Land of 100 Languages

Land of 100 Tongues

Language has always been something that fascinated me: the way some languages have words that can’t be translated outside of them, the nuances of languages that are perfected by little sighs or marked by guttural rumbles, others accented by the flourishes of gracefully rolled r’s and still others staccato and marching like Ravel’s “Bolero.” We are lucky in the Philippines to be home to over 100 languages, many of which range in all of those qualities. Some Filipinos refer to them as dialects, but they truly are distinct languages that stand on their own, some bearing similarity to the familiar Tagalog, others completely different from it. My grandmother knows Tagalog, Ilokano, Pangasinan, Kapampangan and Bicolano, on top of learning English upon arriving in the United States. It’s remarkable to me that one could pick up all these languages and it’s an experience I wish I had, to be able to learn them out of necessity as my grandmother did, despite not having a formal education in her life.

I have wondered if being home to 100 languages is perhaps not such a lucky thing. In college, one of the best papers that I wrote was on Philippine culture and its effects on politics during the Marcos regime. I raised the question of whether or not language barriers could contribute to a weakening unified cultural identity. Sure, most Filipinos speak Tagalog, and it is recognized as one of the national languages. But that too presents its challenges. How do speakers of the lesser known languages make themselves recognized? Do they simply let their languages die out? And for the languages that do die out, I can only wonder what histories are lost with them.

Perhaps the stunning diversity of the Philippines is also its unifying force. Even in a country as comparably diverse, the United States can’t say people speak 100 different languages here. There’s something very awe-inspiring about that, and I can only daydream of the different tales that each beautiful language can tell, unbeknownst and unlocked to those who don’t hold its precious written and spoken keys...