President Gloria Arroyo’s US visit may be controversial back home, but I give her credit for something that I believe no Filipino chief executive has ever done: She spoke Tagalog during a joint press conference with an American president at the White House.
It probably doesn’t mean much in the sad, painful history of US-Philippine relations. And its impact probably has been offset by what comes across as Arroyo’s embarrassingly overeager bid for attention from the US presidential candidates.
But her speaking in the native tongue was worth it, if only for the dumbfounded look on George W. Bush’s face when Arroyo suddenly shifted to Tagalog, especially since it came after his pseudo tribute to Filipino Americans whom he apparently thinks about only at dinner time.
“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” was all Bush could say after Arroyo’s greeting in Tagalog.
Even in a small way, what Arroyo did was a rare affirmation of Filipino nationhood in international relations in which language can be a subtle but powerful weapon. And it actually was a surprising move from a president who has not exactly been known for sensitivity to issues of national pride, once even endorsing the training of “supermaids” as a way to ease the country’s economic problems.
The issue of using Pilipino in international diplomacy actually came up ten years ago, when Arroyo’s predecessor, the disgraced former President Joseph Estrada, vowed to use Tagalog and an interpreter in dealing with foreign governments. Estrada had said he wanted to follow the lead of other nations who negotiate treaties and conduct diplomacy in their native languages.
“The Japanese, the Chinese and other Asian countries speak their dialect (when dealing with other countries) — I don’t see why we Filipinos cannot speak our own dialect,” he told me in an interview in his home, when I covered the 1998 elections for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Estrada eventually got too embroiled in scandals that led to his downfall to pursue what would have been a dramatic shift in Philippine presidential politics. But when he made the vow, many were impressed, though a few were horrified.
An operations manager at Speechpower, which trains Filipinos to speak and write better English, said it would be a setback to the country’s reputation as an English-speaking nation.
“We’re moving toward globalization and then all of a sudden we have a president who needs an interpreter,” Doris Salvacion told me. “We expect much from our president. They would be good role models if they would be able to deal with other people in English. Then we could say, ‘Ah, our president speaks well.’”
But Danny Javier of the Apo Hiking Society, who made the song “American Junk” famous, said it would “instill more pride in being Filipino.” Poet and screenwriter Pete Lacaba, who wrote poems in English before shifting to Tagalog, called it “a positive move.”
John Gershman, a political scientist based in the East Coast who is fluent in Tagalog, said using Pilipino would even be smart diplomacy. That’s because Americans have always had the advantage in negotiations conducted in English because “they are able to define terms and concepts in their language.”
But by using Tagalog, he added, Estrada “can force the Americans to translate their objectives. Since he understands English, he’ll be able to understand better what they’re trying to say — but the Americans won’t have a clue as to what he and his panel are discussing among themselves.”
Good old Erap was even more cunning. “In our negotiations with the United States our panel (members) always speak in English — so if they commit a mistake they cannot correct it,” he told me.
Bursting into laughter, he shifted to guttural street Tagalog. “If you speak in Tagalog and you make a mistake,” he said, “then you can later take back what you said. You can blame the interpreter (by saying): ‘Hey, that’s wrong. That’s not what I said!’”
Fortunately, of course, he never got the chance to try a stunt like that.