All Is Not Lost! How Do We Rescue A Dying Language?

Originally authored on March 6, 2018

Much is to be learned from the culture of one of the Philippines’ ethnic group living in Mindoro Island, the Mangyan tribe. Preserved and documented, the Hanunoo, their ancient script (closely related to Baybayin) and their system of writing called Surat Mangyan are still widely practiced and taught.

Ambahan, a rhythmic poetic expression presented through recitation or chanting is engraved in bamboo tubes. Literacy is quite high and there is no danger of Mangyan literature dying in the immediate future.

The Waray language has been dissected and has designated its own orthography (writing system) which includes a uniformly accepted spelling manual, says researcher E. de la Cruz.

Ibaloi dictionaries and learning manuals are made available to local communities that sparked awareness among young Ibalois. A large section of Northern Luzon started publishing newspapers in the vernacular, according to Professor Jimmy Fong.


The Philippines is an archipelago in the Pacific with rich linguistic and cultural diversity. There is a concern that our country will absorb a high death toll of languages unless urgent measures are adopted to preserve them. As culture mesh and other minority languages are imperiled with demise, there were communities reported to have struggled in saving the life of their mother tongue.

If we are to use the count of, we have 185 languages of which four are extinct: the Agta Villaviciosa, Agta Dicamay, Ayta Tayabas, and Ermiteno. Of the 181 living languages in the Philippines, Professor Michael Tan revealed that Filipino Sign Language or “FSL” is listed as one of them considering the two million deaf Filipinos, and still counting.

The threatened and nearly extinct languages are spoken by the most discriminated indigenous people, the Negritos, though included here is Bolinao. On the other hand, not close to extinction but slowly slipping away abetted by generations of disuse and media culture that speaks only in English and Filipino are the eight non-indigenous or major languages: Tagalog, Kapampangan, Ilocano, Pangasinan, Bicol, Cebuano, Hiligaynon and Waray-Samarnon.

English and Filipino are declared in the current constitution as official languages for being widely spoken nationwide. Both are used in schools, used to do business and trade as well as to communicate on national and international levels.

Do we feel our sense of roots and identity when schools threaten expulsion for violators of “English only” rules on campuses to promote the use of English? Linguistic discrimination is present in the educational system which stemmed from the Department of Education under imperialist legacy, left behind by Spanish and US rule. Textbooks were American including history books that even Philippine history taught was from the perspective of America.


In 2012, a bill was passed in Congress to overhaul the current educational system which dramatically changed the format of Philippine schools.

The first component is the extension of secondary school: no longer the 10-year educational cycle. K-12 is adopted to ensure that students are prepared to go to the university level by the time of graduation from Grade 12.

The second component of the bill addresses the linguistic discrimination that occurs in putting emphasis on English education. The model boosts language of instruction in the mother tongue of the school district, rather than Filipino or English. The Mother Tongue-based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) is implemented. These languages are being taught and incorporated into the curriculum gradually.

The pilot has been successful in helping students gain full proficiency in their mother tongue, including Filipino and English. By starting the language that one speaks at home, the gap in understanding can be bridged and students can better learn the curriculum.

What is a “mother tongue”? It is the language taught from birth regardless of whether it is part of traditional heritage. Others interpret it as cultural language. There are schools already implementing the MTB-MLE prior to legislation. In Tarik Soliman Elementary School at Barangay Sagrada Familia, Masantol, Pampanga, their principal asserted the efficacy of teaching in Kapampangan, the language of their village and province.

Proponents of cultural preservation believed that MTB-MLE is a step in the right direction. The United Nations (UN) even supports this method in their “Education for All” program to enhance education with the belief that there needs to be national recognition of linguistic minorities.

As it affects the future of Filipino children, the historic legislation sends a clear message that linguistic discrimination will no longer be ignored by the government.

Every time a language perishes, a piece of our human history dies along with it. Thus, the only way to save and preserve a dying language is to use it!

Sources: Laura Garbes, Mother Tongue Based Education in the Philippines; Mangyan Heritage Center; Michael Tan, 181 Languages

* – credits to the owner/s for the pictures



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