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'Filipino' is easy to learn, hard to translate, and a magnet for debate

Amid Google's problems translating Filipino, one website lists the very same language as among the top ten easiest languages in the world to learn, just above Spanish.

According to a report on GMA’s State of the Nation, the Language Hacking Guide site attributes the ease with which people learn it to its being written phonetically and having a simple structure and composition.

"Yung wika kasi natin ay highly syllabic," said Jomar Cañega, OIC, Sangay ng Literatura at Araling Kultural of the Komisyon para sa Wikang Filipino. "Pag sinabing syllabic, lagi nating binibigkas ang consonant na may kasamang vowel—at consistent ang ating mga tunog.

"Halimbawa, ang ating 'a'—gaano man siya karaming beses na lumabas sa loob ng isang salita, binibigkas siya nang malinaw," he added.

The KWF also chalks it up to the language being made up of words borrowed from, and influenced by, the languages of the country’s colonizers and the merchants our ancestors once traded with. These include Spanish, Malay, Chinese, and Arabic. This quick adoption has also given rise to Filipino's freewheeling sibling, Taglish, which not only mixes Tagalog words with English, but uses Tagalog conjugation for English words as well.

It also helps that Pinoys themselves are hospitable and accommodating with regard to teaching their own language, say some foreigners.

"You know, what better way to connect with a person than to speak their own language," said Michael Martin, a training and development manager at language education company Berlitz. "Filipinos are everywhere, so learning Filipino and speaking to people using Filipino—you're gonna make friends a lot faster."

Model-actor Hideo Muraoka, whose heritage is half Spanish and half Japanese, has spent some P43,000 on one-on-one Filipino language lessons.

"Kasi yung plan ko, to stay here long," said Hideo. "Siguro mga lima na taon, and importante para sa akin marunong ng Tagalog kasi maraming kaibigan, at important din para sa career ko—to my work—so, kaya, I'm studying Tagalog."

Mother tongues

Recently, President Benigno Aquino III asked Pinoys to unite behind the Filipino language.

But the fact that there are other widely spoken languages and dialects in the country apart from Tagalog makes the 'Filipino' language debate a lively one that's been raging since the Commonwealth era.

What is the 'Filipino' language, exactly? Is it truly distinguishable from the Tagalog language? Should it be the Cebuano language, which is spoken by more people, as some proponents argue? These are some of the questions taken up in a 2003 paper by Dr. Teresita Gimenez Maceda, a Professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman's College of Arts and Letters. But the paper, which details the history and politics of the national language debate and the status of the Filipino language,  states that in spite of the debate, no matter where one goes in these 7,107 islands, Filipino as it is now is understood and spoken.

It should be noted that Section 6, Article XIV of the 1987 Philippine Constitution states that "the national language of the Philippines is Filipino. As it evolves, it shall be further developed and enriched on the basis of existing Philippine and other languages."

In the Philippines, there are over 170 languages, including four that have no known remaining speakers and many others are facing a high rate of extinction, according to

In light of those alarming statistics, do those languages at all have a place in debate over what our national language should be? And how will that debate fall in with the Department of Education's Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) policy, which dictates the use of the mother tongue (according to region) as the medium of instruction from kindergarten to Grade 3? 

As the State of the Nation report points out, many of the progressive countries in Asia are officially monolingual, or speak only one language, such as Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and China. It cites the United Kingdom, France, and Russia as examples of monolingual countries in Europe. This fact does not take into consideration, however, that just as in the Philippines, many different cultural groups help constitute the populations of, say, Malaysia and the United Kingdom. We are not, and cannot be, a monolingual society.

And so the debates, arguments, and counterarguments about Filipino continue, though for many Pinoys it's a simple matter of speaking three tongues: English, Filipino, and the language of their region.

Perhaps we would do well to emulate the official motto of Indonesia—a country with even more ethnic groups than the Philippines—which is this: "Bhinneka Tunggal Ika," Old Javanese for "Unity in Diversity." We must learn to live with our differences to become one people.

For it seems that in celebrating Buwan ng Wika—and in everyday life—two things are upheld and honored: one's regional tongue and culture, and the wider, overarching Filipino culture itself, whatever that may be. — BM, GMA News