coloring books were in English, and so were the cartoons I watched and the music I listened to. She required me to speak English at home. She even hired tutors to help me learn to read and write in English.

In school I learned to think in English. We used English to learn about numbers, equations and variables. With it we learned about observation and inference, the moon and the stars, monsoons and photosynthesis. With it we learned about shapes and colors, about meter and rhythm. I learned about God in English, and I prayed to Him in English.

Filipino, on the other hand, was always the ‘other’ subject — almost a special subject like PE or Home Economics, except that it was graded the same way as Science, Math, Religion, and English. My classmates and I used to complain about Filipino all the time. Filipino was a chore, like washing the dishes; it was not the language of learning. It was the language we used to speak to the people who washed our dishes.

We used to think learning Filipino was important because it was practical: Filipino was the language of the world outside the classroom. It was the language of the streets: it was how you spoke to the tindera when you went to the tindahan, what you used to tell your katulong that you had an utos, and how you texted manong when you needed “sundo na.”

These skills were required to survive in the outside world, because we are forced to relate with the tinderas and the manongs and the katulongs of this world. If we wanted to communicate to these people — or otherwise avoid being mugged on the jeepney — we needed to learn Filipino.

That being said though, I was proud of my proficiency with the language. Filipino was the language I used to speak with my cousins and uncles and grandparents in the province, so I never had much trouble reciting.

It was the reading and writing that was tedious and difficult. I spoke Filipino, but only when I was in a different world like the streets or the province; it did not come naturally to me. English was more natural; I read, wrote and thought in English. And so, in much of the same way that I learned German later on, I learned Filipino in terms of English. In this way I survived Filipino in high school, albeit with too many sentences that had the preposition ‘ay.’

It was really only in university that I began to grasp Filipino in terms of language and not just dialect. Filipino was not merely a peculiar variety of language, derived and continuously borrowing from the English and Spanish alphabets; it was its own system, with its own grammar, semantics, sounds, even symbols.

But more significantly, it was its own way of reading, writing, and thinking. There are ideas and concepts unique to Filipino that can never be translated into another. Try translating bayanihan, tagay, kilig or diskarte.

Only recently have I begun to grasp Filipino as the language of identity: the language of emotion, experience, and even of learning. And with this comes the realization that I do, in fact, smell worse than a malansang isda. My own language is foreign to me: I speak, think, read and write primarily in English. To borrow the terminology of Fr. Bulatao, I am a split-level Filipino.

But perhaps this is not so bad in a society of rotten beef and stinking fish. For while Filipino may be the language of identity, it is the language of the streets. It might have the capacity to be the language of learning, but it is not the language of the learned.

It is neither the language of the classroom and the laboratory, nor the language of the boardroom, the court room, or the operating room. It is not the language of privilege. I may be disconnected from my being Filipino, but with a tongue of privilege I will always have my connections.

So I have my education to thank for making English my mother language.

At first reading, the first impression that one gets from the author is sheer cayabañgan (braggadocio). Here comes a son of the hated minority, the elitists, telling everybody that his language (which is, in effect a foreign language, the invader’s language) is the language of the learned. Filipino/Tagalog is fit only as a communicative tool for household help and the manongs of the street. But take a peaceful moment to flesh out the details of what he wrote, and you will realize that he is, in fact, merely stating his observations, but a veritable one. And then read the title of his essay once more: Language, learning, identity, privilege. And later on he admits that he was able “to grasp Filipino as the language of identity”. He is, after all, still a Filipino (although it can be said that his parents made him a foreigner in his own land by teaching him exclusively in the invader’s tongue).

The tone of Soriano’s article may be condescending to some, especially coming from an elitist like him. Regretfully, most of what he said holds water. His commentary was just a reaction to a stark reality — that Tagalog is already a clinically dead language. When we say so, it means that Tagalog is not used as a medium for the cultural and economic development of the country (except, maybe, during the month of August), nor is it used in the Courts and in Legislative and Executive proceedings. Worse, nobody actually speaks it anymore. Tagalog was already replaced by a vile pidgin called Taglish together with its horrible bastards: gay speak and jejem0n/bekimon. We have no less than P-Noy’s showbiz sister and her loudmouth, gossip-loving gay friends to thank for.

Perhaps the only viable question we should ask is “WHY?”. Why did Soriano write that article? What were his motives in doing so? And how timely (or how untimely, depending on how you view the situation) that he had it published on the month that is reserved for the commemoration of Tagalog.

In the essay, wittingly or unwittingly, Soriano was able to determine the ruts on what was thought to be as smooth ground. In this age of speed and real-time delivery of information, he was able to raise the problem of language and identity, making us all stop and wonder and complain and cry foul. In doing so, did he offer any solution to the “social cancer” he just exacerbated? Because that is, in the first place, the duty of a responsible writer dealing with social issues (language is a social phenomenon). A genuine essayist worth his salt tries to find the root of the problem, then offers viable solutions to end that problem. With this in mind, Soriano is at fault here. No solutions were offered on how to quell the stink of rotting fish that he made us all aware was in our midst all these decades. What remained, still, is the braggadocio that all of us non-Atenistas have noticed. So what was his point? That he’s privileged, and we’re not?

Then again, we complain. We complain that he insulted Tagalog. Oh, we continue to complain. But in English still.

We Filipinos are masochists. We wallow in mud that hurts our onion skin.

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