The Philippines, home to 104 million Filipinos, has 175 languages.
But according to Philippine National Museum chief anthropologist Artemio Barbosa, in a decade or so many no longer hear 50 of the country’s minor languages being spoken. Many of our languages are considered extinct, while some are on their way to extinction, because people no longer converse in them.
In an interview with the Agence France Presse News, Barbosa says that this can be because when people migrate and assimilate, they tend to stop using their own language. Instead, they become concerned about using an intelligible language — one that they can use to communicate with more people on their day-to-day with no problem.
The desire to revive our languages and to introduce them to the younger generation has been the inspiration for the founding of the local shirt brand Talasalitaan.
The Women Behind Talasalitaan
Talasalitaan, the Filipino word for lexicon, was the brainchild of friends, collaborators, and roommates Berna Sastrillo and Pat Dacanay. Berna is a published author, the mind behind the children’s mystery series “The Detective Boys of Masangkay.” When not writing books, she writes marketing copies for her nine-to-five.
Pat, meanwhile, is a financial advisor by profession. A great lover of art who reserves a special place for theater and literature in her heart, she worked as a stage manager for a few plays in the CCP before diving fully into the corporate world.
Berna and Pat have worked together on a few plays and in writing ‘zines. Berna, being a fan of Pat’s work ethic and hard work, shared with Pat the idea of building a brand that champions the different Philippine languages. Being a fan of Berna’s books, Pat was eager to be work on the idea.
What Started it All
Like all great things, Talasalitaan started with an idea. It came about after Berna attended an office event where employees were encouraged to talk about any topic close to their heart. “May kaopisina ako noon, si Jean Aquino, na nag-talk tungkol sa Kapampangan bilang isa sa mga dying languages sa Pilipinas,” Berna shares.
“Ang laki ng impact sa’kin nu’n dahil pinaalala nito na unti-unti na ngang nakakalimutan ng ilang kabataan ‘yung wika nila, kahit pa Filipino o Tagalog ito. Napaisip ako, sabi ko sa sarili ko, ‘Gusto ko ng produkto na maglalapit sa atin sa iba’t-ibang wika ng Pilipinas.’”
Apart from writing stories, Berna wanted to explore other ways to share the beauty of Filipino languages. “Tingin ko kasi, importanteng pangalagaan ‘yung mga wika natin, lalo na ngayon na halos lahat nakatuon na ang pansin sa pag-aaral ng Ingles o ng ibang lengguwahe para maging globally competitive. Naging parte na talaga natin ang ang Ingles.”
Shirts were her choice of medium because, as a digital marketer, Berna knows the potential of succinct statements printed on shirts in sparking conversation. (“Hindi naman kasi lahat mahilig magbasa.”) She knew that her material of choice can help her idea, and their dream of reviving our dying languages, become a reality.
A Bid to Tap Into the 130 Remaining Languages
Pat and Berna are aware that theirs wasn’t the first attempt to celebrate our languages. But unlike the brands before them that focused on one language, Talasalitaan’s founders hoped to tap into all the languages and make the statements relatable” “Layon naming magkaroon ng design para sa 130 wika sa Pilipinas,” Berna says.
Pat thinks that to expand their reach and make the brand relatable, the game plan should be to use phrases instead of one-word statements. “Our goal is to make these phrases and sentences start conversations . . . we think that (phrases) would work better than just single words.”
Berna agrees, saying, “Sinusubukan din naming magkaroon ng mga kakaibang phrase tulad na lang ng ‘Kayat mo nga agsala ta?’” (Would you like to dance with me?) o ‘Gin kapoy na ko’ (I’m tired) para maging mas relatable ang T-shirt namin para sa marami, lalo na sa millennials.”
Understandably, it may take more than learning one word or phrase to turn anyone into an expert in the Filipino language. But Talasalitaan’s founders say the goal isn’t to make an expert out of anyone, but to make a leap toward building awareness.
“Kasi siyempre, ‘pag nakita mo sa shop namin o sa isang taong nakasuot ng Talasalitaan shirt, maku-curious ka, magtatanong ka sa amin o magsi-search ka sa Google tungkol sa Tausug, Iloko, o Karay-a. Mula roon, pwedeng mapunta ka na sa pagtatanong sa mga native speaker at malay natin, maging daan na ito para magpakatuto ka sa isa sa 130 wika sa Pilipinas.”
But building a brand that mostly involves languages is not without challenge. For Berna, it’s translating phrases while staying true to their original meaning.
“Para sa’kin, ang pinakamahirap na parte ay ‘yung pagsasalin. May nuance kasi ang bawat wika na mahirap maintindihan ng isang hindi native speaker. Minsan din, may variation na ang mga salin, depende sa edad at antas ng nagsasalita. Kumbaga, may modern or vernacular at traditional version ang mga salin. Laging nagtutunggali ‘yun kapag nagde-decide kami kung aling version ‘yung ilalagay namin sa t-shirt namin.”
For Pat, who handles logistics and everything from shirt suppliers, printers, and packaging – the challenge is in keeping everything excellent. Berna says that businesses start with an idea. You only need to be sincere and committed to your idea and to your goals, until the business grows.
“We get hiccups every now and then but so far everything’s great,” Pat shares.
It’s Never Too Late to Learn
In school, speaking English was encouraged. In the classroom, you are made to pay a few pesos for every word you utter in the vernacular. Meanwhile, speak English and you’ll be the proud recipient of a “Most Frequent English Speaker” award by the end of year.
I remember being told that learning English is the key to being “globally competitive.” Hence, there were more variations of the English subject than there were Filipino. In one grading period, the Filipino subject may be divided between “Florante and Laura” and “Ibong Adarna.” But English, English Lit, Journalism, and Communication all get one whole grading period each.
For the longest time, I didn’t mind. Being inglesera has always given me sort of an advantage, especially in a country that looks up to foreigners and locals who have facility of the English language. (After a long history of colonization, who is to blame? But that’s for another story.)
Later on, I realized that I can’t speak Filipino without switching codes. That I can’t use ng and nang correctly. If I try harder, I would either botch the language or get tongue-tied, while the person I spoke with waited in confusion as I hopelessly tried to get my words right.
The way people around me received my inability to express myself well in Filipino varied greatly, from amusement and admiration to disgust, the latter mainly from people who thought I only had mastery of the English language. Shame on me.
Not taking the Filipino language seriously has always been one of my regrets. I thought the Filipino language is straightforward – kung ano’ng naririnig mo, ‘yun na ‘yun. Not until much later did I realize that our ever-evolving language is rich in culture and meaning.
It would take me an entire lifetime’s worth of unlearning to fully understand Filipino; more so to use it properly and with respect. But it doesn’t matter. It’s not wrong to have a mastery of the other languages, and it’s never too late to discover your own and embrace it either.
As Berna puts it: “Walang problema maging bihasa sa Ingles, Korean, o Hapones, pero ‘wag mo sanang kalimutan ang mother tongue mo; Tagalog, Hiligaynon, Tausug, o Panggasinense man ‘yan.”
“Kahit ako, hindi ko na rin kayang magsalita ng diretsong Tagalog,” Berna admits. “Pero kailangan pa ring subukang gamitin. Kasi ang wika, kapag hindi na ginagamit, unti-unti na itong mamamatay. Kaya ang tagline ng Talasalitaan ay ‘Buhayin ang wikang atin’.”
Of the Philippines’ 175 languages, many are considered extinct, while 50 more are on the road to extinction. But you and I, we can help save our languages. By speaking our mother tongue, we remember them.
We keep them alive.