Thursday, February 3, 2011

Languages: Lots and Lots of Languages

The usual binary language choice I face while travelling is the following:

A) Learn the local language.


B) Fail to learn the local language, thus resigning myself to weeks or monthly of bumbling indelicately and obliviously through a foreign culture, like a delirious sea lion performing Swan Lake.

But the Philippines is – to understate things slightly – an interesting place. Depending on who you ask, there are between 110 and 175 separate languages spoken in the Philippines. I am perhaps fortunate that my choice here is limited to two of them.

It's going to be a difficult decision to make. Ilokano is the local language here in San Fernando, and is spoken by perhaps 8 million people in the world. Tagalog, on the other hand, is one of two national languages, and claims 22 million native speakers, while being understood by 55% of the population.

It's simple enough on the surface: according to the current interns, Tagalog is the language spoken in meetings, and the resources to learn it are plentiful. If I learn Tagalog, I'll stand a decent chance of being understood anywhere in the Philippines (whether you agree that that would be a good thing or not).

It might be a bit strong to suggest that Ilocano is dying, but the vultures are already circling. One of the previous interns here has become extremely invested in language preservation. He shares an anecdote in which he addressed a young child in Ilocano, only to find that his parents had made the decision not to teach the child the local language; he spoke English and Tagalog instead. Increasingly, upper class families in the region are making this decision, opening up the first cracks in the stability of Ilocano as a vibrant language.

So, sigh, I'm left to make a philosophical decision, and I already know that I couldn't make any other choice.

My insightful partner recently quoted Wittgenstein on the subject of language: "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world". A lost language represents a lost way of knowing, thinking and understanding the world; all items for which I believe in increased, rather than reduced diversity.

None of this is to say that I will actually succeed in learning Ilocano, but fueled by my residual guilt over having failed to properly master Dutch, I'm going to give it my best shot.

Vegas would give the sea lion better odds.

No comments:

Post a Comment