This paper will explore the influence of language hierarchy and linguistic appraisal on day-to-day ministry and on theological reflection in the Philippines arguing that, socio-economic values people ascribe to dominant languages promote theological dependency and complicate pastoral ministry.

During the American colonial period in the Philippines, the English language was introduced as a medium of instruction because it was thought of as “ethnically neutral and therefore, theoretically, also politically neutral” (Tollefson and Tsui 2004, 4).
Since the Filipino national language (also known as Tagalog) is actually a language that belongs to a particular ethnic group, it was understandable why English was preferred by non-Tagalog speaking Filipinos. To put things in perspective, there are more than 175 dialects spoken in the Philippines, and Tagalog is only the second most spoken language. The first one is Visayan or Cebuano, however since Manila has always been the seat of power, the language of the city became the primary language of the nation.
A “compulsory education in English for all Filipinos” was implemented during the American colonial period in order to provide equal opportunity to other ethnic groups and to hold the nation together (Nical, Smolicz and Secombe 2004, 156). In theory, this was a good idea, but in reality the medium-of-instruction policies are never neutral.
During the colonial period, powerful nations used the “medium-of-instruction policy” to assimilate and subjugate people into a foreign culture in the name of civilization. Through this policy, local people “…were forced to learn in the language of their colonizers, suppressing their own cultural identity as expressed in their native languages” (Merriam 2007, 8).
Furthermore, colonial powers often held indigenous languages as “…backward and uncivilized, and seen as something that must be eradicated in order for the country to become modernized. Indigenous people were made to feel ashamed of their own tongue and were penalized for speaking it” (Tollefson and Tsui 2004, 3). A similar sentiment can be heard among Filipinos who do not speak the national language. They often refer to the capital as Imperial Manila.
Today, medium-of-instruction policy are used to “revitalized” and recover national identity in post-colonial nations around the world (Tollefson and Tsui 2004, 2). The bilingual program of the Philippine government is one example of ethnic revitalization. According to this pedagogical linguistic policy, public schools must use the national language as medium-of-instruction in the first 3 years of a student’s life. English is introduced later as the students advance in mathematics and science.
However, such bilingual policy is detrimental to about “two-thirds of the population” who speak a different regional language other than Filipino or Tagalog (see Nical, Smolicz and Secombe 2004, 154). Those who speak Cebuano or any form of Visayan dialect at home are forced to learn in Filipino (Tagalog) and English creating a twofold linguistic impediment to learning.

Aside from pedagogical barriers, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) also discovered, “In most cases, bilingual education involves a dominant second language and a minority-status mother tongue, with significant socio-economic differences between the communities speaking the two languages” (Dorthe and Trudell 2008, 37).
In the Philippines, English is currently the dominant second language and Filipino (Tagalog) is the minority-status mother tongue. On the regional levels, Filipino (Tagalog) becomes the dominant second language while the regional dialect becomes the minority-status mother tongue.
How do we determine which of the language is dominant and which has minority-status?
Dominant in this sense does not refer to the number of people using it, but the degree of economic and social value people attach to the language. People with significant access to goods, resources, political connections, and education often speak the dominant language. While the majority of people with limited access to resources speak the local minority-status language. This phenomenon creates what is called a hierarchy of languages.
People who speak Filipino will often desire to learn English rather than Cebuano because they attach more economic and social values to English language than Cebuano (a sub-regional language). In the same manner, people who are fluent in regional dialects see more opportunity for economic and social success in the use of Filipino or the official national language than other sub-regional languages.
More than just the economic component, Tollefson and Tsui suspects further that this system of political and linguistic assimilation “not only exacerbates the existing inequality in power, it may produce nationals who are ambivalent about their own identity” (2004, 7).
The negative sentiments against local languages is the result of decades and even centuries of low appraisal of the indigenous languages, a by-product of colonization. As Tollefson and Tsui argue,
The long-standing low status that indigenous languages were accorded, the negative experience with which they were associated, and the prestige that the former colonial languages enjoyed, have together resulted in a lack of confidence in the indigenous languages as adequate working languages and languages that are suitable for schooling. (2004, 4)
Centuries of colonization has indeed changed the Filipino’s attitude toward their own language and self-identity. Effects of colonization depreciated the value of our own language, especially regional languages or dialects. Since language is the soul of a culture, devaluing one’s language, means to devalue one’s culture and ethnic identity, producing a type of self-awareness that places one’s self in subordination to another. W.E.B. DuBois observed,
This double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels this twoness…two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (1903/1961 as quoted by Rimonte 1997, 42)
This “inferiorization” of the self because of long periods of colonial oppression has been well documented by DuBois and many others who “attest, the condition is not idiosyncratic to Filipinos. It is the common fate of the oppressed, though it preys more perniciously on the educated and the acculturated” (Rimonte 1997, 42).
Colonization created a sense of ethnic insecurity and “lack of confidence among speakers of various Filipino regional languages” (Nical, Smolicz and Secombe 2004, 154). Medium-of-instruction policies meant to be pedagogical tools but in practice they could serve as political tools that produce ambivalence and uncertainty toward one’s identity and self-worth.

