9th October 2021 | Culture

Languages at the centre of culture: reflections on Buwan ng Wika

Every year, the National Commission for Culture and Arts dedicates the month of August to the celebration of languages across the Philippines. This year, Buwan ng Wika focused on Filipino at mga wikang katutubo sa dekolonisasyon ng pag-isip ng mga Pilipino ("On decolonising our ways of thinking through Philippine languages").

But what does it mean to decolonise, and what does it especially mean to decolonise Filipino thought?

Striving towards decolonisation has certainly become topical here in the UK, especially with the current efforts to decolonise school curriculum. Many books, articles, and academic discussions are dedicated to exploring the concept of decolonisation, and why adopting it is important to the 21st century. One writer states that "decolonising is about adding, not cancelling, knowledge", and when understanding it within the Philippine's socio-historical context, I feel that this definition is not only about learning the ways in which precolonial Philippines existed prior to the arrival and influence of the Spanish, American, and Japanese occupation - but to also acknowledge how much of their influence have become some of the traditions that many Filipinos have come to adopt.[1]

Decolonising the Filipino Language

It was under President Manuel Quezon that paved the way to the creation of a national Filipino identity via the introduction of a national language. In 1937, a committee was created under President Quezon to review the current languages of the Philippines by reviewing the languages spoken and choosing one national language. In 1939 Tagalog was eventually declared as the Wikang Pambansa (National Language), for most Philippine literature at the time was written in this vernacular.

During American occupation, English was introduced as the main language of teaching to the Philippine curriculum, whilst the use of Spanish eventually had a declining presence within the education system. Despite the efforts of President Quezon to introduce a unifying national language, it was only a matter of time until Tagalog was rebranded during the 1973 constitution, which declared that it would be co-official with English as the national language under the title ‘Filipino’.[2] To me, it is through the introduction of English as an official national language that highlights on of the difficulties and barriers when decolonizing Filipino thought.

Exploring the latter example further, this article by Carol Ortigas highlights the unconscious belief in Filipinos that English and Tagalog are languages spoken by the elite and the well-to-do. Even between Tagalog and English, the English language is superior. Curtis McFarland observes that “English is the language of business, the hotels, the shopping malls. Tagalog is the language of [chismis] (gossip), the wet market, small businesses. English-speaking people take airplanes and ride in cars. Tagalog speakers (we should say those who cannot speak English) take boats and jeepneys.”[3] Until we move away from thinking that speaking only English connotes success, we are subconsciously believing in the idea that our regional languages are inferior, therefore suppressing the practice of speaking in these languages, which then leads to dropping figures of the population practicing these languages.

As histories were primarily written and recorded by European settlers, we should be cautious of colonial biases that may cloud our perception of the societies that came before Spanish rule. Extra effort must be made to ensure that when we educate ourselves of the past, that opinions alongside facts are examined with scrutiny.

Buwan ng Wika

There are many more barriers and difficulties to decolonise Filipino thought that could fill books and academic journals. However, if we are to take the approach of decolonisation as an act of not dismissing cultures and traditions but consciously using these to add to our knowledge, there is much to be celebrated.

The creation of Buwan ng Wika, originally titled Linggo ng Wika (“Language Week”) has led to worldwide engagement, both in the Philippines and amongst the Filipino diaspora.

In the Philippines, all are invited to partake in community events, from educational institutions inviting pupils to take part in wearing traditional native Filipino clothing to staging plays and parades. Outside of the Philippines and with the rise of social media platforms, so much is being shared about pre-colonial Philippine culture, especially on platforms such as TikTok’s #LearnTok.

Appreciating Philippine languages

Efforts of organisations to raise awareness of the indigenous in the Philippines is also increasing. Last month, it was announced that an online dictionary Marayum is to be developed to preserve indigenous languages.[4] Started by graduates from the University of Philippines, native speakers are invited to collaborate with reviewers and editors with linguistic training for the project. Cultural exchange organisations such as the Katutubo Exchange Philippines also host programs and webinars with a mission to educate Filipinos of indigenous Philippine cultures.

At FiliFest, something that our Culture team is passionate about is to educate the Filipino youth and raise awareness of Filipino culture including those of the indigenous. We’re very lucky to have a team of talented creatives which allow us to share more of our culture and heritage through new technological mediums.

Despite the many difficulties and barriers towards decolonising Philippine histories, there are still ways that Filipinos can engage with Buwan ng Wika and decolonizing our ways of thinking. The first step may just be as simple as making efforts to ask questions, learn more about our heritage and familiarise ourselves with indigenous languages.


[1] Ali Meghiji, "Decolonising is about adding, not cancelling, knowledge", (2021), https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=2021090713235631 [accessed Friday 8 October 2021].

[2] Presidential Decree No. 155 : Philippine Laws, Statutes and Codes", Chan Robles Virtual Law Library. Retrieved March 15, 2015. http://www.chanrobles.com/presidentialdecrees/presidentialdecreeno155.html [accessed Friday 8 October 2021].

[3] Curtis D. McFarland, "The Philippine language situation", World Englishes 23, pp. 59-75, (2004).

[4] Pilar Manuel, "Online dictionary Marayum helps preserve Philippine indigenous languages", CNN Philippines (2021) https://cnnphilippines.com/lifestyle/2021/9/9/online-dictionary-Marayum-indigeneous-languages.html [accessed Friday 8 October 2021]

Cover Image: "Quezon Memorial Circle: Everything to Know About this National Park and More" https://www.zenrooms.com/blog/post/quezon-memorial-circle/ [accessed Friday 8 October 2021]


Our year so far as FiliFest 2021 Committee