The Limits and Injustice of National Language
By Aurelio Solver Agcaoili
It has become urgent to revisit the concept of national language in many nation-states that are multilingual and multicultural.
The drift in this urgency is quite simple and is as seductive as the very principle of ‘national language’ as a concept and as an ideal in the political acts of nation building and state crafting especially when such acts are beholden to the 19th century project of nation- state as seen in the experiences of Spain, France, Germany, and England.
In that project to define and put form to the Philippine nation-state in the early 20th century right after the United States’ occupation of the islands by virtue of the Treaty of Paris that allowed Spain to cede the Philippines to the United States at the cost of $20 million, then President Manuel Luis Quezon was enamored by the model of nation-state of these four European countries that imposed a policy of speaking a single language at the expense of the other languages of these nation-states.
In the formation of a nation-state, the political seduction is for all people of such a nation-state to be speaking the same language in the interest of ‘national communication’, as is always the usual reason, a rather lame excuse for linguistic injustice and cultural tyranny.
At best, it is an excuse that is based on an inability to plumb the vast possibilities of diversity in a nation-state.
This desire for all peoples of a nation-state that is essentially multilingual and multicultural is an admission of the fear of Babel, a myth based on the fear of the unfamiliar.
If one were to scratch at the surface of the reason for ‘nationalizing’ a language, we have here a variety of sub-texts that easily evolve into motives: (a) it is easier to control and administer the populace when they speak the same language; (b) thought patterns and the medium by which that thought pattern is expressed is easier to decipher and predict; and (c) social conditioning is easier to achieve.
These motives are sometimes not clear to the political administrators—and political operators—themselves because of the enchanting power of ‘oneness’, of ‘unity’, of talk and speech in the same language.
In the history of the development and imposition of national languages everywhere is replete with the ugly and painful narratives of language martyrdom in
Bangladesh, the separation of nation-states because of linguistic and cultural differences, the untold oppression of minority languages, and the systemic and systematic peripheralization of all other languages not given the stamp as ‘national’ but only ‘regional’ or worse, minor.
The problem with this notion of unity is the tyranny of oneness without variety, an idea of oneness that is static, a given, and never as a result of the dynamic intermingling of variety, difference, diversity and how these realities, existing right in the midst of the reality of nation building and state crafting are to be morally celebrated by the nation-state.
Of the many nation-states that have had to marginalize their other languages because one language has to be developed and whose words alone have to issue out of the mouths of their citizens, the Philippines is one in the list of the notorious nation-states, with its penchant for linguistic and cultural inequity it continues to socially, structurally, and institutionally perpetuate despite (a) its own declaration in its Bill of Rights that the basic rights of its people are to be protected and (b) its adherence to the provision for protection of language and cultural rights by the United Nations.
Let this be told: that the Philippines is a signatory to at least two international covenants protecting language and cultural rights as basic rights: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
The ICCPR stipulates, among others, this pertinent provision, in Art. 27: “In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.”
The key concept in this provision is the prohibition of denying the right to enjoy one’s own culture. And there is nothing more fundamental as the mediating instrument of one’s culture as one’s own language.
In the ICESCR, some of the pertinent provisions restate in clear terms the fundamental rights of peoples to their culture, as in Art. 1.1 that holds that “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”
The key concept here is the pursuit in freedom by people of their “economic, social, and cultural development.” Article 2 articulates a requisite prohibition of discrimination on the basis, among others, of language and in Art. 3, the restatement of the fundamental right to education whereas Art. 15 speak of the right to cultural and artistic participation.
So much is being lost in the Philippines and in the communities of peoples of the Philippines in the diaspora when we do not recognize and celebrate this variety and diversity that is us as peoples of a homeland.
The Great Seal of the United States with that motto that sends a clear message across—e pluribus unum, the many uniting into one, or “out of many, one”—is truly the only we way to go.
Language rights are fundamental human rights everywhere.
We deny these rights and we deny the humanity of the speaker of a language that is not ours.
We insist our language and culture as the language and culture of everyone and we perpetuate the social injustices of old, which, in the political life of the Philippines, is as old—and even older—than Manuel Luis Quezon who dreamed of making us all into Tagalog-speaking peoples.
To translate linguistic justice and cultural democracy into action is to insist that we let go of the illusions of a national language and declare that diversity is the way to go and to recognize that the country’s major languages are all official languages.
This is the wise way to go.
E pluribus unum, indeed.
Observer, March 2009