People and society assign social, political, and economic values on languages. These values create an artificial yet enduring “hierarchy of languages.” In most cases, colonial languages such as English, French, German and Dutch occupy the highest place in many post-colonial nations, while indigenous languages trail behind them. In the Philippines, English seem to have the highest appraisal over Filipino or Tagalog (Spanish used to occupy this prestigious place), while Cebuano, Ilocano and other regional languages vie for third place.
Certain ethnic groups like the Filipino-Chinese community uses language to draw ethnic boundaries between Filipinos and Chinese with compelling economic implications. Filipino-Chinese merchants are known to extend better credit to people who can speak Fookien, a local Chinese dialect, more than those who cannot. Knowing a specific language can mean great economic benefit and political favor.
Languages can therefore have economic benefits but they also draw social boundaries that are unfortunately reflected in our churches today.
Filipino congregations who prefer to use English in their worship services tend to draw upper-middle income earners, professionals, and young couples who in turn are able to give more tithes and offerings to the church.
On the other hand, Filipino congregations who conduct services using the regional language, such as Cebuano or the Filipino (Tagalog) tend to draw the middle to lower income earners in Metro Manila.
It would have been perfectly understandable if this linguistic division commensurate with ethnic division, however, what is being laid out were actually a socio-economic division. Both Cebuano speakers might find themselves worshipping in two different churches because of perceived social status and economic levels. Filipino Pastor Ed Lapiz complains,
Heavily westernized, colonialist, elitist Christianity alienates people. It divides our society. It tolerates, aggravates and perpetuates the Filipino social divide. Again, tragically, the gruesome, horrible social divide of this nation is reflected in the Filipino church. (Lapiz 2005, 193)
A more serious problem related with language hierarchy is social status. Socio-economic values do not only draw social boundaries between economic groups (i.e. rich versus poor), they are also used as a measuring tape to appraise a person’s social worth. This means that people ascribe status, prestige, and social standing within a society to a person depending on their ability to speak English or Filipino. As Holmarsdottir sadly narrates,
The problem is that before independence or during the colonial period many Namibians grew up in an era in which they were made to feel that their languages were inferior compared to the European languages…The parents often question: what is my child going to do with that language? These languages do not seem to be bread and butter languages, something from which they can live (as quoted by Brock-Utne, et al 2001, 311)
Although Holmarsdottir’s observation was based on a case study done in Namibia in 2000, he may well be speaking of the Philippines today. The main issue here is the stigma placed upon a person who cannot speak English fluently. There seems to be an unspoken acuity that people who are unable to speak English fluently should not be taken seriously unless they can prove otherwise.
A member in our church once complained of the pastor’s lack of fluency in English when delivering a sermon. She warned that if the church does not do something about it, she will stop bringing her children to church. She said, “What will my children learn from this pastor?”
A study was conducted in 2010 involving 80 churches of the same denomination in the Philippines. 1,200 people responded to the study and were asked to rate the English ability of their pastor. One focus of the study is to show whether there is a significant correlation between the English ability of a pastor and the size of the church. “The correlation analysis shows a low, but direct and significant correlation between English proficiency level and church size” (Tan 2012, 108).
This means that the bigger the church, the pastors are more proficient in English. The smaller the church, the pastors are less proficient in English. However, the study did not show whether the pastors with good English skills grew the church or if big churches require pastors with a good command of English. What the study only shows is a significant correlation between linguistic skills and church size.
Since the use of English is associated to status, education, professionalism, and prestige, there is a growing tendency for pastors to preach in English because they think they will be perceived as more sophisticated even when their congregation would be better off using the local vernacular. The social pressure to preach in English felt by many Filipino pastors are real but are often self-imposed.

