This isn’t a master’s thesis. Not even an essay for an anthropology magazine. This was just a minor project I undertook to save an entire culture. A day’s research and writing snowballed into something much more.
First, a little history. 500 years ago, the Spanish came and attempted to erase the Philippine’s native religions to ‘civilize’ them. The Chinese have long been living in these islands for commercial trade, directing the society’s development for centuries. 40 years ago, the Japanese came and subjugated the culture to promote of Japanese nationalism. When the Americans liberated the islands, they left behind a hodgepodge of American ideals including a new drive to emigrate west. The resulting “brain-drain” on Philippine society exacerbated the problems of poverty, corruption, and lack of infrastructure. The Japanese returned in the form of big business, decimating what was left of the culture by supplying rampant consumerism. The Philippines has been under incredible, continuous, cultural pressure unlike any other country in the world.
An example. Toothpaste is called “Colgate” even though there are many brands. Detergent is “Tide”. You get the idea. Brand recognition is king. Advertising, in print, and TV is slick, highly targeted, and filled with less than reputable claims. Billboards and flyers are part of the common landscape. You can buy 3 cigarettes from a street or home vendor, even though a pack would be cheaper in the long run. Bread can be bought from next door store in the morning for breakfast. No need to store anything at home- even if you just happen to run a street side store out of your own home. Now that’s convenient? I wouldn’t be surprised if soon, you won’t have to store anything on your person as well. Pants will be made with only one pocket- for pesos. If you want to write something down, the street vendor next to you will sell you one piece of paper, and let you rent a pencil for 30 seconds. That’s what this is leading to. It’s expensive, inefficient, and no one notices. Changes like this exist across all aspects of the society. Now all that’s left of Philippine culture is relegated to the trinket shops along the highways. What Philippino’s are left with is the worship of cell phone technology and 80’s techno music. Even their language was slowly being eroded.
Several years ago, I tried to learn my wife’s native language. After weeks of searching, I discovered that there were no language training books for sale either over the internet. Not even a textbook was to be found on the bookstore shelves in the country. A few dictionaries and one poor CD-ROM course were all that was left. How was this possible? I asked my wife’s cousin- a grade school teacher in the Visayas region of the Philippines- what was happening. I discover the central government ordered that her language, “Cebuano’, No longer be taught to children. This had been this way for a long time.
One of the major languages of the Philippines was no longer being taught in schools? Half of the population was now targeted for cultural oblivion. Though the Philippines is technically in Asia, half of the country has Polynesian origins, reflected heavily in their language (Cebuano/Visayan). The other half is tagalog (South-east Asian), which includes the country’s capitol. This bias is what allowed the new language orders to be implemented. This doesn’t include the Muslim minority in the south, because not even the central government considers them to be part of the Philippines.
This was insane. So, I decided to change it.
In June of 2007, I contacted “Rosetta Stone”, the popular language-instruction software. They didn’t offer Cebuano as a course, but they did have a program to preserve endangered languages before they disappear. I find they had heard of the language, but didn’t have an active program to develop a language database. All this requires is people who are fluent in Cebuano and English and have some time to spend on the project.
Seeing that this was uncharted territory, I decide to bug the people who could actually help. My wife’s cousin, (the elementary school teacher) was obviously very unhappy about the decision. Unfortunately, the collective objections of teachers across the Visayas had no effect on the government. Some crazy American contacting Philippine officials would have been a waste of time. And, I’m no media mogul. You won’t see me creating massive media campaigns across other country’s countryside to elicit a populist revolt. What I needed were smart people outside the government (but with government contacts) and access to people willing to take on a cause. Universities are bastions of unconventional thought in activism.
This might be easy after all.
I contact the heads and deputies of all the language departments of the major (and minor) universities in the Cebuano-speaking areas of the Philippines. On its face, my inquiry was very innocent- to help finding volunteers to help Rosetta stone catalog Cebuano. But, when I added the fact that with government antagonism toward Cebuano, the language (and associated culture) could be dead in a matter of 3 generations, and, the fact that the program I wanted help for was called the “Endangered Language Program”, they would be more likely to take a little notice.
I was hedging my bets. I had over a dozen professors here, different universities, and different backgrounds. At least one should start the ball rolling. But I was betting on something better than the law of averages. I had pride on my side.
Its one thing to understand that the language you speak is no longer favored by your government. The fact that it may die-out completely in just a few generations may only inspire a bit of melancholy. But to hear from a foreigner and a foreign organization say they want to preserve your language, like a museum specimen, wrangles-up all sorts of hostilities. Philippino’s are beset on all sides by countries that have more resources than them, and they know it. They see it every day on TV. Japan and US have tremendous material wealth and better standard of living; areas of the Philippines lack even some basic necessities. This has fostered and unusual backlash. There is a certain amount of ‘Asian Pride’ in how they deal with westerners now, and it occasionally gets in the way of assistance to the people from outside organizations. There exists a belief that they can do anything just as well as an outsider- as if it were proof of inherent equality. To an outsider, it appears as like an unwillingness to accept help. To them, it’s a matter of nationalism and personal pride. Recently, this attitude hasn’t been limited to westerners. Many feelings have turned against the Japanese companies that usually handle major projects in the Philippines, in favor of local entrepreneurship (regardless of experience). I had placed my bets on these professors, not only on their intellectual objections to the destruction of their own culture, but on their motivation to not been seen by Americans as third-world relic story in some future National Geographic article. I’m sure the words ‘Endangered language program” rang-out like a bell. Could have just come out and said ‘endangered species’. At the very least, it would have stuck in their sides like a thorn. And that’s precisely what I wanted.
Months later, a bill is introduced to allow the teaching of Cebuano in Visayan classrooms again. Major university leaders are quoted in the drive to reintroduce Cebuano into the curricula. This month, almost 2 years later, newspapers announce that the initiative has passed. The Philippine government has put Cebuano instruction back into the schools. It’s not perfect, but it stops the language from disappearing altogether.
I am, of course, taking responsibility for this. How do I know this was my doing? Easy.
1. Years of government language suppression were suddenly questioned weeks after my inquiry.
2. A bill stopping the suppression was finally passed
3. None of my inquiries got even a single response. Embarrassment’s a bitch.
I’ll probably never know for sure what part I played here. I just was happy to see this long-term plan come to fruition. Now my wife and her cousin think I’m some sort of magician.
What to do next? Global warming? War? Maybe I’ll just try to stop my local water department from using dowsing rods to locate water mains (this is no joke. I shouldn’t be paying for government-sponsored witchcraft. Fucking embarrassing to watch). Well, i’m off to save the world now, just a little bit at a time.