Language and Identity

"The Tower of Babel," by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

Check out my opinion essay published on The Pro Pinoy Project (

It’s about language and identity and specifically, what it means to be “Filipino.” Can Philippine national identity be defined by a common language? Can the Philippines, with 7,107 islands and 171 languages even have a single  “national language”? And what about the oft-forgotten ethnic minorities such as the Palawanos?


Rethinking Soriano

James Soriano’s iThink op-ed essay in the Manila Bulletin on August 26 caused such an uproar among Filipinos that the paper pulled the piece off their website before the sun set on the day of its printing, and certainly before I could write an after-work letter to the editor. Soriano was accused of arrogant elitism by many, while others praised him for bravely pointing out the linguistic schizophrenia he sees in the Philippine educational system, or even, in the very culture of the upper classes…

See the full essay here and browse Pro Pinoy while you’re there!



photo credit (public domain); painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563).


About Bill Davis

Writer, speaker and translation and language learning consultant. I write technical articles, poetry and humor, and I am working on my first novel which is set on the island of Palawan in the Philippines.
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5 Responses to Language and Identity

  1. Pepe says:

    Hi Bill,

    Thanks for visiting my site.

    If you noticed on that article that I wrote about James Soriano’s take on Tagalog (many call it today as “Filipino”), my stand is that of ambivalence. He has raised a problem that many Filipinos today do not even notice or care about.

    I will also read your article in Pro Pinoy about this same issue. Thank you for sharing it.

    “Can Philippine national identity be defined by a common language? Can the Philippines, with 7,107 islands and 171 languages even have a single “national language”?

    My answer to your questions, in brief, is this: the Filipino National Identity is based on our country’s Hispanic heritage (see The Filipino Identity). Can the Philippines have a single national language? That question is quite controversial. But my answer to that is a resounding YES!. In fact, we already had a national language that united our multilingual archipelago. And that was Spanish. During Spanish times, the Philippines never had a language problem compared to what we have right now.

    Sadly, Spanish was taken away from us (long story). And that is my advocacy: I want to bring it back. But since it’s close to impossible, there is another option (and it’s even more controversial). We can have Tagalog as our country’s national language, but not to the detriment of other languages such as Palawanos. Another long story. But I’ll buzz you as soon as I’m done writing about these topics in FILIPINO eSCRIBBLES.

    Maraming salamat mulí sa iyóng pagvisita sa aquing bitácora inglesa. God bless!

    Pepe Alas

    • Bill Davis says:

      Thanks, Pepe. I would only say that for the Palawanos (and dozens of other equally Filipino ethnic groups), Spanish was never their language (nor did they learn it at all). So Spanish was never truly national, even more than Tagalog/Filipino will, unless it is pushed by legislation, which is what is happening now. It’s a complex issue with no easy answers, but meanwhile, Mabuhay ang Filipino!

      I’ll look forward to your “buzz” and you should comment on ProPinoy or offer to put up a post there, while you’re looking around!

  2. Hi there,
    I arrived by accident – chasing another Bill Davis, but here is my 20 cent’s worth:
    The only sane way to look for any, any real development of the enormous polyglot group that make up the population of the Philippines, is to follow China.
    I recall over 30 years ago visiting China and watching the typical Chines work ethic and saying to people around me “Thank heavens for the Chinese Languages and lack of phonelines. If they ever learn English they will take over the world.”
    UNfortunately for the rest of us, they did focus on English, they did super-improve communications, they are taking over the world.
    Even in I/Net Services, a lot of money is flowing into your country for one simple reason:
    the pool of Amerenglish speakers and understanding of the AWOE (American Way Of Existing) – which is certainly not a good way of “life” – but its where the money and future of the world is at.

    • Bill Davis says:

      Hi and thanks for joining in the discussion. You’re welcome here, even if you found your way “by accident”!

      You bring up a valid point. One side of the language issue is development and competing in the world market. English has been (and continues to be) a necessary medium for this. (And you are so right that the “American Way” is nothing to emulate!) I don’t think China really have her people “learn English” at the level of the masses. But they did engage the world market using English.

      The other issue is that of ethnic identity. Even as China moved to a more significant place in the world market, her people kept their individual dialects and the minorities still speak their own languages.

      The Philippines challenge is how to develop her place in the world without homogenization (the forced loss of the richness of individual languages). Tagalog (or “Filipino”) as a national language will not accomplish the first goal of economic advancement in the world market. But forcing it as a national language is causing the loss of minority languages.

      How can Filipinos take their place in the world, have a single national identity AND (at the same time) affirm and retain their rich natural diversity? That’s a tough question!

      Now that you got here by accident, I hope you come back…

  3. Pingback: 2011 Right to Education Situation: Philippines (1st of 3 series) « FREE ZONE

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