Our Dying Languages

Vulnerable languages are those in which most children speak the language but whose use may be restricted to the home.

The Philippines has 120 to 187 languages and dialects, depending on the classification. Twelve languages have at least one million native speakers as of 2000: Tagalog, 26.4 M; Cebuano, 21.3 M; Ilocano, 7.8 M; Hiligaynon, 7.0 M; Waray-waray, 3.1 M; Central Bikol, 2.5 M; Kapampangan, 2.5 M; Pangasinan, 2.4 M; Maranao, 2.2 M; Tausug, 1.8 M; Maguindanao, 1.8 M; and Kinaray-a 1.1 M. One or more of these is spoken by 90 percent of the population.

In contrast with the vitality of our major languages, a few are fading out. Thomas Headland of the Dallas-based Summer Institute of Linguistics authored the study, “Thirty Endangered Languages of the Philippines” in 2014. David Bradley of UNESCO had a more restricted list of 15 based on the number of speakers in 2000.

Vulnerable languages are those in which most children speak the language but whose use may be restricted to the home. These include the Central Cagayan Agta and Dupaniman Agta. A language is definitely endangered if the children no longer learn it as the mother tongue, as is the case of the Bataan Agta, Mt. Iraya Agta in Camarines Sur, and Batak in Palawan. A severely endangered language is spoken by grandparents and older generations, and although the parent generation understands it, they do not use it among themselves or with their children. This is true for Faire Atta in Ilocos Norte, Northern Alta in Aurora, and Camarines Norte Agta.

In a critically endangered language, the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently, as in the case of the Alabat Island Agta in Quezon, Isarog Agta in Camarines Sur, and Sorsogon Ayta.

Four languages recently became extinct, i.e., there were no speakers left: the Dicamay Dumagat Agta in Isabela, Arta in the Isabela-Quirino border, Katabaga in Quezon, and Ata in Negros Oriental.

The death of a language is rarely spoken about, except by language scholars. During this “Buwan ng Wika,” let this be a requiem for these dying languages. How many more of our Philippine languages will cease to exist before we do something about them?

About the Author
Mr. Oscar F. Picazo is a retired specialist in health systems, health economics, and social policy. He has worked in 24 countries for the World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and as an independent consultant. He returned to the Philippines in 2009 and became a senior research consultant for the Philippine Institute of Development Studies.
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