Unless Cebuano is taught in schools and its use is prioritized as a language for business and government, Cebu will never reach first-world levels of prosperity.
It is the regrettable and undeniable truth that Cebuanos don't speak their own language very well. A Cebuano asked me the other day why there is an apostrophe in the "Wa'y" of "Wa'y Blima!" Despite being a native Cebuano and having Cebuano as his mother tongue, he did not realize that there is no such word as "way" and that "y" is a different form of "ang".
But Cebuanos who are ignorant about their own language are not to blame. The problem is that Cebuano is what is technically called a "vulgar" language. In other words, it is used colloquially but rarely in writing. Hence, those Cebuanos who are educated enough to write a letter - or an email - would write it in English, or at least primarily in English, with snippets of Cebuano here and there.
Of course, the reader is probably already familiar with this situation. The point I am making here today is that the status quo is not only regrettable from a cultural standpoint, but a big economic liability. In fact, unless Cebuano is enthusiastically promoted and actively turned from a vulgar dialect into a respected language, Cebuanos will never see the type of prosperity enjoyed by citizens of other countries (unless of course they move abroad).
How so? When I espouse this viewpoint, the first thing most people tell me is that English is the international lingua franca of business and science, and that if we want to succeed on the global stage, we must improve the English ability of Cebuanos.
I agree, it is important to teach our kids English, but it is not as important as many people think. For instance, the Japanese, who generally speak little English or none at all, still have a first-world economy and one of the highest standards of living in the world. The Koreans speak even worse English than the Japanese, but are well on their way to becoming one of the richest countries Asia. Clearly, English-language ability is not linked to prosperity, since, shortly after World War II, the Philippines was more prosperous than Korea. It is ironic that we Cebuanos, who speak good English, will be tasked with teaching the Koreans English conversation skills - scrounging the crumbs off the Korean economic table, so to speak.
Similarly, while Cebuano's English ability has helped bring a few call centers here, and while the call centers are undoubtedly a tremendous plus for Cebu, in economic terms the income from call centers is still the equivalent of scraps from the American dinner table. Like sending domestic helpers to Hong Kong, staffing call centers is merely a way to eke out a living from the trickle-down effect. What we want is a gusher of our own, not a trickle from somone else.
In order for Cebu to truly flourish, we must start using our own language. No nation has ever made it anywhere near the G8 without speaking its own language. We must start using Cebuano in schools, in government, in the media, and when we stand behind the microphone at a wedding.
But how will the use of Cebuano help stimulate the development of Cebu?
First and foremost, unless Cebuano is prioritized over other languages, the bulk of the population will remain shut out from commerce and academia. Right now, no matter how smart you are and how well you speak Bisaya, you will never get anywhere unless you speak English. And the fact is that the urban and rural poor speak little English. It is almost impossible to overcome this handicap; if you are born into a typical low-income family, you won't have the opportunity to learn good English, and you won't get anywhere.
As a result, more than 70 percent of the population is excluded from any kind of commercial activity more significant than running a sari-sari store. Of those who are born into the lowest - but largest - sector of society, only very few exceptional individuals manage to teach themselves English and build a successful career. Only once the requisite of English ability is removed will every Cebuano, without exception, finally have equal access to justice and economic opportunity.
It is the height of unfairness that foreigners who have just arrived in Cebu can claim justice in the law courts or success in business far more easily than indigenous Filipinos, merely by dint of their English ability (which is not surprising since in most cases it their mother tongue). Although this republic has laws limiting foreigners to 40 percent of any investment, these regulations are easily bypassed; the real way to prioritize indigenous business activity would be to let Cebuanos use their own language without shame in official circles.
By elevating the status of Cebuano from a colloquial dialect to the language of professionals, we will immediately be quadrupling our pool of available talent. Those who before had no choice but to deal in camote or scrap metal will be able to deal in information, triggering a revolution in the media and publishing industry - rather like what started happening in Manila about ten years ago, when primetime news broadcasts started switching from English to Tagalog.
There are those who say that Cebuano should be an official language of the Philippines, like Tagalog. I strongly disagree. We do not want this republic to end up like South Africa, with eleven official languages, and each government document having to be translated eleven times! That would be insane. There is no need to wage a pointless and ultimately futile battle with the national government, since the issue of which languages are official has been decided long ago - and that's fine! Filipino and English can remain as the official languages of the Philippines, and both languages should be taught in schools. I have no problem with Filipino and English being the official languages of the Republic.
However, in addition, Cebuano should be promoted not as the official language of the nation, but as the official language of the province. This is something that can be done at the local level. The provincial and city governments can start promoting Cebuano right now, as a parallel official language, without having to wait for any funding or approval from Manila.
The result will be that Cebuanos, like the denizens of Switzerland - or indeed the Filipino-Chinese community of Cebu - will be taught at least three languages in the schools. Unless Cebuanos are inherently less intelligent than the Swiss or the Chinese, there should be no problem with this.
The provincial and city governments do not need to do much. The only requirement is for a change of consciousness to take place - for Cebuanos all over the province to awaken to the fact that Cebuano is a beautiful langauge that can be used just as well as English. It should not be difficult for this realization to occur, since it is self-evident that the status quo has provided few opportunities for Cebuanos other than finding jobs abroad and leaving their homeland behind.
A new awareness that Cebuano is not a street dialect but a world-class language on par with Russian, French, or Japanese, will lead to the creation of something essential to any flourishing economy, namely a publishing industry. Currently, hardly any newsletters, newspapers, or books are published in Cebuano, and the bookstore market is controlled by a monopoly. This should be grounds not for promoting English, but for encouraging the wider use of Cebuano in written as well as spoken form.
Once Cebuanos grasp the notion that books about any subject can be published in Cebuano, we will finally have the kind of intellectual discourse that is normal in developed economies, but which has long been absent here. Every child born in the province of Cebu will finally have hope that no matter how poor, he or she too can partake in society as an equal. Moreover, those who had been hesitant to express themselves in public for fear of having their English ridiculed will be able to finally speak their minds freely.
The awakening of the silent majority will lead to a surge of intellectual activity, raising the quantity and quality of ideas and thoughts flowing through the province. The result of all this intellectual activity? Widespread ignorance will be curtailed, leading to higher standards in government and business - and a concomitant drop in corruption. Best of all, the Cebuano renaissance will create a boom in research and innovation - without which no industrial economy can become truly competitive on a global scale.
June 3, 2005