The Philippines is home to 175 languages and as many ethnic groups (Lewis 2009). The church should be a place where ethnic identity is celebrated. We should encourage multilingualism in churches. Filipinos attach social value on the English language more than any other local language.
Most seminaries and Bible schools use the English language as a medium of instruction. We prefer almost anything made in America, from tangible things to creative ideas (e.g. Christian books, Sunday school programs, Bible school curriculums, and worship songs). In this sense, evangelical Christianity in the Philippines is still an American religion.
Borrowing Christian ideas and forms from other cultures is completely acceptable. It only becomes an issue when these forms are preferred over local forms, not because they are better, but because we have instilled in our minds that anything Filipino must be inferior.
If evangelical Christianity is regarded as a foreign idea in the Philippines, it is not because foreigners forced it on us but because we have made it foreign by adopting foreign expressions. Borrowing ideas from the internet, such as sermon illustrations or stories, can be helpful, but it could also prevent Filipino theological ingenuity and ideas from being developed.
Language hierarchy affects Filipino theological reflection because we become too dependent on the English language and to what English writers have to say. This is a form of theological dependency.
As a pastoral trainer, I have observed that the vast majority of local pastoral trainers, especially those in the non-formal sectors can almost teach any subject pertaining to pastoral training, except for Christian theology. When asked why, the majority feels that theology is only reserved to highly educated professors. Part of the reason for this sentiment is that theology has always been taught and understood in a foreign language.
The vast majority of books in Christian theology used in bible schools and seminaries in the Philippines have been written by foreign authors as if God only speaks theology in foreign tongue.
A recent meeting with theological educators and writers in Philippines revealed a deep unease in writing local theology. The main question still asked is whether it should be written in English or the local dialect.
Clearly, the apprehension of our local authors is influenced by the power a dominant foreign language that has formed our concept of theology. As we assign a high value on theology, we cannot help but express it in a medium with high social value, in this case English.
This ambivalence toward our own mother tongue and the use of English stifles theological creativity because theological concepts are not being understood at a mother-tongue level or that we do not wrestle with theological issues using our own language. As Benjamin Whorf argues,
We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds – and this means largely by the linguist systems in our minds. (1956, 213-14)
Language is the thoroughfare of the mind. It is the matrix in which one views the world and eventually creates new ones. Language is the linguistic map of the mind. However, there is no one view or one way of perceiving the world. People who are monolingual have a tendency to “unconsciously assume that their language map is an accurate representation of what is ‘out there” (Branson and Martínez 2011, 116).
This is precisely the reason why, in higher studies, students and scholars refer to contents written in other languages so that they are not restrained by any cultural or linguistic bias. This multilingual approach to learning helps bring more nuances and perspectives to an idea.
The same concept is true of theological education. There is no single language in this world that could interpret the Scripture accurately and much more capture the fullness of the meaning of God’s truth. If the Filipino language is too limited to express theological and philosophical concepts such as the Trinity, Atonement, Justification, Epistemology, Metaphysical, or Ontology, it is because Filipino evangelical theologians seldom write in our own language. So, while many Filipinos would understand Christian concepts such as “grace,” “sin,” and “forgiveness,” these words in and by itself are limited in expressing the fullness of the gospel.
As Kevin Vanhoozer writes, “There is a single meaning in the text, but it is too rich that we may need the insights of a variety of individual and cultural perspectives fully to do it justice” (1999, 27).
It means, if we are to appreciate the depth of God’s word, theologians from other cultures and social locations must engage the Scripture from their unique vantage point and experiences, this can only be done if their theology is taught, understood, and expressed using the mother tongue.
This is not to say that Filipino theologians should completely do away with the English language.
We need both, and even more, to help us understand God’s word more fully because “the single correct meaning may only come to light through multicultural interpretations” (Vanhoozer 1999, 27), and if I may add, multilingual interpretation.
Interacting with people of different culture, language, and socioeconomic location makes our theological understanding broader and perhaps even closer to God’s intended meaning.
Ideas are structured within the parameters of languages. By using the English language as the sole medium of interpretation, Filipino scholars limit themselves to the perspectives of authors writing in English and we begin to assume that the English language map is an accurate representation of God’s word, and worse the only valid way to understand the Scripture.
We need to force ourselves to write in our language and try to understand God’s word through the idioms of our own vernacular if we are to have a significant contribution to global theology; that is, a theology that arises out of one’s context, social location, and expressed through one’s vernacular.
When language is a barrier to learning, no new creative ideas come out of it. It is like forcing American Christians to write their ideas in Mandarin. This could be very limiting in terms of expressing one’s idea, most especially to those who are not well versed in the language.
Having said this, it does not mean that Filipinos could not adjust well to the English language to make their own theology. It is possible for Filipinos to write and create new ideas using the English language. But this is only for those who are immersed into the language.
However, for the growing majority of Filipinos, the English language is fast becoming a foreign tongue. For these majority, who are not too fluent in the English language, it might be too much to make them learn another language in order for them to capture theological ideas. We need to develop the major languages (such as Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocano) to accommodate theological ideas and terms in order to make theological reflection an activity of God’s people, the Filipino church, and not merely of the few intellectual Filipino theologians.

