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A MAN OF MANY WORDS: Chatting with National Artist for Literature Virgilio Almario


Language is a tricky thing. To wield it effectively, one has to have had a long relationship with it, a relationship that’s built on innumerable moments of joy and sadness, of pride and even shame, often learning from the words of those who’ve mastered it first. 

For the Filipino language—if there even already is one to speak of—it isn’t just tricky. It’s a labyrinth. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the nature of language in the country is one that’s attached to the multicultural society we find ourselves in. We have Tagalog, we have Bisaya, we have Ilocano, Kapampangan, or that remnant of Spanish that’s now Chavacano. 

The question of a national language has forever haunted us, and official efforts to produce one—or to choose one?—from the many dialects we have available are underway. Sure, we call Filipino our national language, but what is Filipino right now if not mostly just Tagalog? Is it fair or should there be a bit more of the other dialects infused into a national language? 

To answer these and to find out more about the state of the Filipino language and programs in line with this month’s celebration of “Buwan ng Wika,” we sat down with National Artist for Literature Virgilio Almario, chair of the Komisyon ng Wikang Filipino (KWF) and the National Commission for Culture and Arts (NCCA). Here’s what he had to say. 

What programs are currently in the works for KWF?

There’s a lot. The KWF takes time to prepare for the “Buwan ng Wika.” First and foremost, there are always congresses, language congresses. We allot three days for a language congress, with learning activities especially designed for teachers, who are the focus of all our efforts today. I consider educators to be the Commission’s frontliners, so to speak, because we don’t have an office outside of Manila. Filipino teachers are the ones who have contact with people in different regions, and they hold the future generation of Filipinos. So whatever they teach their students, that’s what they end up believing, about language, about Filipino.Whatever impression Filipino teachers make, that’s the same impression their students get about the Filipino language. 

Filipino teachers are the vanguard or taliba in Tagalog. 

What do these language congresses cover?

Our theme this year is “Filpino: Wika ng Saliksik” (Filipino: The Language of Research). This came from the forums we held two years ago to study the Filipino curriculum for K-12. What we realized from these discussions was how the existing curriculum then had many weaknesses. Content is weak, research is poor, I told the Department of Education. Only in high school does research appear to be a very important aspect of a student’s education. Pedagogically, in order for us to establish this so-called culture of research, it has to be introduced into the curriculum as early as kindergarten—the idea of the need for research, or at least the need to be inquisitive. You don’t always have to bring them to the library to cultivate their curiosity at that age. Teach them to ask questions, to observe the things around them, to know their community. Simple things, yes, but they’re already doing research that way. 

By cultivating this culture of research, we’re pushing the use of Filipino in pursuit of truth, and the activities at this year’s language congress are related to, number one, teaching research methodologies. There’ll be seminars in the provinces with lectures about this, introducing the idea of research through books. 

Apart from this, the congress will also cover how the Filipino language can have a component other than Tagalog. That’s the criticism about Filipino now, that it’s just mostly Tagalog. That’s why we’ve been conducting studies on how the Filipino vocabulary can be enriched by introducing new words from the other native languages. 

‘We have more than 130 languages, and we want to be open for discussions regarding how each could contribute to a national consciousness, and even into the national language.’

—Virgilio —Virgilio Almario

And how’s that coming along?

It takes time, of course. It’s our natural tendency to enrich our vocabulary through English because we’re bombarded by it every day. Our native languages, for example you’re from Metro Manila, you only hear them if you’re with someone from the province. If you rely on mass media, you only get English, too, and you rarely get words from the native languages, if at all. 

It’s really going to be a long process, and you have to encourage writers to use other words and to research other words, other languages. We have projects that cover this, sure. 

But if you look at the kind of Filipino grammar that’s being taught in schools, it’s still the Tagalog grammar. Check any book that says “Gramatikang Pilipino,” you’ll find that its content is still Tagalog grammar. What was taught in 1941 is still what’s being taught today. For example you’ll find that a grammar book mentions subdyek instead of simuno (subject). 

Last year, we started forums where we invited experts in native languages to describe the characteristics of, say, Cebuano or Ilonggo that are not in Tagalog, and to find out if these aspects are fit to be included in the Filipino language. After three forums, we now have a language congress that’s about that, and we gave it the title “Pagbuo ng Gramatikang Pilipino.” So this time, we have people working on summaries and observations from the previous forums and we also have people who will introduce new ideas, new syntax, new suffixes, which they think could be well-suited for Filipino. 

But even with all of these, the congress will still focus on research, because this remains to be the weakness of the Filipino language—a weakness shared even by those who advocate for the use of other native languages, because these languages are also hardly studied. Have you attended a lecture on Cebuano? On Ilocano? 

Alongside the idea of promoting Filipino, propagating the language, I want Filipinos to have a good grasp of it. It shouldn’t just be limited to the languages they already know. We have more than 130 languages, and we want to be open for discussions regarding how each could contribute to a national consciousness, and even into the national language. 

So are there programs in the regions?

Yes, especially now that the Department of Education has the MTB-MLE (Mother-tongue-based Multilingual Education). Right now, there are about 21 languages being used for kindergarten to grade three, and it’s a good thing. You use the language of the child to instruct him. That’s a universal principle in education. And because of this, there are now several ethnic groups that are interested in developing their own orthography, because 90 percent of our languages are oral and not written. But if you want to introduce them into education, there has to be a written form, a literature. That’s also one of our activities now, we help these ethnic groups to develop their orthography, and we try to harmonize their orthography to the Filipino orthography. 

What about programs that focus on literature?

We’re preparing modules for schools on living tradition. These are for studying and teaching the culture of an ethnic group. We’ll start with Subanem and Tanay. These are the two we’re working on right now. But the project isn’t really part of the “Buwan ng Wika,” but a program that runs for the whole year. We also have an international conference on intangible heritage scheduled for September at UP Iloilo.

So you’re really focused this year on building a culture of research? 

Yes. The culture of research is the most important thing right now. Before you can move into the age of information, you have to have your own information. You can’t just steal or borrow information from other countries. 

This article was first published on the August 2018 issue of the Philippine Panorama.

Source: Manila Bulletin (

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