Desserts and Dialects: The Diverse Halo-Halo of Philippine Languages

You won’t find many countries as naturally diverse as the Philippines. With more than 7,000 islands, there are countless unique pieces of culture that can be found even in the most peculiar places, like overflowing ingredients in a multicultural hotpot waiting to be mixed. For this year’s Buwan ng Wika, let’s sink our teeth into the different languages in the Philippines and its many aspects, while viewed in comparison to every Filipino’s favorite dessert, the Halo-halo.

The King of Filipino Desserts

In the realm of Filipino desserts, a seemingly endless selection of delicacies will always come to mind. But on a scorching hot day in a tropical country such as the Philippines, there can be no remedy as rightful as the royalty of Filipino desserts–the Halo-halo. 

An explosion of flavors, the Halo-halo–literally translating to “mix-mix”–is composed of a wide array of ingredients all inside a topped-up bowl or cup. A typical serving of Halo-halo contains shaved ice, different types of fruits, sweetened beans, leche flan, purple yam jam, ube ice cream, jellies, and finished with a helping of milk. It may seem like too much, but once you dig, twist, and twirl around your spoon to mix everything together (hence the name), your taste buds will explore unique flavors and textures like no other.

Though Filipino in essence, the Halo-halo actually originated from pre-WWII by the Japanese. Kakigori, a Japanese treat made with shaved ice and sweetened beans, is where the Halo-halo traces its roots. Eventually, Pinoys added their own flair by incorporating local ingredients and familiar flavors to create the summer merienda staple.

So why exactly did we choose to talk particularly about the Halo-halo in this article? The answer is simple: the Halo-halo is the perfect reflection of Filipino culture when it comes to food. Filipino culture is extravagant, yet simple. Vibrant, colorful, and rich, yet rooted in humble traditions. More than 7,000 islands, with each having their own set of practices. Filipino culture is a multifaceted mix of unique elements, converged into one nation, just like the decadent dessert introduced earlier. 

The diversity of unique elements can be seen in many aspects of Filipino culture. This Buwan ng Wika however, the comparison with Halo-halo will focus on the 180+ languages that can be found in the Philippines. This distinctive mix of languages and dialects is what makes the Philippines truly fascinating;it is a halo-halo worthy to sink our spoons in. 

A Halo-Halo of Philippine Languages

Currently, the Philippines has more than 180 languages around the country, with both Filipino (the standardized version of Tagalog) and English being the official languages. Colonisation has played a major role in influencing the languages in the Philippines as well, with linguistic roots dating back to Spanish and American occupations wherein the use of the Spanish and English languages were prevalent in all aspects of society.

Among the many languages that can be found in thousands of islands, there are native languages that are more commonly spoken, such as Tagalog, Cebuano (also referred to as Bisaya), Hiligaynon, Ilocano, Kapampangan, Waray, Central Bikol, Tausug, and Maranao. There are still numerous languages and dialects that found different regions and within indigenous communities, with each one playing an equally essential thread to our cultural tapestry.

However, no matter how rich the Philippines is in the languages they speak, there will always be some that are less used than others. Some are only used in small areas in provinces and kept alive by those from previous generations, with some not to be found anymore. With the threat of endangered languages with a few going extinct, is the modern world too fast-paced for these native languages?

Risk of Extinction 

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has classified several Philippine languages to be vulnerable, endangered, and ultimately extinct. The Central Cagayan Agta and Dupaninan Agta languages have been classified as vulnerable languages, while Bataan Agta, Mt. Iraya Agta, Batak, Faire Atta, Northern Alta, Camarines Norte Agta, Alabat Island Agta, Isarog Agta, and Southern Ayta being classified as endangered, severely endangered, to critically endangered with only a few hundreds of speakers left for each language.

For extinct languages in the Philippines, both UNESCO and the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) have recorded Dicamay Agta, Villa Viciosa Agta, Arta, Katabaga and Ata to be in the list. Several social, economic, and political issues have plagued these languages’ struggle for survival. But most of all, the continuous urbanization and infrastructure projects have infiltrated and altered the environment of ancestral lands, leading to endangerment of linguistic communities instead of their preservation. Additionally, economic factors–more specifically poverty–have made learning more dominant languages a way to survive and move upward. 

Though a seemingly insurmountable challenge, all hope may not be lost in the attempts of reviving these native languages. Rynj Gonzales, a language assessment specialist at SIL Philippines said that efforts that are being made by the ethnolinguistic groups themselves in taking ownership of their language are most effective in revitalizing these native languages. In addition, the Department of Education has implemented the Mother-Tongue Based Multilingual Education, with local governments also carrying out their local language codes. The Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (KWF) has also implemented the Language Markers Project in its efforts to preserve and promote the country’s languages. 

The smallest ingredient in a halo-halo can make the biggest difference. Every ingredient complementing one another contributes to the overall flavor and experience, like every language plays a role in making the Philippines multicultural and diverse. Each language, each dialect–whether spoken by the majority or kept alive by few–are all equally important threads in weaving the country’s cultural fabric. 

Although a number of our native languages are threatened, endangered, and extinct, not all hope is completely lost. Likening it with the Halo-halo, where if you leave it out too long, it’ll melt and get warm, and won’t be so enjoyable to eat. Forget our native languages, our Wika, and it runs the risk of being just another page in the history books. Let’s continue to keep our native languages alive. Speak it, study it, take pride in it, learn it to heart. Embrace the flavors and intricacies that make it a diverse medley of unique but complimentary traditions, like a halo-halo of cultures in a cup.