If the issue of inferiority and ambivalence towards the local language is not addressed, Brock-Utne and Holmarsdottir argue that it can eventually lead to the death of the language (2001, 302). The Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) confirms that languages around the world become extinct as it become less important to a people group who are experiencing “symbolic violence,” which “occurs when individuals mistakenly consider a standard dialect or style of speaking to be truly superior to the way themselves speak” (Ahearn 2001, 111 c.f. Bourdieu).
Already, we have seen the failure of the Filipino or Tagalog language in accommodating mathematical and scientific ideas because scholars are not using it in studying these domains of knowledge. Unless we learn to use our language in all academic fields, it will remain under-developed, which leads to educational dependency.
Academic collaboration occurs when various scholars are able to articulate, express, and create new ideas as understood in their language and perceived through their worldview. However, when there is only one dominant language used in articulating an academic field, academic dependency occurs, and too often, only those who are fluent in the language can take the lead.
This phenomenon is also true in theological reflection. Since most seminaries in majority world countries are using English as a medium-of-instruction, only those who are well verse with English will be successful in making their voices heard. This can be balanced if those who are engaged in theological reflection can express it very succinctly in their own language and later translated in the English vernacular.
However, because of poor linguistic appraisal of the local language, even native speakers could not write a good academic reflection in their own language. Our local seminaries are therefore producing people who are not only mediocre in English but are also terrible with their own language.
This double barrier to theological reflection may be the reason why there is a lack of “self-theologizing” among majority world scholars. In order to counter act the effects of theological dependency, seminaries in the Philippines must encourage a multilingual approach to education. Filipino students must be encouraged to write in English, Tagalog and their mother tongue. Filipino theologian Timoteo Gener states,
We will not be able to construct a meaningful Filipino theology if we will not take seriously the use of the Filipino language in our churches. We need to use the Filipino language – Taglish may be just a start – but we must use the language because here lies the key to embodying a truly Filipinized theology (2005, 17)
The use of the English or the Filipino language is not the culprit but what people associate the language with. The more we associate English with the middle class, or education, or progress, the more we devalue the use of the Filipino language. It is not enough for Filipino intellectuals to use the Filipino language when communicating, what is needed is for Filipinos to live an excellent life to a point that our children will be proud to be a Filipino and use the language.
In reality the lack of use is a reflection of a deep national issue, subconsciously we as a nation think we are inferior and thus our language and way of life is inferior. Forcing people to use something they should be proud of, if there is nothing to be proud of, is bound to fail. It is not the educational system but we as a nation, more importantly the government needs to raise their level of service and make Filipinos proud of themselves.


Jason Richard Tan

Dr. Jason Richard Tan is a graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School with a PhD in Intercultural Studies, and of the Asia Graduate School of Theology with a ThM in Systematic Theology, and of the Alliance Graduate School with an MDiv degree. He is involved in training local pastoral leaders through the Great Commission Missionary Training Center (GCMTC).

1 Comment

  • Sangsok Son

    Hi Jason
    Appreciate your article a lot.
    Enjoyed reading it.

    May I receive the references for this article? I am interested in reading some references used in your paper further.


Leave a Reply