Rescuing an Endangered Language

UNESCO describes language as “…a unique worldview with its own value systems, philosophy, and particular cultural features.” It is the culmination of centuries of experience and is a store of artistic, spiritual, and practical wealth. The latter is of particular interest as ingrained in the fibers of language, is the deep-rooted wisdom that comes with the connection that its speakers have with themselves and their environment. In a world of ecological concerns, such knowledge can ultimately prove vital in the well-being and survival of countless others.

A Plurality of worldviews

In the Philippines, there are at least a dozen major regional languages in the country such as Cebuano, Ilocano, and Hiligaynon. Language itself is mutable and, with the passage of time, once distinct languages are now subject to intermingling and “code-switching,” a phenomenon where speakers alternate between two or more languages within the context of a single conversation. Eventually, languages become so adulterated that they may be virtually unrecognizable from its original form or may fall out of use entirely and become endangered or extinct. While historically, languages are known to disappear, migration, urbanization, and globalization are creating conditions in which the rate of languages falling out of use are exacerbated. This is a particular blow to linguistically diverse countries such as the Philippines where large swaths of its cultural heritage can disappear as a particular language’s speaking population dwindles or switches to more dominant languages. Itawit is one such language in danger of disappearing.

Itawit is spoken by approximately 120,000 Filipinos living in parts of Northern Luzon, including Southeast Cagayan, and Tuguegarao. Unfortunately, Itawit has never been documented nor taught formally, even if it is widely practiced and is next to the regional lingua franca Ibanag in use. Dr. Shirley Dita, an associate professor of English and Applied Linguistics here at De La Salle University, with support from the National Commission of Culture and the Arts, embarked on a project to document Itawit so it can be integrated as part of the regional school curricula and effectively passed on to future generations. In Dr. Dita’s study, she describes the language as endangered given the intrusions of other languages such as Ilocano, Tagalog, and even English. The extent of these intrusions can be seen in the frequent code-mixing that occurs between Itawit and other languages, such as Ibanag or English, that it has become commonplace and even sounds natural to Itawit speakers to do so.

Reaching future generations

To preserve an endangered language such asItawit, documentation and its transmission through formal education is needed. The latter is particularly crucial as the Philippine educational system is shifting to a Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) approach which underscores the important role Itawit plays today and in the future. To this end, Dr. Dita’s study culminated in an Itawit-Filipino dictionary which is intended as a reference material for the next generation of Itawit speakers and those who wish to learn the language. With the efforts and cooperation of academics such as Dr. Dita, learning institutions such as De La Salle University, and the government, we can continue to learn and grow from our cultural heritage and share our patrimony with the rest of the world. UNESCO has a brief but enlightening video on why preserving language matters, so if you can spare the time, do view it here.

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