Resisting Linguistic Imperialism

Singapore has always been predominantly Chinese, but with a strong and highly visible Malay minority. But when it came time to choose a language both for government and as primary me-dium of instruction, it resisted the temptation of nationalism in favor of rationalism. After se-ceding from the Malaysian Federation in 1965, Lee Kuan Yew and his government determined, dispassionately and accurately, that English --- not Mandarin or Malay or Tamil --- was going to be the primary global language not merely of international trade and commerce, but of diplomacy and technology as well. Without discarding or denigrating their indigenous tongues, they chose English, in spite of the fact that for centuries it was "the language of their oppression." They chose English, but used that language to help enrich, rather than erode, Singaporean identity ---
to complement, rather than weaken, their distinctive cultures. This choice, which our nationalists refused to make, helps account for the Singaporean success story. For decades now, average Singaporean high school and college graduates have spoken and continue to speak and write much better English than virtually all of their Asian counterparts, providing them a huge and decisive edge in regional and global competition. Are Singaporeans --- because they made this choice --- "unpatriotic"? I doubt it. If you ask me, seizing what used to be an oppressive colonial tool and reshaping it to a nation-state's distinct advantage is 
patriotism of the highest order.

The lesson for us is crystal-clear: Yes, an indigenous national language 
can build bridges of 
basic conversation between the nations of a multicultural state, but to privilege that language 
at the 
expense of equally authentic tongues is totally unacceptable. Further, when that conver-
sation produced is sterile, i.e., when fluency is not uniform, what with a markedly inferior class
of speakers [such as our 
promdi, of which I'm a proud member], then its imposition creates im- mensely more harm than good, and the storm that it generates will ultimately prove stronger than the bridge it has built.

Whenever the eloquent overwhelm the inarticulate, whenever the fluent overpower the falter- ing, there is intolerable injustice. And this will remain the case for as long as all the regions of the Philippines are required to be trilingual --- except the Tagalog region. In his introduction to Michel de Certeau's enlightening work 
The Capture of Speech and Other Political Writings,
Luce Giard asks, "Who has the right to speak? How is this right acquired? What happens when this right is denied or inhibited?" 

These are the questions examined by Michel de Certeau in this foundational exploration of political expression and participation. [D]e Certeau identifies "communication" as the irre-
ducible element in the politics of modern societies. Moving beyond formal or legal definitions
of rights, he argues that to "communicate" in a contemporary political system means not only having the abstract possibility of utterance, but possessing the conditions that allow being heard. De Certeau emphasizes that all too often free speech is upheld in the abstract while
social institutions work in such a way as to deny access to effective communication.

The late Renato Constantino's argument against the privileging of English was, and remains, well-reasoned:

Now we have a small group of men who can articulate their thoughts in English, a wider group that can read and speak in fairly comprehensible English, and a great mass that can hardly ar- ticulate in their native tongues because of the neglect of our native dialects, if not deliberate attempts to prevent their growth.

Paraphrased, his logic remains just as valid:

Now we have a small group of men who can articulate their thoughts in Tagalog, a wider group that can read and speak in fairly comprehensible Tagalog, and a great mass that can hardly ar-
ticulate in their native tongues because of the neglect of our native languages, if not deliberate attempts to prevent their growth.

Our Tagalistas pay lip service to "free speech," but do so in a language that favors the few at the expense of the many. They would compel us to master their native tongue and abandon ours. The Wolof [Senegal] poet Use no Gay Conan grieves: 
"Our language is shedding tears because its own children are deserting it, leaving it alone with its heavy burden. / This tongue of mine 
I use to taste; how can one taste with someone else's tongue?"
 The Portuguese poet Fernando Pesos sings, "my homeland is my language." If these men are right --- if they speak from their hearts --- then we, the dispossessed, must act, act now, and act together to resolutely protect our respective tongues, without which our authentic identities, already seriously eroded, are doomed.
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