SONL: State of the National Language

I am not a teacher of the Filipino language; rather I am a student of it, being a nonnative speaker and an English teacher at that.

I cannot help but sit up and pay attention as one of my former students in English makes history by delivering all his State of the Nation Addresses  (Sona) in our national language.


President Benigno Aquino III is setting a new benchmark for the use of Filipino.  He wields the language with ease and vibrancy.  His tongue wraps itself confidently around its sounds and syllables.

In his latest Sona, he no longer spoke at breakneck speed, allowing breathing spells for his audience to take in his message (and perchance applaud).  His tone was almost conversational, not declamatory in the manner of politicians of yore.


Conrado de Quiros is only one of many who have declared that

Aquino is “the best speaker among all the postwar presidents.” Other presidents, including Cory, also used Filipino commendably, but it is Aquino who seems to understand the power of language spoken from the heart and gut.

I had taken note in his Sona last year of his touching tribute to his professor in Filipino, Nenita Escasa, an institution at the Ateneo during her time.

It was to her that Aquino credited his correct way of using Filipino, that is, without mixing it up with English at every turn whether from laziness or lack of mastery.

The result is relaxed yet dignified and intelligible Filipino, affirming its suitability for higher purposes—if anyone still doubts that.

Of course there are still the clueless who think English was destiny’s greatest gift to us, and the loss of prewar English fluency, a national tragedy.  They think call centers are our economic saviors and should dictate our development path.

But more important to national development and progress is the ability to think, which—educators all over the world assure us—


takes place in our first language.  Germans, after all, speak German and the Japanese speak Japanese.  And our Asian neighbors beat us to tiger-hood despite their lack of English skills.

I see Aquino’s love for and educated facility in Filipino as the fruit of the nationalistic impulse that swept the country in the late 1960s and intensified in the 1970s.

At the Ateneo at that time, the English department was asked to give up three units and turn them over to the Filipino department.  It was a controversial move, but more than 40 years or two generations later, the long line of student leaders who were suckled on both Filipino and English has culminated in a president of the country who communicates first with his people and second with the world at large.

Not purist Pilipino

It is not that Aquino tries to be perfect or purist in his use of Filipino.  (As I understand it, Filipino—as distinguished from Tagalog—precisely admits of borrowings.)

His speech was liberally and un-self-consciously peppered with English terms that occur naturally in technocratic discourse, such as “tourist arrivals,” “positive credit rating,”  “job generation strategy,”  “maternal mortality ratio” and many more.

Certain phrases would have been easy to render in Filipino, such as “brand new,”  “work experience” and “state colleges and universities.”  But they arguably had more immediacy in English.   Paliparan would have sounded stiff in place of the handy “airport,” (and how can we translate “runway”?) but

Aquino did use silid-aralan at some points, alternating with the easier “classroom.”

He made valiant attempts such as bus biyaheng probinsya, pribadong sektor, pambansang tanggulan and his oral reading of numbers in Filipino, which is quite a challenge. (He later shifted to stating figures in English, in the interest of quick comprehension.)

I would have been happier had he gotten into the habit of using simula instead of umpisa, lutasin instead of solusyonan, naglilingkod instead of nagse-serbisyo, and tinitiyak instead of sinisiguro.

I am also not enamored with English- or Spanish-derived words like negatibismo,  kritisismo, termino, estado, empleyo, amyenda, inisyatiba, sertipikado, benepisyaryo and the ponderous imprastraktura, but I don’t know what to suggest in their place.

Where his former Filipino professor might take P-Noy to task might be his resorting to Taglish, notably in the  Filipino conjugation of English verbs, such as tinarget, mag-absent,  nag-landing, naka-enrol, na-i-deploy, i-a-upgrade, maka-order, in-export, etc.

On the whole, however, Taglish was at a minimum:  “backlog sa classroom,” “bidding at procurement,” “choice ng makapangyarihan,” and the pointedly pa-cute colegiala-speak “now na.”

Much of the authenticity and colorfulness of P-Noy’s Filipino derives from his own “with-it-ness.”

Although occupying the highest position in the land, he feels free to be himself, a child of his generation who is at home with the language of the man in the street.

Most prominent is his referring to every citizen as his “boss.”  Other Filipino slang expressions and colloquialisms such as “tong-pats,” “hindi nambobola,” “nagkakagulangan,” “kontratang walang bukol,” “nagpapapogi,” “napurnada,” “tsamba,” and “bara-bara” project an image of him as the friendly neighborhood guy just engaging in bidahan at the corner store.

Hip expressions

He achieves instant rapport through familiar expressions such as “suntok sa buwan,” “nagtataas ng (sariling) bangko,” and “tapos na ang maliligayang araw niyo.”

Picturesque words such as “humihimas ng rehas” and “hindi araw-araw ang laban ni Pacman” draw a chuckle.  Current pop lingo such as “unlimited rice” cleverly capitalize on multiple layers of meaning.

A certain elegance also creeps into P-Noy’s speech through his many metaphorical turns of phrase, some of them downright poetic.

“Napanday ang aking prinsipiyo” may be a transliteration of “my principles were forged …” but it has oomph.

“Mga bangungot ng nawalang dekada,”  “laylayan ng lipunan,” and “tikom ang bibig sa good news” evoke powerful images.  Perhaps this is what National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose (a nonnative Filipino speaker) was referring to when he said admiringly that “even when P-Noy employs deep Tagalog, I understand it because of its context.”

Then there are his folksy “para tayong boksingerong isinabak sa laban nang nakagapos,” “manganganak ng trabaho,” and “pugad ng kapalpakan.” These surely hit home to the taxi driver, the factory worker, the housewife and the farmer, as do his favorite agricultural metaphors: “pinag-ugatan,” “nagpunla tayo ng pagbabago,” “nagagapas na ang positibong bunga,” “pagtatanim ng mga balakid” and “kayod-kalabaw.”

All of the above, in my view, make up for his inelegant opening salvo,  “Wala nang wangwang,” which admittedly he managed to bring to a level of relevance and respectability in his second Sona.

P-Noy’s rhetorical skills are most pronounced in his use of repetition to achieve dramatic effect.  He used mata sa mata … three times.

True, I wondered whether “mata-sa-mata” is sound Filipino usage or whether it is a too-literal rendering of “eye-to-eye,” which does not mean “look them in the eye.”  But nitpicking aside, we have to say P-Noy is creative, refreshing, engaging and inspiring in his use of Filipino to address us all.    He makes our national language work!

To several generations that still remember being fined in school for speaking in the vernacular, this is a triumph of nationhood.

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